It's a dark show with a very light-filled center, kind of a crusty outside with a gooey center."
That's how composer Adam Guettel describes his musical Floyd Collins. It almost sounds as much like a Godiva truffle as an exploration of fame, spirituality and the media in the early half of the century. Certainly a "crusty outside" is appropriate for the 1925 true story of Kentucky caver Floyd Collins, who, in his search for the ultimate tourist attraction, is trapped in a cave and becomes, for a few weeks, a tourist attraction himself. The press hoopla following his entombment would only be overshadowed in the 20's and 30's by Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight and the kidnapping of his son. Floyd Collins was, by then still-forming modern definitions, a celebrity.
The musical version of his tale ran 25 performances at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons in 1996, garnering several prizes, including the Lucille Lortel Award and an OBIE for composer-lyricist Guettel and librettist-director Tina Landau. In spring 1997, Nonesuch Records released a twice delayed cast album featuring the Playwrights cast.
And that was that. Except it wasn't.
Three years after the show's New York opening, the little caver musical that could has resurfaced with a mini-national tour, keeping its cast intact while making stops at San Diego's Old Globe (Feb. 13-Mar. 21), Chicago's Goodman Theatre (Apr. 23-May 29) and a return engagement at Philadelphia's American Music Theatre Festival (Apr. 7-18) where Floyd premiered in 1994. Once an underground favorite, Floyd Collins is taking aim at a new audience in mainstream regional subscription houses. Floyd began life as a commission from Philadephia's AMTF to be written by Guettel and directed by Landau. The idea came from something like a Reader's Digest summary of the 1920's.
"There was a paragraph, maybe four sentences -- 'Caver Stuck in Cave Dies, Media Blitz Ensues,' whatever," said Guettel. "I immediately knew that was interesting to me and I felt fertile."
Research lead him to Barren County, KY, where Guettel ate an apple with Floyd Collin's niece on the family's porch, studied the Kentucky blue-grass of the 1920's and sat in Collin's discovery, the Crystal Cave, opened specially for him.
"The park service took me down there for an hour and I took a lot of notes. One of the formative arias in the show is based on those notes," Guettel said.
With the music on its way, trouble came in the book. Guettel and Landau began working with other writers on the story, but it wasn't working. Landau explained, "It became pretty immediately clear to myself and Adam that we were spending a lot of time telling someone what to do -- 'No, do it like this.' Our vision of how we wanted the piece was so specific that we were putting someone in the awkward position of executing our ideas. We thought we'd just go ahead and do it ourselves.
It was a big decision. He had never spent such serious time on lyrics and I had never spent such serious time trying to write a story."
The first workshop production was put together with three Equity actors and students from Philadelphia's University of the Arts, sparking Landau's directing impetus. All the setting she had then were some chairs and an open room.
"What I discovered at that very first workshop was to stage it with nothing and leave as much as possible to the audience's imagination," she said.
The idea of a simplistic set translates directly into the design, which remains faithful to the original Playwrights look. Aside from a few signs, some rope and a barricade, James Schuette's 1925 Kentucky consists of black plank wood, some of which laid out like a chunk of abandoned mine shaft.
This corner is where Floyd spends the most of the show, laying back on a plain board, supports planted for his feet, but little else. For actor Romain Fruge, that is the great pleasure and pain of his playing the trapped man. There's the neck and back tension and a special water spigot had to be added to his board prison so he could drink during the show. But because he is always lying there on stage, the audience is constantly reminded of Floyd's predicament.
"There's something going on up top, but people can still glance over and see he's still down there. It's like I'm still a part of it," said Fruge.
Fruge also gets a taste of Floyd's isolation, since he is allowed very little eye contact with the other actors, only getting face-to-face interaction in the dream sequence at the end of the second act.
That makes it easy to imagine what it must have been like for Floyd Collins whenever someone else came down into the cave.
"Every minute there was another human being there must have been so intense," Fruge said.
Kim Huber, who plays Floyd's sister Nellie, is not cemented to one piece of set, however, and thinks of the actors themselves as creating the space. "The 13 people on stage are the set, we are the piece, we are the time and everything."
