Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Buried alive: The musical
Actually it's called Floyd Collins. But essentially that tag line sums it up. Or it could be called "Media Circus" the musical (hey, someone should write that. I want a credit though). My theatre company begins rehearsals for this musical next week. It will perform Sept. 12 and 19 at 7:30pm and Sept. 13 and 20 at 2:00pm at the River Arts Center in Prairie du Sac, WI.
Floyd Collins premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights' Horizons in NYC. (I've mentioned it before-home to the beginnings of some phenomenal works of theatre). It was written by Adam Guettel, who later won a Tony for best score for The Light in the Piazza, and Tina Landau, a Steppenwolf company member. Floyd Collins is a true story about a man who became trapped in a cave in 1925 and started a media frenzy as his friends and family fought to get him out. The story itself is rather complex but fascinating, so I'll send you here to read about it in detail if you wish. What I want to discuss is what an innovative piece this show is.
Lets start with the subject matter. Here we have an event that, while very well known at the time, has been nearly forgotten. To top it off, we have the fact that the event is pretty morbid and dark...a guy getting trapped in a cave? My theatre has wanted to do this show for many years and I've spent those years enduring very skeptical gazes from people who I explain the show to. I also get a lot of "Oh, sounds like a happy family story!" We'll get to that in a moment because in fact it IS a family story, if not happy...but I find it interesting that people get wierded out about the subject matter even though musical theatre has been attacking wacky ideas for years: A barber kills his customers and his girlfriend bakes them into pies?(Sweeney Todd-1979) Two New York gangs are rivals to the point of rape and death? (West Side Story: 1957)Several people await torture and possible execution in a basement during the Spanish inquisition (Man of La Mancha: 1965)? I wouldn't call these happy family fare either, but since they've established themselves as classics we let it slide. Then we have the newer stuff: A soldier in Vietnam falls in love with a young prostitute and leaves her behind at the fall of Saigon. (Miss Saigon, 1989). A man steals a loaf of bread, serves 19 years and then spends decades outrunning the authorities for breaking parole. (Les Miserables, 1985)A scarred phantom terrorizes the Paris Opera House. (If I have to tell you which one I'm talking about here, abandon all hope...but I will tell you it debuted 1986.) Look at these subject matters separate from the titles and see what your first response would be if someone told you they wrote a musical about them.
Musical theatre knows no bounds these days-just in this blog I've talked about musicals dealing with murder, prostitution, statutory rape, Siamese twins, robbery, the devil, and psychotic, sadistic Roman emperors. So now we get to one about a guy who gets trapped in a cave.
Floyd Collins works on many levels, not the least of which is its ability to tug at heart strings by bringing a rich life to Floyd's family and the people who cared about his entrapment. To make the show work we spend as much time with those affected by the tragedy as we do with the victim. Also, the story attracted a phenomenal amount of attention because of the humanizing of the man who was trapped by a young reporter named Skeets Miller. Miller is a prominent character in the story and he serves as sort of our Emcee (Cabaret) or Balladeer (Assassins)...he is our link to the action while also a part of it. This perfectly symbolizes the role he played in the actual tragedy. While other members of the media exaggerated the story like crazy, Miller kept it real and kept the story coming straight from the horse's mouth.
Then there is the beautiful score. Guettel has taken the style of the era, a folksy, bluegrass sound, and infused it with a musical theatre style. Folk music is much about telling stories (A folk song called "The Death of Floyd Collins" has been recorded about a zillion times)and so Guettel and Landau use this device as part of their means of communication. It is simply brilliant. Then of course you have the phenomenal use of the echoes Floyd encounters in the cave...when he finds the spot he believes opens up into a large cavern, he begins to yodel, and a phenomenal cacophany of echoes begins. One of my favorites is "Is That Remarkable?", a song markedly different in style from the rest of the score because it depicts three silly reporters exaggerating Floyd's story. The song features incredibly intricate harmonies and a vaudeville-like style that plays up the ridiculousness of claims made by the press at the time (such as that the rock that trapped Floyd weighed 7 tons, when in reality it was only 27 pounds). While it's a great song, it is also genuinely funny, proving that Guettel and Landau understand that their audiences need the comic relief.
I could go on and on until your eyes bleed so I'll stop now. If you're in the Madison area, and I may shamelessly plug my theatre for a moment, I suggest you come and see this musical. It is a true gem of the musical theatre genre and the opportunities to see it will remain few and far between because of the complexity of the score, the difficulty of casting it, and the fact that just not enough people know about it.
Music Theatre of Madison: Tickets to Floyd Collins
Roger Brucker, expert on Floyd Collins (who will appear in Madison for the show)
A tripod fansite on the musical
Scott Miller's interesting essay on the musical (see my post from May on Randy Newman's Faust for more about Scott)