ON THE RECORD: Little Me, Charlie Brown and especially, Adam Guettel

By Steven Suskin
21 Mar 1999


Composer/lyricist Adam Guettel burst on the scene, as they say, in 1996 with Floyd Collins, a limited engagement off-Broadway musical which not many people got around to seeing. The 1997 cast album found an appreciative audience, though, so much so that Floyd is currently on a tour of major regional theatres. In 1998 a collection of intensely personal, autobiographical songs was briefly presented in concert form at the Public Theatre under the title Saturn Returns. Despite its simple six actors-sitting-on-barstools presentation and lack of any narrative linking, the strength and beauty of Guettel's music made it something of a must see -- and garnered ecstatic raves from the typically surly Broadway critics. Saturn Returns now appears on disc, under its original title, "Myths and Hymns," and it more than lives up to expectations.

Guettel has a tendency to build his songs to a high emotional level -- and then pitch them higher and higher! I remember midway through the title number at the Public suddenly bolting straight in my seat, and then craning more and more forward as the singer cried "I want, I want, I want/I don't know what I hunger for." There are at least four other songs good enough to leave you shaking your head wondrously.

If you like your musical theatre sweet and simple and funny, "Myths and Hymns" might not be for you. The material is demanding, certainly, and you might have to pay close attention in order to get into it. But this is the most rewarding new theatre music I've heard in an awfully long time.

"Myths and Hymns" is not exactly a cast album of Saturn Returns. The on stage band (nine top Broadway players, led by conductor Ted Sperling (with his habitual violin) was very much a presence in Tina Landau's staging, and they have wisely been retained. The Public Theatre cast, though, has been relegated mostly to backup work; this with the exception of Theresa McCarthy, who played Floyd Collins' sister (and one of the Kates in Titanic) and appears to be a top interpreter of Guettel's work. Three other Saturn cast-members -- Annie Golden, Vivian Cherry, and Lawrence Clayton -- are each given a solo, with notable results. But one needn't be self-conscious about singing backup on an album such as this: Lewis Cleale, Brian d'Arcy James, Jessica Molaskey, and even Kristin Chenoweth unexpectedly turn up on two tracks, presumably just for the sake of working with Guettel. More prominent are several singers who appeared in workshop versions of the piece, namely Mandy Patinkin, Billy Porter and Audra McDonald (who performs some be bop scat on "Pegasus").

McDonald included four Guettel songs on her "Way Back to Paradise" album last year, including the remarkable "Come to Jesus." This song is sung on "Myths and Hymns" by McCarthy, who performed it at the Public; Guettel sings the male part, as he did with McDonald. One well may ask how the performances compare; the answer is, both admirably serve this hauntingly breathtaking song about abortion, set against a 19th century Presbyterian hymn. (As I said above, these autobiographical songs are intensely personal.) The first version is richer musically, perhaps, enhanced by a thirty-five piece orchestra as well as McDonald's glorious voice. The new recording is a more theatrical version, backed by only nine pieces. Thus, you concentrate more on the dramatic situation and the lyric. Both were orchestrated by Don Sebesky, who with Jamie Lawrence did the charts for "Myths and Hymns."

Guettel himself is very much present, singing five of the most important songs. This might not have thrilled the actors who sang them in the theatre, but the composer/lyricist turns out to be a wonderful performer; these songs have an even greater impact here than they had at the Public. "Myths and Hymns" is very much about his own personal search for self, so I guess it makes some kind of sense that he performs them so well. I should also report that another two fine songs heard at the Public are for some reason not included on the album. But I'm certainly not complaining.

"Look at me, I'm going to be the stuff that myths are made of," pleads an under-achieving son who resents his famous father in the soaring "Icarus." (What a song!) Guettel may well have reason to feel like he is in the shadow of his illustrious grandfather, the guy who wrote Oklahoma! and Carousel and The King and I and all that; but he has his own distinct talent to offer. He shares Richard Rodgers' high theatricality, humor, and that uncanny ability to move melodies and harmonies in unexpected but inevitable directions. But their styles are quite different, and I don't suspect anyone could mistake one for the other. Based on the evidence of "Myths and Hymns" and Floyd Collins, Guettel already has all the tools to conquer Broadway. He is not some "promising young songwriter" anymore, he has delivered on the promise. And Broadway, I believe, is just about ready for Guettel.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com