Frank J. Oteri: Getting to the whole question of recordings, I heard your music on the recording of Floyd Collins long before I ever saw any of the shows. And the story of how that recording came to be is rather fascinating because the show had already closed, and usually if a show hasn’t been recorded by the time it closes, it never will be.
Adam Guettel: Bob Hurwitz showed up at a performance, and at the intermission he said, “I want to record this.” And it changed my life. He made it possible for me to have a career in this field by recording that show and recording things subsequently. Those records are calling cards for these shows. And it speaks to what we were talking about earlier about this nascent grassroots, regional rebirth of interest in the theatre. It’s not like it happens at the drop of a hat; it’s still very treacherous for regional theatres to produce a musical—it’s very expensive. But those records go out and they soften the resistance of people who would otherwise be clinging to perhaps a more conservative sense of what musical theatre should sound like, or what a musical theatre piece should be about. It helps enormously.
FJO: That’s certainly true in all genres of music: recordings serve as calling cards. But, I’m curious, how many productions of these shows are you talking about here? How often do they get done?
AG: I don’t know the exact numbers, but there’s always a production of Floyd somewhere, which is great. And I go to them from time to time and get to meet people. There are people today who are making boatloads of money out of writing for musical theatre—I’m not one of those people, but I get so much satisfaction from the life it’s given me: the people I meet, the communities I go into, the ability to work with students in all these places. It’s very valuable to me.
FJO: So how involved do you get with these productions?
AG: I try not to meddle too much. If they call and ask my advice about certain things, I will tell them. But I don’t offer my advice. I don’t call these people up and meddle in their affairs.
FJO: But you are always very involved in the original productions. In fact, you sang in Myths and Hymns and you even played guitar in the orchestra for the recording of Piazza.
AG: And when Floyd was first done in a workshop, I played Homer and played guitar in the pit and piano. I really get into it because I think that the style of playing is very important to what the angle of the music is. A shuffle can be a lot of things. For instance, in the score of Floyd Collins, if it just says country shuffle, it’s going to be very different from the exact thing. Where that backbeat lands is going to be very different from story to story. So playing the score myself, especially in those early stages, or being a part of the making of those recordings, is important to me.
FJO: Since you bring up country shuffle, what is so fascinating about each of these shows is the authenticity of the vernacular worlds in each of them, whether it’s pre-country in Floyd, or operatic flourishes for the Italians in Piazza, or the stew of styles in Myths and Hymns, which is a bit harder to gauge, though, because you created a very diffuse canvas stylistically for it.
AG: That show was held together on a sub-aesthetic level I think. It’s a linear piece perhaps on a spiritual level but stylistically is pretty varied.
FJO: As far as style goes, you obviously grew up on show music since your grandfather and mother both wrote musicals, and you sang at the Metropolitan Opera when you were a kid and later studied composition, but what was your exposure to all these other styles that are such a part of your musical vocabulary?
AG: I played upright bass for about ten years professionally, I played out. I had that going on for a while. I’ve always sung. I sang operas as a kid, and then I started singing in rock bands and wedding bands—I did that to make money in college—and to me the style of singing is a very potent way of expressing the world that you’re singing in. In Floyd you have this sort of flat-vowed, fretted thing that comes out of hill music, the kind of thing Doc Watson was playing on his first couple of records, or The Skillet Lickers, stuff like that. And that has its own world. [Sings] That flatted thing has its own landscape. And I think that singing can be that powerful, that expressive. And it’s true of what goes on in Piazza. It’s more florid, the technique that I’m asking for is a more trained sound but not in way that diminishes the emotional expressivity. It does get into something highly technical—I’m not asking for that—but I need people to really sing, and there needs to be more power in the sound. For instance, Piazza is a show that’s meant to be done in a slightly larger house than Floyd, which is an age-old problem as far as vocal production. Operatic technique comes from the very physical fact of producers wanting to make a lot of money and have bigger houses and there’s no amplification.
FJO: It was so great hearing you sing just now because you sounded like you’re from a coal mine in Kentucky, but I know you’re not. You must listen to a lot of records.
FJO: They didn’t teach you that stuff when you were studying composition.
AG: I had a tough time focusing on the curriculum. For me, the learning came from doing it and getting it either right, and feeling what that felt like and pursuing that, or getting it wrong, and feeling what that felt like and fixing it. The joy of singing, the physical sensation of making music with your throat, is the very core of the way I write. So I really spend a lot of time exploring what the semiotics are of producing sound, which is not to say I have a fabulous voice, because I don’t. But I’m willing to take a lot of risks with it and experiment a lot with it.
