Theatre: Knowing a hit from a hole in the ground

With the true tale of an American Dream betrayed, Adam Guettel is set to reinvent musical theatre. And so he should be. He's Richard Rodgers' grandson.

In the winter of 1925, a Kentucky spelunker name of Floyd Collins went burrowing in search of the American Dream and never made it back to the light. Somewhere between the Great Crystal and Sand caves of Edmondson- Hart County was the cave of caves, the biggest and best in the region. He would find it; he would claim it; it would bear his name. Tourists would flock from far and wide to see it. They'd pay good money. This was it, his ticket to a better life. And the tourists did come; the media, too. But only after Collins became trapped by a rock-fall 200ft below ground and spent 15 long days dying before anyone could reach him. Some dream; some death.

And maybe now it's sounding familiar, maybe now you can recall the 1951 Billy Wilder movie, Ace in the Hole. Wilder turned his cameras on the media circus, the feeding frenzy, the scoop-hungry reporters, the small- time hacks with big-time ambitions, the hawkers who sold balloons and picnic lunches to the 20,000-plus spectators. And meanwhile, quite literally beneath their feet, Floyd Collins wasted away - another of the little big people who never quite made it to the bounty. Anonymous until they chronicled his death. Good morning America. Welcome to the Deathwatch Carnival.

"Deathwatch Carnival". That was the original working title which writer Tina Landau and composer/lyricist Adam Guettel borrowed for their musical, Floyd Collins - a remarkable little show that first saw the light of day at the American Music Theatre Festival, Philadelphia, and was subsequently developed at New York's Playwrights' Horizons, where it picked up a clutch of awards back in 1995. A recent US tour brought further developments in the material and still more adulation, and next week it wends its way into London's Bridewell Theatre.

It's a small show with a very big reputation indeed. Landau and Guettel - who first met at Yale University - were reminded of the Floyd Collins saga by a Reader's Digest article entitled "Deathwatch Carnival". The Billy Wilder movie immediately sprang to mind, but so did the idea that Collins was "happiest underground", that he and the land that claimed him were somehow one. Landau and Guettel decided to go for bold, to turn the carnival in on itself, to shift focus from the media circus to Collins, to somehow get inside his head and heart. Family and friends reside there, of course, but essentially he's on his lonesome. It's just him and us. Underground. In the Cathedral of his dreams.

Collins answers the call of the wild in the soaring melismas of Kentucky hill music, and the echoes make for a haunting counterpoint: "The sound of voices all around/ That's the sound of Glory after all." And that's the sound of Guettel's beautiful score, which somehow honours its ethnic sources whilst taking them places they've never been before.

Guettel was halfway through Floyd Collins when he realised that music theatre was where he wanted to be. Given his prior resistance to it, this was a big moment. But there was good reason for his resistance. Guettel is the son of Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers, and when you've grown up in the knowledge that your grandfather was probably the greatest popular melodist that ever lived, then you're halfway to a major inferiority complex.

Guettel was only 15 when his grandfather died, but he remembers him at the piano, his right hand working overtime searching out those inimitable melodies, lots of octaves, the middle fingers picking out rudimentary harmony. A great melody implies its own harmony - that was something he passed down to Adam through his daughter, Mary. And she was no slouch as a composer/ lyricist, either. She, too, picked up on the principles of good songwriting and passed them on to her son. The principles of tension and release; what a good theatre song can do; how melodies might best be encoded with the relevant emotional and narrative information.

Mary Rodgers is still there for her son. She likes where he's going but is a reminder of where he's come from. Many's the time she would say to him: "That's not a melody - you've left me hanging - bring me home...". He didn't always obey her advice, but he's learnt from it. Guettel's musical background was as a rock band bass guitarist and then jazz bassist. He has a great voice which ranges high and free - just like his melodies. But sometimes it's quite a circuitous journey to that perfect end cadence.

"Yes, I tend to compose through my voice, and that can be a liability. In Floyd Collins, the melismatic curlicues of the writing were very much a part of that time and place. I wanted to capture the nasal, flinty quality of bluegrass music and I wrote down every last note."

That in itself is amazing since most of that score, especially the country scat, sounds like it's been created in the singing of it. "But lately I've been heeding my mother's advice that simple is good, and just because I can sing all that fancy stuff doesn't mean I should impose it on my listeners - or my singers!"

Singers like Teresa McCarthy and Billy Porter, who are among the voices around which his latest opus, Myths and Hymns, was fashioned. Two of their numbers - "Migratory V" and "Awaiting You" - go way above our heads, but in the best sense. Potential classics, both. But what is Myths and Hymns beyond a collection of myths and hymns made songs? A song-cycle. How come it played the Joseph Papp Public Theatre masquerading as Saturn Returns: a Concert? Guettel explains that at one time he experimented with wrapping a dramatic narrative around the songs, only to find that it raised more questions than it put to rest. Like what is it that constitutes a piece of music theatre?

Guettel finds that a tough one to answer. "Just being in a room with a bunch of musicians is music theatre. What can I tell you? It's a feeling. A set of dynamics. A specific kind of energy. The songs of Myths and Hymns are guided by the principles of storytelling and character, but there's no plot. They are their own plot."

And the plot according to Adam Guettel thickens. In 1990, he was recipient of the prestigious Stephen Sondheim award. Which begs another question: does he worry about commerciality? "The auto-pilot response to that question is that I see it as my job to write the best stuff I can, to screw down my nuts and bolts as tightly as I can so that the piece has integrity, come what may. But yes, I do worry that I won't be afforded the opportunities to see my work performed because I'm not commercially viable. So far, because of my family - I'll admit it - doors have opened for me. But I do worry about reaching people. I like to feel that I can persuade my audience to make the leap of faith with me, I like to feel that I can take them somewhere new with each project."

Like Broadway? "On", not "Off", this time. Guettel's next project sounds sufficiently high-profile. Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) is writing the book. Based on a New Yorker short story entitled "The Light in the Piazza", this, says Guettel, is a piece about love, the courtly myths and realities of love, and it's "stringy, lush, passionate", leaner melodies, more ornate support, a full pit-band for Broadway, maybe a piano trio for the road.

Right now there's a healthy spirit of renewal abroad in American musical theatre. Guettel believes that a more positive attitude from the American media has encouraged a lot of talent driven underground by the financially prohibitive Broadway scene of recent years to return to the surface. There's plenty of new work in progress. Though he still thinks it incumbent upon the writers to excite the public's imagination. Not even Richard Rodgers' family - especially not Richard Rodgers' family - gets dispensation from that particular obligation.

In preview at the Bridewell, London EC4 (0171-936 3456) from tomorrow

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