Monday, July 23, 2012

"And the beauty is . . ." - My Five Favorite Adam Guettel Songs

Most of the posts on this blog have involved movies or TV (and that will continue to be the case), but I do have other interests. One of them is music. I'm a serious piano player, but I also just enjoy listening to and talking about many different genres of music. This means that you'll probably be seeing more posts on this subject in the future, including more album reviews like the one I wrote about The Idler Wheel a few weeks ago.

But my greatest musical interest—outside of playing the piano—is probably musical theatre. I don't get to see nearly as many musicals as I'd like (for a number of reasons, not least of which is the expense of seeing live theatre), but eight or so a year—over half of which are generally musicals, although there are always a few plays mixed in as well—plus the ability to check out cast recordings from the library has allowed me to experience quite a few of the great shows and composers. In particular, I've become an enormous fan of Stephen Sondheim, who I consider the finest musical theatre composer of all time.

However, this year I've had the great pleasure of discovering a composer whose output is every bit as brilliant as Sondheim's in terms of quality, although to this point his major works (by which I mean the ones that are performed at least somewhat frequently and/or have been recorded) include only two shows and one song cycle. I'm speaking of Adam Guettel, best known for his tremendous score for The Light in the Piazza. The reasons why his music is so extraordinary are many: it's emotionally rich, musically complex, profound. But most of all, it's just plain beautiful.

What follows are my favorite songs by this incredible composer. Please note that this list contains major spoilers for both Floyd Collins and The Light in the Piazza. I don't happen to think spoilers make one bit of difference in terms of appreciating musical theatre, but some might. So read on at your own risk.

"Awaiting You" from Myths and Hymns

This extraordinary song begins with a proclamation of faith ("you are awaiting me"), which it then proceeds to question and confront over the next three minutes, asking the age old question of why bad things happen to good people. After daring his god to "go ahead and let your thunder sound", the singer comes to the conclusion that faith perhaps is something else entirely: a hope "that we can rise anew". The song ends with him still waiting, but whether this is a denial of his faith, a reaffirmation of it, or simply the desperate plea of someone who has suffered an unknown loss is left uncertain. Perhaps it's a combination of all three. Regardless, it's an incredibly powerful and beautiful piece of music. 

"The Ballad of Floyd Collins" from Floyd Collins

A haunting song that makes its first appearance at the very start of the show, where it introduces the story much in the same way "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" did in Sweeney Todd. It appears briefly later in the first act, but the full version of the song doesn't occur until the middle of the second act (something that's rather unusual in musical theatre, as reprises are generally shorter than the initial version). It's this tremendous final rendition—which is even more powerful in the context of the show than it is on the cast recording—that earns the song a spot on this list.

"Icarus" from Myths and Hymns 

Myths and Hymns features a marvelously eclectic combination of musical styles, and nowhere is that more true than in this song, which recounts the well-known tale of Icarus and Daedalus. Some of the finest lyrics Guettel's ever written convey the story—and Icarus's reckless and ill-advised decision to ignore his father's words (much of the later sections of the song are told from his point of view)—perfectly, as do the the catchy rhythm and swaggering, jazzy melody. Extremely different from anything else Guettel has composed, but just as brilliant.

"Octet" from The Light in the Piazza

After I started putting together this post, I realized that all of the songs I was planning on including were either solos or duets. This isn't all that surprising, since this is what most of Guettel's work consists of. The intimacy of the two shows he's written the scores for means that he hasn't been required to write very many big ensemble numbers. But just so you don't think he's incapable of writing great songs for more than two voices, I decided to include this second act stunner from The Light in the Piazza, which contains some simply incredible harmonies.

"Through the Mountain" from Floyd Collins 

This song is built around a wistful, spare, and wonderful guitar melody, which is fitting given its subject. The understated beauty of the melody and lyrics creates a feeling of longing as Nellie sings (as though her brother can actually hear her) of her desire to see Floyd freed from the cave that he will eventually die in. It's among the best and most moving songs in the entire show.

5. "The Light in the Piazza" from The Light in the Piazza 

One of the most immediate things that jumps out at you about The Light in the Piazza—and as I've already stated, about Guettel's music in general—is that its melodies are probably the most beautiful ever written for any musical (or at least those I've heard and/or seen). I say this as someone who flat-out loves almost everything Stephen Sondheim has ever done. Sweeney Todd is my favorite musical of all time, but song for song I don't think anything beats the music of this show in terms of sheer beauty. Equally important are the powerful emotions contained in each and every song. "The Light in the Piazza" provides a perfect illustration of both of these points. It starts simple and soft, then rises both melodically (the range required to sing it must be staggering) and dynamically, while also increasing in tempo. All of this reflects Clara's powerful range of emotions as she's singing it: frustration, anger, hope, and most of all love. And the music itself—from the soaring vocal melody to the gorgeous orchestrations—is pure melodic bliss.

