AussieTheatre exclusive: Adam Guettel talks to us about composing The Light in the Piazza

Over the last two weeks, the lips of theatre fans Australia-wide have been talking only of one show: Life Like Company’s production of Adam Guettel’s classical masterpiece, The Light in The Piazza. In the lead up to opening night, AussieTheatre was offered an exclusive interview with Guettel, the lyricist, composer and orchestrator of Piazza, and took the opportunity to question him about the process of developing the score, when composition became his career, and why classical and contemporary musical theatre should exist side by side in the hearts of audiences.

Adam Guettel.
Adam Guettel.
The grandson of the incomparable Richard Rodgers and son of the celebrated Mary Rodgers, it seems that Guettel was born with music coursing through his veins. It is of no surprise to many, then, that the score of Piazza is beloved by fans and critics as one of the most successful returns of classical and operatic music to the modern musical theatre oeuvre, showcasing strong soprano voices in the lead roles. I was interested to know if Guettel had any reservations in introducing a new dramatic operatic work to Broadway audiences more accustomed to musical comedies (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Spamalot premiered on Broadway in the same year as the Lincoln Centre production of Piazza), and was told that acceptance of genre didn’t necessarily factor into his thoughts or decision making process.

“I was confident about the musical world [of Light in the Piazza] from the start. If something is unlike the standard fare but works as a story and a style, it has a chance. […] To me, it’s clear that [classical and contemporary musical theatre] can [co-exist] – Most Happy Fella, much of Sondheim, A Gentleman’s Guide, the underpinnings of Maury Yeston’s work, most of Bernstein, etc… It’s all connected to centuries of successful music drama.”

Introduced by his mother to the 1960 novella of The Light in the Piazza written by Elizabeth Spencer, Guettel immediately knew that the characters, plot, and themes throughout the story would make for an imperfect but engaging musical romance. Featuring a passionate connection between a young Italian man who speaks only broken English and an American woman with a disability, Piazza’s orchestrations illustrate not only a lushly romantic young love, but also delve into the messy emotional depths of marriages bound by the gender constraints of the 1950s, and explores the beauty that exists in the relationship of a mother and daughter. Talking to me about the triggers for Clara’s emotional outbursts throughout the show, Guettel mentioned that Piazza’s music comes from his “own hopes and disappointments”, and that Clara’s bold expression of her feelings was an access point for writing elements of himself into the character.

The Light In The Piazza 2016. Image by Ben Fon
The Light In The Piazza 2016. Image by Ben Fon.
“I mentioned to my mother that I wanted to write a real love story but nothing perfect, nothing tied up in a bow. Something we couldn’t see coming. She told me to read Elizabeth Spencer’s novella. I read it and took extensive notes, got the rights and wrote a bunch of music right away. I was drawn to the material because I felt Elizabeth’s story was an original, off-axis vessel for romantic music.”

“[The expression of Clara’s emotion as a differently-abled woman] was my starting point and really the point of doing the piece. My wife would confirm that I’m an absolute unbroken mustang emotionally, a challenge. Bless her. But writing Clara, which is essentially writing myself – it’s deeper than a [physical] tell, subtler, more unpredictable, more lovable at times and at times more impossible. That has always been my connection to Clara and I hope the way our audience connects. Whatever her specific issues may be, she wants to be known and loved.”

Beginning his career with music as a classical performer in his childhood, Guettel’s work has now been performed and recorded by some of Broadway’s biggest names. Audra McDonald, Mandy Patinkin, Kelli O’Hara, Billy Porter and Victoria Clark have all used their instruments to give voice to Guettel’s music, a stunning example of just how much his work is appreciated. Knowing this, I asked Guettel at what point in his career he realised he would make a successful composer, and I received a rather unexpected response. Having also considered The Light in the Piazza as the pinnacle of musical theatre composition since my high school days, it was intriguing to hear the artist behind the piece talk about self-doubt, and occupational aspirations that could draw him away from the world of writing music.

The Light In The Piazza 2016. Image by Ben Fon
The Light In The Piazza 2016. Image by Ben Fon.
“I still question if I should be a composer. This is not to be coy. I’m currently working on a new piece, an opera, and I’m absolutely lost. I daydream daily about opening a plant store. I love plants. But it would be so much more disruptive than ploughing through the work before me, I’m just sucking it up and writing music every day. […] I don’t feel that I’ve made it and doubt that I will on any important commercial level. But if I can keep making work which is different from what I’ve done before I can retire to my garden at some point – or open a plant store!”

While he works on a new score and spends time in the garden, Guettel hopes that Piazza is welcomed by Australia’s “smart and sexy” audiences. After viewing photographs and videos of Life Like’s production over the internet, Guettel’s last response to me was that he wants audiences to be excited by the design elements of the Melbourne production, but above all, he wants his material to inspire audiences to examine their own relationships, and to take the story away with them and keep it in their hearts.

The Light in the Piazza will run for three more performances this weekend in Melbourne, with tickets to be booked at this link. According to the review published on our site, the production is “a gift to be cherished“, and you should drop everything to see it. 

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Maddi is a performer who has been too scared to stand in the spotlight for the last few years, so she channels her need for love and appreciation into writing about the theatre instead. An energetic consumer of musical theatre, she is currently earning a degree in journalism and teaches voice in her small hometown. Maddi is normally covered in cat fur, has an opinion on everything, and in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, is not throwing away her shot.

Maddi has written 77 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by

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AussieTheatre exclusive: Adam Guettel talks to us about composing The Light in the Piazza
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