Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Little "Light" Music: Guettel and Sondheim

(reflections on re-playing the original cast CD of THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Craig Lucas, based on Elizabeth Spencer's novella of 1954.)

I never listen to my favorite music anymore. Some I can replay in my head note for note; the rest, I want to keep fresh. Let public radio broadcast the usual Tchaikovsky and Schubert while I do chores and read e-mail. When I play a recording of Debussy's Sonatas, Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Glass's SATYAGRAHA or Holst's HYMN OF JESUS, I have to carve out some hours to listen in peace and concentration.

Thus, I've let a couple years pass since I last listened to the original cast recording of the musical THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. I liked composer-lyricist Adam Guettel's score the first time I heard it, but I was also puzzled, until I saw the original cast at Lincoln Center. At intermission, I felt I was riding a wave of audience enthusiasm, but then I overheard a knot of people in the lobby deciding to skip the second act. A survey of blogs and articles about LIGHT last night uncovered stories of others who were similarly puzzled or just bored. Even those who like the show seem to miss some of what makes it wonderful. And nearly everyone compares Guettel to Sondheim in a superficial way that undervalues both artists. Allow me to share with the blogosphere some of the things I admire in LIGHT's music and lyrics that others may have missed.

While every commentator finds a succinct way to summarize the plot, I haven't run across one that comments on the structure. As they all say, it's the story of middle-aged American Margaret Johnson who tries to stop the budding romance between her daughter Clara and the young Italian Fabrizio Naccarelli when the Americans meet him on vacation in Florence in 1953. Their story follows a straight line to marriage, from miraculous meeting (he happens to stand at exactly the right spot to catch her hat, flying in the wind) through getting to know each other ("Now is I am happiness with you / Walk with me in the place that I live from a child" he ardently sings), to erotic romance without language ("Why don't you trace it on my hand / Or make a song / Do anything / Say it somehow / I will understand").

But the progress of young love is attacked from all sides by three married couples who observe the romance from their vantage points of experience, with disappointment and cynicism. This isn't Sondheim's COMPANY: the couples aren't just commentary, they're half the story. Fabrizio's older brother takes romance and his marriage vows lightly (as he demonstrates in a dancing lesson, the instrumental "American Dancing"), and his wife Franca sings a bitter aria that makes Clara cry ("You're the envy of so many girls," she sings to Clara, "And you are the most beautiful / So far"). A song that seemed strident to me on first hearing, "Aiutumi ("Aid Me")" is actually very funny in context, as old Mrs. Naccarelli translates for us the histrionics of the men in her family, concluding that she encourages it, because, without suspicion, without drama, there would be no feeling left in her household. Most important, there's Margaret Johnson's marriage to Roy, a character not even mentioned in the CD and lyrics who has a strong presence on stage. He speaks to his wife by trans-Atlantic phone from South Carolina. After their conversation, long-distance in more than one way, Margaret wonders about the "dividing day" when their love settled into their business-like relationship. Did it happen recently, or did it start at their wedding? The story's as much about the young lovers' effect on these other couples as it is about the innocents. The more hope that's invested in the couple, the more difficult it is for Margaret to tell the Naccarellis that her daughter suffered a blow to the head at twelve, never to develop intellectually or emotionally beyond that age.

About the music, even Guettel's admirers seem to be saying, "It may not sound like it, but it's really beautiful." Rex Reed wrote, "Not strong on conventional melodies, [Guettel] dares you to take a journey with him that is musically challenging. You can't sing or hum or even remember his songs, but you are enthralled and awed while you're hearing them." (The New York Observer, www.observer.com. May 23, 1999). NY Times critic Stephen Holden wrote with admiration, 'The unifying element of Mr. Guettel's music is a transcendent overarching melodic gift," which sounds good, but he goes on to explain how that "gives order to the often clashing inner voices of his songs." (quoted in Pogrebin, Robin. "Songwriter's Independence Isn't Easy to Hum" New York Times. 12 May 1999). In the same article, Sondheim pooh-poohs the idea that Guettel's music is rebarbative: ''People have lazy ears,'' Mr. Sondheim said. ''With so much stuff in the theater, before the song is over you know where it's going. That's not true of Adam. He is full of surprise. The surprise is seldom arbitrary. It's usually inevitable.''

In composing his music, Guettel intends to suit his music to the character and the moment, and he has the musical vocabulary to create the effects that fit his intentions. ''Unlike some composers, who will map out where the songs are going to be and then start writing individual pieces, Adam will spend months, years, whatever it takes on finding the right vernacular for the piece as a whole,'' says Tina Landau, Guettel's collaborator on the wonderful show FLOYD COLLINS.'' ''He won't move ahead unless he feels he has reinvented some landscape'' (Pogrebin). FLOYD COLLINS is notated with lots of sixteenth-note syncopations, very demanding for a pianist and natural to any bluegrass banjo strummer. The sound for LIGHT is totally different. From the overture onward, Guettel's music tells the story of the young lovers with music of an overtly romantic sound -- many strings, guitar, harp, and what might be Rachmaninoff's piano rhapsodizing in the background.

