When Steven Pasquale reached for the last note of Il Mondo Era Vuoto from The Light in the Piazza during Adam Guettel's 54 Below concert on Friday night, the entire audience audibly exhaled--as if to give up their own oxygen so that Pasquale could push through for the final thrust of emotion. The
audience seemed unified in awe. To stop breathing was a small sacrifice to make to hear something as beautiful and shattering as that. I was not sure if I blacked out for a moment overwhelmed with what I was feeling or if
the lights actually dimmed because Pasquale was pulling the power he needed from them. Maybe a little of both. It was the rare moment
where you know without a doubt you are experiencing something
historic and momentous. There was a moment of silence between Pasquale's finale and the
applause--I know I was too stunned to move. But the
applause came loudly and enthusiastically. And rightfully so.
For those who are curious, this was the set list on Friday for the 8:30pm show:
Daybreak (Floyd Collins) (Guettel, Pasquale)
Baby Moon (Bashor)
Hero and Leander (Myths and Hymns) (Pasquale)
Find Me (Millions) (Guettel)
Feel for This (Millions) (Guettel)
Saint Who (Millions) (Guettel, Pasquale, Bashor)
Ballad of Floyd Collins (Floyd Collins) (Guettel)
The Riddle Song (Floyd Collins) (Guettel, Pasquale)
Days of Wine and Roses Song
Il Mondo Era Vuoto (Piazza) (Pasquale)
The Light in the Piazza (Piazza) (Bashor)
Say It Somehow (Piazza) (Pasquale, Bashor)
Finale (Millions) (Guettel, Pasquale, Bashor)
How Glory Goes (Floyd Collins) (Guettel)
Encore: Awaiting You (Myths and Hymns) (Guettel)
I had long heard of the
cult-like worship of Adam Guettel--a talented but tortured composer and lyricist. But listening to the cast
recording of The Light in the Piazza recently I did not feel what I felt listening to the music
It's easy to get lost in
Kelli O'Hara making things sound effortless on a cast recording (she makes everything sound effortless damn her perfect perfectness). But
seeing the band and singers push, pull, and strive to get hold of the
muscular and dynamic Guettel music was what I needed to appreciate
what he does. Unlike Sondheim who seemingly works from the head, and on occasion,
his intellectualism can be emotional, Guettel for me was working from
that place deep in your guts where you hide your fears and anxiety. My notes from the concert are all comments of extreme physical violence--feeling like I was being drowned, dragged
to the bottom of the ocean. Grabbed deep from within like someone was
operating on my organs without my permission. I mean these things in a good way.
It's not that music is not beautiful--it is. And it can be lyrically
complex--The Riddle Song from Floyd Collins in particular and he even
manages to squeeze the word transmogrify into the lyrics of his new show Millions. But I wasn't crying
I was filled with butterflies of expectation and tangible anxiety. The work is
elegant, clear, and powerful, but downright scary at times--like maybe we won't
all make it through. I had a moment thinking that Steven Pasquale might burn down the joint with his voice--but what a way to go.
In his nervous between song chitchat Guettel explained the themes of Floyd
Collins--is there nobility in failure--and Piazza--not everyone finds
love and what if I don't. There is certainly darkness in these works but the
fearlessness of where to go with it musically is what makes it unique. He does not shy away from pushing the music to challenging and extreme places. But it was not all seriousness. Guettel called Steven Pasquale a "chocolate bar of a person" and exclaimed early on "God he's a good singer." He joked that they don't make musical theater for the money or for the "incredible respect we get from the hip-hop community." He also called Floyd Collins, the show about a miner trapped underground, "a perfect family show...and it sold like one."
Pasquale was a charming and effervescent Homer in the scenes from
Floyd Collins and did a
gorgeous rendition of Hero and Leander. Having seen him in Far from
Heaven this past summer at Williamstown (that show is scheduled to
come to Playwrights Horizons this spring with Pasquale in it) I knew he had a rich and beautiful
voice. But his convincing and committed performances really sold the
Guettel songs. I am sorry to hear that Pasquale's new TV was cancelled but I hope this means we'll get to see more of him singing on stage in New York (If you need more convincing to fall for Steven Pasquale check out this funny interview with him).
Whitney Bashor had the challenge of singing the song Guettel wrote for
Audra McDonald, Baby Moon and the title song from Piazza but she did a lovely job. Guettel might not have Pasquale's voice but his intense performance of Find Me and How Glory Goes made me glad I got to see him exploring the depths of his own work.
I went in not knowing what I was to experience at an Adam Guettel show. I walked out an acolyte in the Church of Guettel.