FJO: And you also write your own words.
AG: Words are always last. What I start with is a situation and what that song is going to accomplish, and what that character is feeling. And I find myself there in that. That’s just a physical sensation. But in between that physical sensation that I have and what I hope the audience feels, and I hope those things are close, the music and the lyrics come. The music comes after the personal research about a character and a situation and then come the lyrics after that.
FJO: This harkens back to Oscar Hammerstein’s dictum that the words and the music have to marry each other. They need to be so symbiotically intertwined that you can’t imagine one without the other. So do you have melodic shapes fully formed before you come up with any of the words?
AG: I do. And for me that’s what works. There’s an infinite resolution in music. For saying “I love you” there’s an infinite number of ways for music to express that. And I often compose myself into a corner. I need to find original or fresh takes on that with words, which is one of the reasons it takes me so long. But I think that writing the music first allows me to stay fairly free in terms of my musical forms, and I’m still observing a larger superstructure emotionally in terms of character and in terms of plot. I know what this chunk needs to be accomplishing and the music is meant to support that.
FJO: We spoke about calling cards. The last three shows that you have written are all recorded and are on a label with worldwide distribution. That’s wonderful, but I imagine it also comes with some pressure.
AG: There are a number of other shows that I’ve done that weren’t recorded. I wrote a full-length and somewhat operatic version of A Christmas Carol about 17 or 18 years ago. It was a sold-out thing at Trinity Rep, but it was not recorded. I did a one-act, through-composed opera on Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book, which I never got the rights to—or I had them and I lost them—so that sits in a drawer. And there are a couple of other things that I’ve done, some ballet scores, and Love’s Fire,, which John Guare and I did together at the Public Theater, for which I wrote only one song; I set a Shakespeare sonnet. I was a part of something larger in that so that was not the kind of thing that would have been recorded.
FJO: So basically all of your mature work has been recorded. That’s incredible.
AG: Yes. It’s a great blessing. That’s why I say that Bob changed my life. He really did. You asked if there was a lot of pressure in that. There isn’t. I don’t feel pressure from knowing that my records are out there, but I feel an obligation to be very specific about what I want and work hard.
FJO: Obviously when you experience a show on a CD, you’re only getting half of it, or even less, because you’re missing the visual aspects and a great deal of the theatre. And some people would argue that even if you could see a video recording of a show, you’re still not getting the complete essence that you would from a live experience of it. But The Light in the Piazza was just broadcast by PBS on national television, which rarely happens with shows, and that seems an even more effective means of disseminating this work above and beyond a CD, even though the CD is very effective as a purely musical experience.
AG: There were some producers who took out an option to make a movie of Floyd Collins, an actual released film of that story with my score and Tina’s book. And they were looking for a star to play Floyd as a way of financing the picture. Over the years there have been attempts at that, interest in that, and I have a real interest in writing something specifically for film or television. I would love to find a vessel for that.
But you raise the issue of how effective something I do is in a room with a lot of other people sitting there and watching it versus on a small screen, and I think that you want to choose a story specifically for telling on film or an a small screen. Piazza works really well in a medium-sized house, I think, although we just did it in San Francisco as part of the tour that just started, and that theatre has more than twice as many seats as we had at Lincoln Center, and it worked really well. So I should reserve judgment. I think that live singing, where people are singing about what they want and trying to get what they want—stories expressed through music that way—work really well when there are hundreds of people there watching it together in real time. There’s something about the way the sound bounces around the room.
FJO: Now, you said earlier that you love working in a studio, but that’s the exact opposite of being in front of an audience.
AG: I think that empathy is my main tool and that’s my bridge to an audience. I have to write alone mostly because that’s the only time I’m not cracking jokes and fooling around. It forces me to sit there and do my work. So I mostly write alone. But collaboration is the only reason I’m doing theatre, the chance to sit in another room once I’ve gotten something to show for myself and bounce my ideas off of people, that’s the joy of it. And I couldn’t do it alone. Who has all the answers? There’s no way to do anything really great all alone. I can’t. So I do some things alone and my bridge to an audience in that situation is I imagine how a character might be feeling in a situation, and I try to translate that into music and lyrics.