Frank J. Oteri: It seemed that when all the great musicals were being created, American opera was at a low point. And, now in the last twenty some-odd years, opera has gained a lot of momentum in this country, but the momentum in the world of musical theatre has waned somewhat.
Adam Guettel: What about Menotti and Barber and Carlisle Floyd? A lot of those things were being written when the so-called American musical heyday was going on.
FJO: Some of Menotti’s works were even done on Broadway. The Saint of Bleecker Street was a Broadway show! But the walls were a lot more porous then. There were also works by Broadway composers that aspired to the condition of opera, like Porgy and Bess or even The Most Happy Fella, which now get done in opera houses. Where do you see yourself on the continuum from musical theatre to opera? Would you write an opera?
AG: I think it’s a continuum. I would love to write an opera. And I think the next thing I do after Princess Bride will be through-composed. But I’ll avoid the word opera because I want to tell compelling stories, which means avoiding what has come to be seen as opera, certain clichés and conventions such as a very emblematically told story, something that is so distilled into emblem that you really don’t have any sense of reality. It’s really fancy and metaphorical. There’s no naturalism at all on a psychological level a lot of times. That doesn’t interest me. I’d like to tell something that is psychologically gripping but also make full use of the expressivity of the human voice, which is something I can’t always do in the theatre. In The Light in the Piazza, I did it to some extent, more than often happens in musical theatre, and I got some flak for it. I think that for the most part, though, people thought, “Yeah, you can sing like that, and it’s not un-hip or off-putting; it’s actually expressive.”
FJO: That’s because it worked dramatically for those characters to sing like that.
AG: It depends on the story you’re telling. Content dictates form. And that will be true for the kind of story that I choose to tell for a more through-composed situation.
FJO: Now, another key difference between those two situations. In opera, it seems like the composer is god.
AG: It must be nice. [laughs]
FJO: But in musical theatre the composer is just another member of the team.
FJO: As a result of that, something that people in the classical music world find odd is that most musical theatre composers don’t orchestrate their own music. I know that you had a hand in orchestrating The Light in the Piazza, and you’ve written pieces for orchestra, but you also frequently turn the work over to someone else.
AG: More and more I’m orchestrating. This new show I’m orchestrating, and I write in a pretty fluid way, as far as orchestration. Even when I create something from scratch, I have a sense of instrumentation going. And that, I think, is very important for my work because that’s what people are going to end up hearing, so to me it isn’t enough to just generate a lead sheet or a melody and some chords. There are so many things that can completely reorganize that and give the audience very different cues and associations. The use of the harp in The Light in the Piazza is something we had to carefully monitor so as not to tip into Esther Williams land, but keep it European and swirling and use it for all the great things it can do technically. To me, orchestrating is very much a part of what I do now, as I go along. I don’t know if I’ll go backward in that respect.
FJO: Well, in that respect, it’s interesting to compare Piazza to Floyd Collins, which you didn’t orchestrate. Floyd Collins has such a home-grown sound, and its instrumentation is extremely specific, in fact it is decidedly not orchestral since an orchestra would be inappropriate for referencing the sonorities of the pre-bluegrass, old string-band roots music of Appalachia.
AG: That was a method composing experience for me. I learned to play the guitar while I was writing that show. The first song I wrote was “The Ballad of Floyd Collins,” which has like five chords—maybe only four—and a very simple picking pattern. And the last song I wrote for that show, I think, was “Lucky,” which has got all kinds of things going on. I had to know the characters pretty well and the vernacular pretty well to get to a place that was that harmonically involved, especially through string-band stuff like you said. I’m glad you make that distinction, because Floyd really is based on research that was done in earlier music than bluegrass or country; it’s not a country show.
FJO: I remember the first time I heard it thinking that maybe you were adapting old folk songs, but it is all your original music.
AG: I’m so glad you feel that way.
FJO: But the sound world is so different from Piazza because the way this music is shaped by its orchestration.
AG: The story makes me do that. It insists. If I had to go back to the same tool kit every time, it would be depressing. And that’s why it takes me a long time to write a show, because the first year is figuring out what’s in the new toolbox. What does this role sound like? How do these people express themselves through music? Piazza sounded like Piazza for obvious reasons as far as the romanticism, the ornateness, the filigree. And The Princess Bride is driving, swashbuckling, and comedic, and uses a completely different set of tools. It actually took me about a year to get started putting things on paper because I wanted to know those tools I had chosen were right for the story and those characters.
