Waiting for the Light to Shine
Barbara & Scott zero in on The Light in the Piazza and discover a singer-songwriter in movie star Jeff Daniels at Birdland.
There were years in the 1920s when Rodgers & Hart had anywhere from two to five new shows on Broadway each year. That kind of creativity, coupled with so much opportunity, provided an extraordinary learning curve. Guettel has no such luxury. He's written an intriguing failure that shows considerable promise even as it displays notable flaws. One hopes that Guettel will return with another musical very soon, and that he'll have learned some important practical lessons. Here are some that we offer to Mr. Guettel directly:
1) If you're going to adapt, find better source material. The Light in the Piazza is not very complex, nor can its themes really be described as universal. This is a musical about love and romance, so why wasn't there a wet eye in the audience?
2) Find a good lyricist and collaborate. Don't try to do it all. You wrote a couple of genuinely good songs for Piazza -- the final number, "Fable," gloriously sung by Victoria Clark, is the best of all -- but too many of your songs contain lyrics that don't fully blossom.
3) Don't write art songs for Broadway. Not even for Lincoln Center.
4) Make sure that the audience can hear your lyrics. A lot of people told us that they couldn't make out the Piazza lyrics. The problem could be with the sound design, but we don't think so; it's just that it's difficult to follow the through line of Guettel's meandering art songs. (See #3 above.)
5) Work with people who will be honest with you. Anyone who treats you like you're the Second Coming should be going.
6) Casting is vital. Getting stars is less important than getting the right people. Clearly, Guettel and his collaborators already understand this. In addition to a transcendent performance by Clark as the mother of a pretty but emotionally handicapped young woman, Kelli O'Hara sings beautifully and manages to skirt the fact that her role of the daughter is impossible to play as written. Matthew Morrison is appealing as the young Italian who falls in love with the girl and, as the members of his Florentine family, Mark Harelik, Michael Berresse, Sarah Uriarte Berry, and Patti Cohenour add spark and sparkle to the production.
7) Don't be a snob. Don't write for the approval of your friends or the intelligentsia. Write to be heard, to be sung in piano bars, to be revived. You can only be "one of the great young hopes of Broadway" (as per The New York Times) for a little while. After that, you are either a musical theater writer or you are not.
The Light in the Piazza is ambitious, serious theater. It's not easy to find such fare on Broadway, so we applaud Guettel, book writer Craig Lucas, director Barlett Sher, and Lincoln Center for bringing this new musical to life. The key to success, however, is being allowed to fail.
Jeff Daniels Conquers Birdland
Jeff Daniels is one smart movie star. He knew exactly what we, the audience, were thinking when he appeared on stage at Birdland with a guitar in his hands to perform an act consisting entirely of his own songs. He knew we were all surmising that he was just another in a long line of famous people who use their celebrity status to try to be something they're not -- in this instance, a singer/songwriter. Then Daniels dryly performed his first number, "If William Shatner Can, I Can Too," and we were his.
Offering a combination of surprisingly delicate blues guitar playing and quirky, indelicate comedy, Daniels puts on one helluva smart and funny show. The man sure knows how to title a tune: After delivering patter about how his wife of 25 years wins each and every argument they have, he tells us that his next song will be "If I Weren't So Stupid, You Wouldn't Be So Smart." He's got us laughing even before he starts singing. Danield talks comfortably and easily about his movie career. For instance, he describes in comic detail the great thrill he got when, playing the villain, he was killed by Clint Eastwood on screen. Then he performed a hilarious song about the experience, "The Dirty Harry Blues," doing a dead-on impression of Clint in the process.
One of the most appealing aspects of Daniels' onstage personality is that he knows who he is and he has his feet firmly planted on the ground. Having been in Hollywood for a good long time, he has nonetheless managed to keep a healthy perspective that's artfully displayed in one of his darkest comedy numbers, "Are You As Excited About Me as I Am?" This song about ego and celebrity takes no prisoners.
Peppered among his laugh-out-loud funny numbers are some tender blues songs, such as "Grandfather's Hat" and a love ballad that carries his wife's name, "Kathy." But, for the most part, Daniels offers a rich array of comedy songs that come out of real life and cover subjects ranging from road rage to aging. His style is laid-back, his guitar playing is superb, and his sense of humor is delicious.