Many of the songs take the characters through some kind of conflict to a new resolve or recognition, and so the easy way out of merely repeating the chorus isn't good enough for Guettel. The music isn't just a medium for the words; it says something in itself. The bouncy tune that brings us into Florence with the mother and daughter tourists, takes an odd turn when Clara suddenly bursts out gleefully, "We're on vacation!" and runs off with any suggestion of romance in her mother's guidebook patter. It's an early indication that she's younger in mind and heart than she appears to be. It may be just coincidence, but the same four - note phrase (beginning from the leading tone, "on vacation") becomes the chorus of the next song, Clara's expression of "wanting something" that she can't put in words. Another jaunty little song turns gradually into a nightmare through polyrhythms, overlapping lines and augmented instrumentation, expressing what happens when Clara gets lost in the streets of Florence at night. That same music turns up again, only layers of chanted church Latin are superimposed on it, as Clara gets lost again, this time in foreign rites and mores rather than foreign streets.

Mr. Sondheim shares this same musical integrity. SWEENEY TODD's music broods and churns, while the music of his fairy-tale musical INTO THE WOODS stays bright light-textured, and neither of those sound like the patriotic pastiche of ASSASSINS. Like Guettel, Sondheim wants his songs to go somewhere, and they both allow digressions to re-direct their songs. I speak from experience, as one who is trying to master the piano parts for INTO THE WOODS. It would be so much easier if Sondheim would find a neat little pattern and stick to it, preferably in one key, at least until the last verse. But, no, there are sudden shifts of key to mark sudden elevations in tension, and little hiccups of rhythm to set up punchlines, and little developments in the pattern as the song develops. Like Guettel, Sondheim works out interconnected musical bits, such as the five-note motif (matching five "magic beans") that appear in the melody or the accompaniment of all the songs that "sprout" plot-wise from those beans.

So, Guettel and Sondheim share ambition to make their music expressive, and they share some techniques -- which they share with "classical" composers from Bach to Bartok. This means that their music demands concentration from the musicians, and it fails to conform to prefabricated pop and show tune outlines. But it's silly to say that they share a particular style.

It's in writing lyrics that Guettel has something to teach his mentor. Sondheim leads the English-speaking world at finding the precise words to express the logic of a character's thoughts, and his miraculous craftsmanship with rhyme give his rhetoric a sharpness and a feeling of inevitability. He is careful to fit the imagery, the vocabulary, and the rhetoric to the character.

Guettel's lyrics and music allow for non-logical leaps that puzzle the listener to the CD, but make perfect sense on stage. Often, his characters lapse out of language into vocalese, something Sondheim never does. (I've thought for sixty seconds, now, and haven't come up with a single example). While he writes wordless music, he's confident in the expressiveness of his songs to write in Italian, too -- something that one blogger (www.rationalmagic.com) calls pretentious, and it's probably what put off a percentage of those audience deserters.

Then there are lyrics that don't make sense, because the connections aren't logical or rhetorical. For example, Clara's first solo seemed to be just generic poetry -- "This is wanting something" -- until I saw the show, and saw what "this" means in context. She's in a museum ("the land of naked marble boys") when she sees an image of a saint reaching out towards another figure. Imitating the pose, she sings, "This is wanting something, this is reaching for it," thinking of the cute boy she just met on the square. Her mother sings the same music in the second act to a very different effect, as she recalls the horrible moment of her daughter's childhood accident. The mother had turned away for a moment, and turned back to see her daughter falling unconscious. Re-enacting how she reached out, too late, she, too, sings, "So much wanting something / . . . So much wishing just to have one moment back . . ./ So much blind acceptance / I know / No, I don't know."

The title song sounds on the record like a sweet soliloquy from Clara about what love is like, "light in the piazza" that dawned when she met Fabrizio there. Pretty prosaic for poetry, and, as RationalMagic.com points out, it's a lot more poetic than we'd expect from a mentally impaired young woman. But this lovely song is a turning point. Margaret has pulled rank, removed Clara from Florence, has ordered Clara to obey, and, as we watch, she is trying to carry on a tour of Rome, just as at the beginning of the play, only it's not working. Clara isn't minding, Clara is sulking. In frustration, Margaret slaps Clara. Now, cue the lovely music:
I don't see a miracle
Shining from the sky
I'm no good at statues and stories
I try
That's not what I think about
That's not what I see
I know what the sunlight can be
The light, the light in the piazza . . .
It may sound poetic, but it's a direct expression of what she saw when she met him. Once again, there's a leap. Nothing logical has happened, no new information has come out, but everything changes. Margaret relents.