FJO: Myths and Hymns sounds the least Broadway-esque of any of your shows. There are even things that sound like R&B and singer-songwriter material. But so much other music has crept into your vocabulary beyond the canonic Broadway vocabulary in all three of these shows.
AG: In a way I would hope that the slimmest sliver is the canonic Broadway sound in a certain way.
FJO: But it begs the question, aside from writing these shows, what other music do you do, have you done, do you want to do?
AG: I just met with Helen Hunt about scoring a movie that’s she’s written and is directing in the fall, and that’s something I’m looking forward to. I’ve done a lot of scores for documentary films and I enjoy that. I enjoy responding to a picture. I enjoy not having to come up with it all myself, to just respond. It’s a great way to jog my habits and jostle that sort of muscle memory that you get into that can stagnate you. So I always enjoy the film stuff. And Bob Hurwitz, who is the head of Nonesuch Records, asked me to do a solo record, which I intend to do and have about five or six songs ready for as soon as I have a chance. As soon as I can focus on that I would like to because I love to sing and I love to play. It’s a different format. It’s more personal. And being in the studio is such a fantastic environment; it suits my brain. I love being in the studio. And when I’m writing for the theatre I’m usually writing in the studio also. So to make a solo record would be a big interest of mine. I don’t have a lot of interest in writing abstract music for symphonies or choral music. I don’t think I really have the chops as a composer, not without a story to tell, or something really groovy going on behind me. Those are the things that motivate me.
FJO: It’s interesting that you lump choral music with symphonies as abstract. Choral music has words too, so doesn’t it also tell a story?
AG: It can, but there’s an aspect of abstraction to it. I don’t gravitate toward it. I don’t feel that organic emotional connection with music with a capital M. I like stories to go along with it.
FJO: After hearing the octet in the second act of The Light in the Piazza, I was wondering what you might write for chorus.
AG: Well, as a matter of fact, The Princess Bride has an enormous part for the ensemble. In my previous work I did not really have a chance to dig into that, and The Princess Bride is a great opportunity to for a number of reasons, and so there’s a lot of stuff there for the ensemble, which will be sixteen people. So if I keep my head together you may have what you’re looking for.
FJO: So, while you are working on a show, how much rewriting happens? Are there things that get cast out? What’s your writing process?
AG: Well, it depends on the show and on the collaborators and on the time constraints. We threw out forty-five minutes of music in Piazza, some of which was right down the middle sprechtstimme—angular taking off from Rake’s Progress sort of recit—for some of Margaret’s associative internal dialogues. Like when she discloses the information about Clara in the show. There are entire versions of how that was disclosed that were all sprechtstimme, very thorny stuff. And I was really into it while I was doing it. But I had no trouble throwing it out because it unbalanced the show. It probably took the audience in the wrong direction. It was very good for Margaret’s character in an isolated sense, but in the larger composite sense it didn’t really help things, so out it goes.
FJO: That’s a real opera vs. musical theatre distinction here. You rarely would ever want to slow down the pace in a musical.
AG: You can’t really afford to do that in some cases. The audiences have different expectations of how time is meant to pass. You can sometimes afford to do that in an operatic setting—and this is speaking very coarsely and very broadly—because things are so distilled and emblematic. Once you violate time and have the pleasure of hearing an aria in an opera, it represents quite a lot and can be elongated for that purpose. And around it, you sort of limit the points where you have to have recit getting you from place to place, but I want to investigate that relationship. It has to do with the density of ideas. But if it gets in the way of that you just can’t have it. And it’s not hard to cut because you want the show to be better. It’s a pleasure.
FJO: So your ego is taken out of the equation even if you think it’s the best music you’ve ever written?
AG: It really does. Because while this was not necessarily the best thing I’ve ever written, it was the most adventurous in some ways and for me was very forward-looking in terms of the technique of recitative. How do you create intriguing harmonies and harmonic environments that speak of or support the emotions that are in play without slowing things down too much? Those things are really fascinating to me and I want to look at them, but it wasn’t the time and place.