ON THE RECORD: The Light in the Piazza and Little Women

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The Light in the Piazza and Little Women
This week's column discusses Adam Guettel's newly minted Tony winner The Light in the Piazza and the also-ran Little Women.

THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA [Nonesuch 79829]
One thing has been clear since Adam Guettel's first appearance in these parts back in 1996, with Floyd Collins: He was destined to reappear, sooner or later, with a remarkable Broadway score. That is, assuming that Guettel — who appears to be a painstakingly slow writer — did get around to completing a Broadway musical. The long-in-gestation Light in the Piazza is here at last, and all those people who forecast great things for Guettel can heartily congratulate themselves (although it's Guettel who had to sit alone in his room and do all the work).

It has, similarly, been equally apparent that whatever Guettel got around to writing was unlikely to fall into any recognizable category. The Light in the Piazza is labeled "a new musical," which it most certainly is. One could call it a romantic musical, a musical drama, or even something with the word "opera" in it. I call it rapturous and thoroughly ravishing. I am pleased, though not in the least surprised, to find that the The Light in the Piazza score is among the finest we've heard in years.

I could go on at length praising the music, but needn't bother. The CD speaks for itself, or rather sings for itself. There is a minority that does not appreciate the work of Guettel, and they will no doubt listen to this CD and say, "Ah ha! You see!" Most musical theatre fans will likely find themselves enthralled, and pretty quickly too. (Informational note for those under 25: until around 1973, Sondheim himself encountered a significant chorus of detractors. This group included the then-first-string critic of the Times, who praised Sondheim's lyrics for Follies but opined that the music sent "shivers of indifference up your spinet.")

Set in Florence, circa 1953, The Light in the Piazza is only several years (via calendar) and several hours (via train) from the Venice of Do I Hear a Waltz? This is not coincidental; Guettel's score has little to do stylistically with the 1965 work by Rodgers and Sondheim, but there are obvious parallels between the two. Guettel was born just before his grandfather's musical waltzed into production. There are those who theorize that music heard neo-natally penetrates the womb, but I'll leave this discussion to the theoreticians. In any event, Piazza is a whole lot more successful — artistically and (hopefully) commercially — than Waltz.

The actors in the three central roles are excellent (although this is a CD in which material trumps performance, which is as it should be). Victoria Clark has long been a hidden secret in musical theatre circles. Back in 1990, conductor Ted Sperling introduced her to me as "a wonderful singer who can sing anything." I instantly agreed, so it is no surprise to find her — seemingly out of nowhere — carrying a weighty musical on her shoulders, and winning a Best Actress Tony Award in her first major role. Now that Clark is finally old enough to play character parts, I expect she'll become a permanent fixture in the Broadway spotlight. She has a fine comedic streak, too; she made a highly effective Adelaide when she understudied the role in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. Kelli O'Hara, from the twin failures Sweet Smell of Success and Dracula, is equally impressive in a treacherous role, as "a beautiful, surprisingly childish young woman." (Although the plot twist has been widely reported, it is so expertly revealed on the CD — in three moments that take your breath away — that I'll leave it for listeners to discover on their own.) Matthew Morrison, too, has been given a difficult task — much of his role is sung in Italian — but he pulls it off with great aplomb. This is the same Morrison who not so long ago was courting the heroine of Hairspray. No "Cooties" here. I reiterate that all three — Clark, O'Hara and Morrison — sing and act wonderfully (and truthfully) on the CD; Guettel is lucky to have them, and they are lucky to have Guettel. The work of librettist Craig Lucas and director Bartlett Sher is only peripherally present on the CD, but their contributions are hereby acknowledged and praised.

Ted Sperling was cited in a recent column for his musical direction of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He serves in that function on The Light in the Piazza as well, which is worlds away from DRS musically (although both CDs and shows are highly recommended). With Piazza, Sperling has now branched into orchestration. The orchestrations are credited to Sperling and Guettel, two first-time-on-Broadway orchestrators who have walked off with a well-deserved Tony Award. (Bruce Coughlin is credited for additional orchestrations.) They have come up with an unusual ensemble, string heavy with only two winds, due to unusual circumstances.