Both Huber and Fruge had limited experience with Guettel before being cast in the show. Fruge owns the CD and came from the original company of Titanic, which featured five of Floyd's Off-Broadway cast, but his interest in the show lay more in the chance to sing the folky country-esque music of the score, the kind of songs he most enjoys vocally.
Huber, on the other hand, hadn't heard the music at all. She meant to, of course, but never really got around to it. Finally a friend suggested she see Guettel as he and Landau were having trouble finding a Nellie. Her agent then set an audition for the next day, suggesting, "You might want to pick up the music."
"Of course, it's the hardest music ever to learn, but as soon as I got the CD, I absolutely fell in love with it, and said if I could do any piece right now, this is the piece I want to do," she said.
Nellie is almost a historical footnote, recorded merely for getting out of a mental institution two days before her brother's entrapment, but she remains Landau and Guettel's favorite in the piece. Huber finds the character in her "special closer to God" spirituality and in a twin-like bond with Floyd, formed especially after they lost their mother.
"With the dysfunctional family, he became her life. His hopes and his dreams were her only way out of their existence," Huber said.
Clarke Thorell, who plays Floyd's younger brother, Homer, has followed the musical nearly from its inception. Four years ago he remembers hearing a rough demo of Floyd songs Guettel had sung himself. That spiked his interest and he auditioned for the New York run, getting called back but not ending up at Playwrights Horizons. He saw the show twice, however, and has been in love with it ever since.
"For me, [playing Homer] is a dream come true. [Guettel's] writing is so much fun even though it's incredibly complex and challenging. It's what I've been waiting to sing," Thorell said.
His character is a composite of two people, Homer Collins and a local named Johnnie Gerald (who existed in the '94 AMTF production and was played by Stephen Lee Anderson). Gerald was most opposed to the "outlanders" who came in to try and rescue Floyd by digging a shaft into the cave.
Although Homer was no fan of the out-of-towners, he was also the most drawn away from the farm land of his family. In the musical, Homer enters in a new suit, having driven in with his new black Model T.
"Homer did have his sights on city life. He was intrigued by the energy of the city," Thorell said, citing that although Homer may not have pursued the movie career sought for him by a filmmaker in the show, he certainly did end up in some newsreels and photographs.
All three actors are excited about the possibilities for the show, certain that it will grow and change with the tour. "We feel like we've just touched the surface and we have so much farther to go," Huber said.
Actual changes in the piece are forthcoming as well, although most will not go in until the Goodman Theatre run. Landau and Guettel have decided on about 15 alterations, including the addition of a new song for Floyd in the second act.
"We've always felt, in the second act, we're sort of a quart low on Floyd. We need to zero in on him and really understand what that experience is like towards the end," Guettel explained.
"Going into [the Old Globe production], we didn't really know what the next step was, if there was one. We just sort of started. We both left San Diego surprised at how this time and distance has given us a new perspective. We're headed towards Chicago where we have ten previews to put in some changes which are going to range from a new number and a cut number, a reordering of scenes, a restaging of a major sequence and a continued focus on letting the characters be really specific and subtle," Landau said.
Some of the changes coming are simply for practical reasons, the size of the house making a huge difference in the way Floyd plays. Playwrights Horizons seats 145 with a stage longer than it is wide. The Old Globe, on the other hand, seats about 600, has a balcony and a side to side stretch with less back space.
"When we first got there, I looked at the stage and I said, 'Oh, no, how am I going to fill this?' How are we going to create a sense of a crowd here?'" said Landau. "There was no question I was very excited to open the piece up and finally have a sense of the sky, which has always been an important element to me, but there are also certain thing lost that have to do with intimacy and claustrophobia."
That loss will lead to cuts in the book such as those that will be made to a dialogue set between the reporter Skeets Miller and Floyd Collins after he becomes trapped in the cave. "Something like the interview scene I'm going to be shaving down for Chicago simply because that doesn't read well in a house that size," Landau said.
After Chicago, no one knows what's next. Both Guettel and Landau would love to return Floyd Collins to New York -- even to Broadway. But that, like the tour, may only come with time.
Landau said, "Adam and I have never been the ones to push that sort of stuff. If it's meant to be, it will be. We're just waiting to see if someone will say, 'Oh, here's the money; here's the theatre' and we'll say, 'Okay!'"
--By Christine Ehren