4. "Dividing Day" from The Light in the Piazza 

If I had to pick the finest lyrical moment in The Light in the Piazza, this would probably be it. So many songs have been written—both in musical theatre and outside of it—about failed or failing relationships, but very few of them are as poetic as this one. "Dividing Day's" melody is predictably fantastic: a lush minor key tune that perfectly captures the feelings expressed in the song. But it's the words that stand out even more. There isn't a more devastating line in the show than Margaret's "no more love allowed" as the song heads into its conclusion, and the palpable emotion of the moment almost makes you forget how brilliantly it rhymes with "I curtsied, you bowed". Guettel's not quite a Sondheim-level lyricist (really, only Sondheim is), but he's close. And here, he's every bit the master's equal.

3. "How Glory Goes" from Floyd Collins 

"Only Heaven knows how glory goes / What each of us was meant to be". These two lines of music give me chills every time I hear them, and I must have done so several dozen times by now. They come near the end of "How Glory Goes", the incredible closing song of Floyd Collins. At this point, Floyd has realized that he's not making it out of the cave alive, and the song's lyrics depict his resignation, bravery, faith, and terror in the face of this knowledge. As does the extraordinary melody, which begins quiet and tentative, as though Floyd is searching for something. His resolve then begins to strengthen, but there's still fear in every syllable he sings. This fear threatens to overtake him as the composition approaches its conclusion.

Then the song just stops, seemingly without resolution. We're informed by newspaper reporter Skeets Miller that Floyd's body was reached, but only after he was already dead. All the while that last line ("she will hold me just the same") is left hanging. Then, Floyd's courage returns as he sings those two aforementioned lines, followed by: "In the starlight that is what we are / I can see so far". These last five words positively soar. The song then concludes with Floyd yodeling (in similar fashion to what he did when he first found the cave), until eventually all becomes quiet. It's a transcendent end to one of the finest closing songs of any show out there, and to one of the best musical scores ever written.

2. "Fable" from The Light in the Piazza

"How Glory Goes" is absolutely brilliant, but every bit as great is the closing song from The Light in the Piazza, which has a decidedly march-like feel to it at the start. Then, in one of the most stunning moments in the entire show, the words start to describe the music (which changes to a beautifully flowing melody) almost perfectly as Margaret sings the following: "For a fable of love that will carry you / To a moon on a hill, to a hidden stream / A lagoon and a red horizon dream / Silhouette, sail away from time forever". The change to that smooth, soaring melody comes with the words "carry you", as if the song is carrying us away along with Margaret's emotions and her hopes for Clara. This is something I didn't really notice until I stopped to think about the song, and my appreciation of it has gone up even more as a result.

But "Fable's" greatest moment is still to come. As the song approaches its end a couple of minutes later, the melody becomes more dissonant and the dynamics louder as Margaret uses up her last burst of emotional energy—having spent much of the show wrestling with her own complicated feelings and fighting with her daughter—to urge Clara to "love if you can and be loved". She's not singing this to Clara (at least she didn't in the version I saw), but the impact of the moment is still substantial, as it's the conclusion to the dialogue Margaret's been having with herself and the audience throughout the show. The short, quiet reprise of "The Light in the Piazza" that concludes the song is Guettel's final touch of genius in a score that is essentially perfect. Which is something that can't be said about very many of them.

1. "Say it Somehow" from The Light in the Piazza 

So, how do you top that? Well, if you're Adam Guettel, you do it by writing what has to be your most beautiful melody (to this point, anyway) for the brilliant act one closer to The Light in the Piazza. You then add some simply luscious harmonies between the two voices singing the song, and let the singers do the rest. I'm not going to talk about all of the many things that make this song special, like that wonderful moment where the two characters first sing in harmony on the line "say it somehow any way you can" or the utterly unforgettable section that starts with the words "we'll play a game, you'll trace it on my skin" and must surely be among the finest ten to fifteen seconds of music ever written. To do so would take me all day, and in any case a lot of what I've already said about a few of the other songs from this magnificent score applies just as much—and perhaps even more—to "Say it Somehow". I'll close by simply saying that if you have not heard The Light in the Piazza's music and have even the slightest interest in musical theatre, you need to listen to it. It will blow you away.

And here are ten songs that just missed the cut (in no particular order): "The Beauty Is", "Lucky", "Love to Me", "Hero and Leander", "Pegasus", "The Riddle Song", "Migratory V", "Statues and Stories", "Heart an' Hand", and "Il Mondo Era Vuoto".

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