The show played its premiere, at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, with five pieces. The Lincoln Center production was scored for nine, until shortly before the first performance. At which point Guettel and Sperling realized that six violins were better than one. In an unparalleled act of artistic munificence, producers Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten agreed to expand the orchestra and explode the budget. (Once Piazza moves to the full-scale production contract, these additional players will run them in the neighborhood of $10,000 a week — an enormous sum in a 1,040-seat house.) Decisions like this can make all the difference to an audience; it's the sort of thing that producers don't but ought to get medals for.

The stage Piazza wound up with a 15-piece ensemble, including one wind chair (clarinet/English horn/oboe); one bassoon; and no brass. As I understand it, Coughlin — orchestrator of Floyd Collins — rushed in to help refigure the string section. For the recording, the orchestra has been expanded to 33 (with 18 violins!). Guettel himself plays the guitar on two tracks — one of which, "American Dancing," features an impressive guitar. The recording, understandably, offers a fuller sound; but those 15 pieces are just right for the theatre. (With the CD immersed in my consciousness from repeated playing, I went to the Beaumont for comparison's sake. Rest assured, Piazza in the theatre sounds exquisite.)

A recent, much-noted (and well-written) newspaper review placed The Light in the Piazza in a class with West Side Story, which I don't quite see (or hear, rather). I'll keep my Light in the Piazza CD on the corner of the shelf with The Most Happy Fella, She Loves Me, Sweeney Todd and Carousel, which is precisely where it belongs.

LITTLE WOMEN [Ghostlight 4405]
Here comes the original cast album of Little Women, hitting the street just as the show packed up its crinolines and headed for oblivion. A moderate life in the world of amateur theatricals seems to be in the cards, which will no doubt be facilitated by the CD. This was one of those shows that underwent a notably rocky development — it was first performed, with a different score and cast, in 2000 — but remained critically underdeveloped.

The replacement songwriters, Broadway first-timers Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein, tip their hand in the opening moments. The heroine writes steamy potboilers, so why not give the characters a purposely clumsy, mock melodramatic musicale? They come back with more of same later, too. These sequences prove to be neither strong enough, nor wildly hysterical enough, to serve as foundations for their Little Women.

It has been decades since I read the novel (if I ever did read the novel) or saw the Katharine Hepburn film version. My guess is, though, that even today both would bring an old-fashioned-but-effective gulp to the throat and tear to the eye. The creators were presumably hoping for Carousel, but they wound up with something closer to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Which is to say they try to be funny in a contemporary manner that kills any notion of period, stopping every so often to allow their singers to reach the rafters but giving them little with which to reach the heart. We need not dwell on the lapses of the lyricist, but she does herself no favors with lines like "Turn around, go back to Concord / Leave New York behind unconquered." And then there's "I'll shout and start a riot / Be anything but quiet." (New York City had a Draft Riot in 1863 — memorialized, as it happens, in another flop musical at this very same playhouse — but I don't think that's the kind of riot this little woman is singing about.)

Sutton Foster has come along nicely since she stepped out of nowhere to win a goodly number of fans with her Thoroughly Modern Millie. She carries Little Women nobly, but it is hard to be believable when your material is un. Unbelievable, that is. She indeed offers a knockout punch with her first act finale, "Astonishing." But this is a modern-day, riot-rousing Jo March, not the Civil War-era heroine who launched a thousand tears.

Readers of this column might be interested in two articles, written for this year's special Tony Awards edition of Playbill: "Bonus Tracks Bring History to Light on New Cds"Click Here and "Good Conduct Medal" Click Here, which discusses the career of conductor/orchestrator Elliot Lawrence.

—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

Today’s Most Popular News: