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Film at 11, Musical at 2

How does the stage musical version of The Light in the Piazza compare to the 1962 film?

By New York City
Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison inThe Light in the Piazza(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison in
The Light in the Piazza
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
To see or not to see the film source of a new musical before you see the musical itself? That is the question! When I'm in my sixth-row seat at the Beaumont to catch The Light in the Piazza and I see Victoria Clark walk onto the vast thrust stage alone, I'm already disappointed at librettist Craig Lucas and director Bartlett Sher. I wouldn't be had I not finally got around to watching my tape of the 1962 movie version three hours before.

The movie has given me definite opinions about Mrs. Johnson, an American in Florence, and her 26-year-old daughter Clara. Alas, at the age of 10, Clara was kicked in the head by a pony, and she hasn't mentally developed beyond that age. Mrs. J. will never forgive herself for not being around when the accident occurred, so now she never lets the girl out of her sight. Throughout the movie, you'd almost think that mother and daughter are Daisy and Violet Hilton. So why is Victoria Clark entering alone?

When Kelli O'Hara's Clara does show up some moments later, unchaperoned, I'm again disappointed in Lucas. The dialogue that he's given her doesn't remotely suggest a 10-year-old girl, and I can't help comparing this Clara to the innocent that Julius J. Epstein wrote for the screenplay. Too many minutes pass in the musical before Lucas establishes the young woman as a naïf: He puts her in an art museum, where she sees a statue of a naked man's torso and touches its penis in wonder. Finally, my disappointment in Lucas abates, because this scene is not in the movie. (It may be in Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novel, but I haven't read that, and now I'm wondering if I should have.)

My disappointment returns when I find that Lucas's Clara speaks unlike any 10-year-old I've known. She says "He couldn't look me in the eye" when it seems that Fabrizio Naccarelli, the young man with whom she's quickly fallen in love, no longer wants her. Later, Clara tells her mother, "Daddy doesn't love you. Look for once in the mirror." Again, these lines could have come from Spencer's novel, but they aren't in the movie -- and they sure don't sound right to me.

To be fair, had I not seen the movie, I wouldn't have so much appreciated a scene that Lucas greatly improved from the film. The movie has Fabrizio's father take a look at Clara's passport, close it in disgust, and then start talking in Italian to his son. It turns out that he no longer wants Fabrizio to marry Clara. Mrs. Johnson intently scours the passport for the information that gave away the fact that Clara is brain-damaged, but she can't find it. (By the way, what's bothering the Naccarellis is something that was a genuine problem in 1953 -- when the novel, movie, and musical are all set -- but today is no longer remotely as big an issue. When Naccarelli comes clean in the musical, the audience titters in gentle derision.) Wisely, Lucas doesn't use a passport; instead, he has Clara fill out a bureaucratic piece of paper on which she writes the information that unnerves the Naccarellis. Mrs. Johnson wrongly guesses that Signor Naccarelli discerned Clara's developmental disability because of her still-childish penmanship. This is an improvement because it makes things more interesting.

But I wonder why in some scene -- any scene -- in the musical, Lucas didn't include an important observation that Mrs. Johnson makes in the movie, or why Adam Guettel didn't set it as a song. In the film, Mrs. J. fully admits -- or rationalizes -- that mothers like to have little girls and that, considering Clara's condition, she'll never lose the child she has. A song on this theme might have been one of the strongest moments in the musical. (This theme is related to that of the lovely ballad "Stop, Time" in Big: How parents essentially lose a particular child every time he matures into a "new" one.)

Of course, I didn't spend the whole time wondering whether or not a theatergoer is placed at an advantage or a disadvantage by seeing the Piazza film in advance of the musical. After all, I had Adam Guettel's score to consider. He does write beautiful music -- which, ironically enough, doesn't necessarily mean that he writes wonderful songs. I'm not speaking about his lyrics here but, rather, about the way that Guettel structures his music. (I'll admit that, for better or worse, I like more conventional theater writing, though I adore plenty of songs that aren't A-A-B-A and/or 32 bars.)

I wasn't at all consternated, as so many people were, by Fabrizio's first song, "II Mondo Era Vuoto" -- which, as the title implies, is sung in Italian. "Clara" and "piazza" are the only words in this song that most of the audience will understand, but do we really need to hear in English exactly what Fabrizio has to say? Considering that he just met Clara, what else can he sing about but how beautiful she is. (This is a definite love-at-first-sight occurrence.) Sure, he could sing "Your lips, your eyes, your cheeks, your hair, are in a class beyond compare; you're the loveliest girl that one could see." But those lyrics were written 90 years ago, so we don't need to hear them again.

Seeing the film before the musical allowed me to have an opinion of both Olivia de Havilland's Mrs. Johnson and Victoria Clark's. Each is terrific. I've been a fan of Clark's since she was a rookie: I saw her in Jack Lee's Musical Theater Workshop, where she gave a terrific rendition of "The Woman in His Room" from Where's Charley? She's been great in all of her Broadway supporting roles, but now she reaches her apotheosis in The Light in the Piazza. Her body language is so eloquent in letting us see who this Southern gentlewoman is; Clark lightly presses her hand flat above her breasts to signify her demure side and fiddles with her beads to express her nervousness. When Mrs. Naccarelli goes to kiss her, she doesn't know how to handle all this emotion and says, for want of something better, "Oops!" -- another nice touch on Lucas's part.

Victoria Clark in The Light in the Piazza(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Victoria Clark in The Light in the Piazza
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Through most of the musical, Clark maintains an obviously diplomatic smile; as a result, it's a huge relief at the end of the show to see her let loose with a gloriously genuine smile, her first of the night. By then, she has proved that although her face may be that of a character actress, she has a leading lady's soprano voice. She also has a great way with a line. When fate seems to be pushing Clara towards marriage, Clark movingly asks her husband, "Why can't we hope for once?" (More credit to Lucas: This line is also not in the movie.) And she's great when she doesn't have lines, such as in the scene wherein Mr. Naccarelli finally says what's bothering him; Clark displays the conflict of wondering if she's said too much already or if she should say more. She's also greatly accomplished in the way that she works with the audience, waiting just the right number of seconds for our laughs to subside before proceeding with her lines. She's equally faultless in how she makes us listen: How quiet the house is when she pauses before divulging the ever-so-important information that "Clara is a special child."

Now that Victoria Clark has mastered her portrayal of a Southern woman, let's see her as a Northerner who could put those little Dixie Belles to shame. In other words: How about Clark for the upcoming revival of Mame? If she does it, I know that's one movie I defnitely won't watch before I catch her at a matinee!

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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