Of many moments in the show that I love, I think the ones that affect me most strongly, even just thinking about them now, are the ones that deal head-on with the inability to put in words what one feels is right. In act two, after Signior Naccarelli angrily forbids his son to marry, Margaret cannot find words to convince the father to change his mind. She does convince, him, however, to simply sit with her at a cafe. Their music is wistful, and they say little, except how they each remember how, "at a certain age, / We almost fall on purpose." There's a hint of a metaphor -- the "way" and the "road to be taken for happiness." Beyond those few words, the song consists of one phrase, repeated over an affable little promenade - "Let's walk. Let's walk." Words cannot explain what happens, but, by the end of the song, they have reached an understanding, and we have, too: the marriage will go forward, and let's hope for the best.

The next song is painful to think about: tears just came to my eyes typing this. But, when Clara is confronted suddenly with her own limitations, she herself calls off the wedding. Without language to answer her, Fabrizio sings simply what he has seen in her from the beginning:
I notice how you hunger for surprise
And do not think that you are tall enough
Like you're standing on a mountainside alone
This is what I see,
Oh, you're not alone.
None of that exactly makes sense. But by the end of the song, they are reconciled. And I'm a basket-case.

As the show is as much about the effect of this couple's love on everyone else, that is expressed obliquely in lyrics that struck www.rationalmagic.com as poor attempts at poetry, totally unsuitable to the moments. In the church, during the Latin lesson, the ensemble sings of "The shock of winter, the coming on of spring . . . I am suddenly alive." They're telling us of the passage of time, and relating it to how the other two couples in the Naccarelli household have been chastened and are visibly more affectionate to each other. Margaret's solo, "A Fable," seemed to me incomprehensible, until I saw her perform it. She sings it from an isolated area of the church while she watches her daughter's wedding. It's the story of her life, the disappointment of her fairy tale marriage that's turned out to be "a fake, a fable." But midway, her rhetorical progress stalls: "Still you have to look / and look and look and look and look and look . . ." (repeat several more times) " . . .for the eyes on a bridge in a pouring rain," and,
If you find in the world
In the wide wide world
That someone sees
That someone knows you
Love, if you can, oh my Clara,
Love if you can and be loved
May it last forever . . .
In the middle of her bitterness, seeing the wedding, she suddenly makes the irrational leap to hope, ending in prayer, a benediction.

As with so much other music that I love, my introduction to the work of Adam Guettel came through Stephen Sondheim. In a recital of songs that Sondheim says he wishes he'd written, the "Riddle Song" from FLOYD COLLINS was the only one by a composer young enough to be Sondheim's grandson. In fact, Guettel is his godson, child of Sondheim's own childhood friend composer Mary Rodgers, and grandson of Broadway pioneer Richard Rodgers (who said of Sondheim, only half jokingly, "I've watched him grow up from a precocious little child to a monster").

That "Riddle Song" shows all the characteristics I've described from LIGHT, including this quality that would not have occurred to Sondheim: the riddles are a way for Floyd's brother Homer to distract Floyd from his predicament. As each riddle calls to mind a memory of their growing up together, the music grows exuberant, until remembering a deep, dark watering hole brings Floyd back to the deep, dark hole he's buried alive in. One more riddle, and Homer brings Floyd back to hope. What the song really means is, "I love you," but it never says so.

Sondheim once lauded a single line from PORGY AND BESS: "Summertime, and the livin' is easy." Sondheim says that he would have written , "summertime, when the living is easy," and he admits that, though it would make more sense, it wouldn't have been so right. I'm sure, in a similar way, Sondheim admires the feelings that Guettel expresses obliquely.

In Sondheim's own words (from PACIFIC OVERTURES), "Let the pupil show the master, Next!"


Matt said...

Transcendent. A pleasure to read. I will certainly be back.

W. Scott Smoot said...

Since I wrote this, Sondheim's latest, ROAD SHOW, has been recorded. It includes a song in which Sondheim does indeed learn from "Riddle Song." It's for two brothers who also cannot say that they love each other, and they approach the subject obliquely. See my article in this blog, "Road Show Arrives at Last."

W. Scott Smoot said...

Update: Re-reading this post, i again burst into tears at the paragraph about the boy's reassuring the girl that he does understand her and still loves her. My memory of the show is much fainter now than when I wrote this, so what triggered this reaction? It may be purely personal, but I suspect that I'm not the only one who carries around a deep suspicion, "If they knew me the way I know myself, they wouldn't like me." The whole show tends to this moment, and gives reassurance. in contrast, Sondheim's FOLLIES also climaxes at that same point, when the character Ben breaks down mid-song to say, "I don't -- love -- me... I'm a fake." The admission may be the gateway to a new life in FOLLIES; PIAZZA is much more hopeful.