arts 06.13.05

The Sweetest Sounds

Some of you, the majority of you, perhaps, would cringe at the idea of musicals in heaven. You'd call it a contradiction in terms. If that's you, you're excused from class today. This is for those of you who, when the time comes, would jump any number of clouds to get to the Merman/Martin concert in the Elysian Fields. Or who'd want to track down Jerome Kern to see if he was ever able to top "All The Things You Are." Or to hear "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" played by, well, Gabriel.

Critics in town, most of whom will surely never see the far side of the Pearly Gates, missed the significance of Adam Guettel's score for "The Light in the Piazza." We're not any smarter than they are; we missed it, too. Until, that is, we heard the original cast album. Why that should be so we'll get to in a moment. First, a little history.

Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim worked together one time, on the 1965 Broadway show "Do I Hear A Waltz." It was not a success, nor was it, by all accounts, a happy experience for the team. It was about a woman who visits Italy and finds the love of her life, at least for a while. "The Light in the Piazza" is about a woman who visits Italy and find the love of her life, at least for a while.

Now there are many differences between the two shows, more differences perhaps than similarities, but it's curious that Adam Guettel would be attracted to this material. He is the grandson of Rodgers and just as surely a musical descendant of Sondheim. (For a seriously dislocating moment, as we watched the luminous Victoria Clark in her primly stylish 1953 threads, it was as if Mary Martin were on stage, but an anatomized, extra-dimensional Mary Martin, a Sondheim take on a Rodgers stalwart).

What is not apparent to most first-time listeners of Mr. Guettel's score is how adroitly it fuses the lush, formal songs of Rodgers with Sondheim's restless complexity. These are not his grandfather's songs, but they share a bloodline of fresh but inevitable (to use Leonard Bernstein's description of genuine art) melodies. And they're unbound in a way that Rodgers never was. In "No Strings," when Rodgers was doing double duty as composer/lyricist, he wrote, "The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear are still inside my head." What Mr. Guettel has done is to tap into those sweet sounds of love in bloom and give voice to them, with acuity and no corn.

The orchestrations, by Ted Sperling and Mr. Guettel, increase the goosebumps by a factor of ten. Swirls, glissandos, bell trees, tremolos, the pling of pizzicato, swelling and cascading strings all give the score such a shimmer that it practically levitates. Close listening reveals open-throated echoes of everything from "The Most Happy Fella" to the more autumnal strains of Gabriel Fauré, without ever seeming derivative. It is an astonishingly beautiful, genuinely thrilling piece of work, one we think will be considered among the most significant scores of the decade.

The show…less so. Besides the score, Ms. Clark, Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison are flawless, and its design is lovely. But there's also the book. Most successful musicals ride on a kind of propulsion: will the actors get the job? (A Chorus Line), are the lovers matched or mismatched? (dozens of shows — The King and I, My Fair Lady, et al), can the two dads 'pass' in La Cage aux Folles?, will she get home? (The Wiz) and so on.

Piazza's contours are murkier and the tension of the show, whether Clara will marry Fabrizio, is upended by the dramatically limp questions surrounding Clara's mental state. Moreover, there's a sense of humor missing from the proceedings — love is funny sometimes, no?

In a conventional musical structure, the secondary characters (here, Fabrizio's brother and his wife) would have been the comic fodder. In some hands, it would have been treated broadly, in others (i.e. Sondheim) there might have been the ironic detachment of Charlotte and Carl-Magnus in "A Little Night Music." Instead, we get a dispiritingly earnest and tedious lecture on infidelity.

This doggedness hurts the show more than the creators imagine. Without the leavening effects of humor and irony, without a suggestion of love's occasional absurdity, without an antic moment, both the intensity of young love and the rue of older love become stultifying to watch. And the manifold virtues of the score become occluded by this rickety, imbalanced construction.

Sitting at the Beaumont, we thought the show went off the rails midway through Act One ("The Joy You Feel") and still think so now. A comic treatment of marriage in that moment would have made the subsequent "Dividing Day," all the more wrenching. "Aiutami," sung in part by Fabrizio's mother, is far too heavy-handed to provide the needed counterpoint. And even with its Yma Sumac-like section, it's no fun.

In spite of our reservations about the dramaturgy here, and in the unlikely event we make it ourselves past the Pearly Gates, we know we'll find a long line of Broadway's greatest composers championing "A Light in the Piazza" and embracing Mr. Guettel as one of their own.
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