Frank J. Oteri: You were born in 1965, which was during the final years of the golden age of the Broadway musical.
Adam Guettel: Wasn’t Fiddler on the Roof from that year? That in a way is a very significant way to go out. It had all of the earmarks of an earlier era and portents for the future.
FJO: But Fiddler still falls within that classic mainstream Broadway musical rubric: its songs were covered by popular singers and served as the basis for jazz improvisers, and even orchestras have played suites from it. Broadway shows don’t generate that anymore.
AG: There was a sweet spot at one point, a nexus between the economics of producing musicals (i.e., it was a lot cheaper by a factor of 100), the social resonance of what was going on at the time, and the risks that writers and producers were willing to take. That sort of fed itself. When it was cheap enough to do something, you could take a risk. And it would encourage writers to come up with risky ideas. There was this wonderful feedback where things were getting out there in a much more rapid way. When my grandfather was doing stuff in the early 1930s, he would do up to four shows a year. I think it was more mainstream in part by virtue of it being cheaper to do, and by being cheaper to do it was more mainstream.
FJO: But what’s weird about that is now, because it’s so expensive, there are so many spin doctors who want to manufacture a mainstream because they have to have something that’s going to be a huge hit, otherwise they can never recoup. But it doesn’t really connect with people in the same way it once did.
AG: There’s no specificity and so there’s no universality. It doesn’t lend itself. But I think there’s a new grassroots sense of momentum. At least, I’ve noticed that when I teach in high schools and colleges all over the country. And even in the most faraway places, I mean far away from New York, you have these college students who are not only beautifully trained but also very well versed. They know the tradition and want to make this stuff, and they’re just dying for a chance to do it. And to support that, around these students are evolving these little regional houses and college theatres with great equipment. It’s a wonderful place to work and develop things. There are these pockets of musical theatre fans, and there’s a constellation emerging. I also notice it when I go to places where they’re doing my shows, which is probably more gratifying than anything. So this may be reinventing itself in an organic way.
FJO: The tradition of the musical theatre in this country has always been so tied into New York City, this neighborhood we’re in. We even call it the “Broadway musical.” What other genre is named after a street?
AG: Tin Pan Alley, I suppose.
FJO: That’s true, but that’s also a New York phenomenon, and for a long time those two streams fed off each other. But where I wanted to go with this was that the Broadway musical once had a core base of New York people both as the creators and the audience. That’s changed now. Because of the price structure, the audience is largely tourists. Most shows don’t even originate in New York. And, in fact, you left New York and relocated to the west coast.
AG: Well, for a lot of the reasons that you’re talking about. I want to have an opportunity to develop things that are safer both in terms of the critics and economically, where the risks aren’t as high, which will allow me to stay fluid and take risks. There’s a guerilla spontaneity that you get from that. And theatre used to be produced like that. It really was “Let’s put on a show,” and every once in a while it would really hit and one would last down through the ages and we still look at it now. That’s the environment I want to be in when I’m writing. I don’t think I’m the perfect candidate to be writing monster hits. Although I wouldn’t mind having one and I’m not actively trying to avoid it. But I also think it’s pretty unhealthy creatively to be lunging for that. I’d rather just work with what is organically coming out of me. Those are the choices I’ve made.
FJO: Now, The Light in the Piazza is technically a Broadway musical. The Vivian Beaumont is considered a Broadway house even though it’s at Lincoln Center, which I guess makes us think of it as somehow peripherally removed from what we think of as the commercial world of Broadway. But, beyond that special relationship, is it possible to do something for the commercial theatre that is both aesthetically challenging and financially rewarding?
AG: Yes, it’s possible. Have I done it? Not yet. Do I want to do it? Yes. Do I think it’s important to know how to do it or to accomplish that? Absolutely. I don’t know if I’ll accomplish it. The Princess Bride is my next show. It’s a commercial property. It’s well-known and well-loved, and I’m not going to ignore people’s expectations of what they want to see in a stage adaptation of that movie. I’m going to try to satisfy them and subvert that at this same time. At this time in my career, I’m willing to give that a try, to really respect the fact that this is a really loved commercial property and also ply my craft and try to further my craft in the process. I’ve got a lot of stuff in the can; about half of the score is done already. I am going in the direction of what we’re talking about. At least I’m giving it my best attempt to find that sweet spot again.
FJO: So Princess Bride will be done on Broadway?
AG: I don’t know. We don’t even have a first draft yet. We’re going to do a reading in three months, and we’ll see what we have; if we have the tone and the structure, if it’s the joyful ride that we think we’re building, we may have a shot at it. We’ll wait and see.
FJO: You say you really want success.
AG: Let me make sure that we don’t operate from a false premise. I’m not specifically trying to have a success, but I’m trying to satisfy expectations and further my work at the same time, to bring those two things together. If I do that, it very well may be a success. But I can’t operate from thinking of success first; I have to operate on a creative success level.
FJO: So is that success more than just the show, does it extend to the songs having a life beyond the show, having songs performed by other singers or jazz artists, and ultimately having the household name status that a George Gershwin or a Richard Rodgers had once upon a time? People don’t seem to know the names of the people writing for Broadway these days.
AG: I think that’s true. But I think it would be incredible if that could happen again, and I do want it to happen because it’s about distribution. I would love it if more people knew about what I’m doing. I write for others. I’m not someone who writes for himself. Those are often artists of great integrity, but I’m not one of them. Sure, I write for myself, but I really want to give it to people and give them something they can take home. So there are a number of songs already in the new score that I have a sense could transfer very nicely or cross over into other formats and be covered. I thought that before, and it hasn’t really happened. Although Audra [McDonald] is releasing a new album called Build a Bridge, which is from Myths and Hymns, and on it she also does the song “Dividing Day,” which is from Piazza. And Fred Hersch is on there. It’s fun. It’s pretty out there. So I don’t know. I have to put telling stories for the stage first, and then any ancillary benefits will be happily accepted.