Floyd Collins was premiered at the American Music Theater Festival in 1994 and subsequently enjoyed a short run at New York’s Playwright’s Horizons in 1996 where it received the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. It has since been produced in San Diego, Philadelphia and Chicago and has emerged as one of the key musicals of the 90’s.
Alongside Michael John LaChiusa (Hello Again) and Jason Robert Brown (Songs For A New World, Parade), Adam Guettel is one of a new generation of American musical theatre composers who seem set to move the art form beyond the doldrums of the mega-spectacle or compilation show and ensure its health as an intelligent and challenging form of entertainment into the next century. This is all the more appropriate when one considers Guettel’s pedigree as the son of Mary Rodgers and grandson of one of the genre’s masters, Richard Rodgers.
The show is based on a true story. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries the Mammoth Cave was a huge Kentucky Tourist attraction. Many local landowners were anxious to discover other caverns which might rival it in popularity and, therefore, money spinning potential. In 1917 Floyd Collins discovered the Crystal Cave on his family’s land. The cave was very beautiful but too remote to prove a success. Eight years later, while exploring on a neighbouring farmer’s land, he came across Sand Cave but, on his return to the surface, his foot became trapped by a fallen boulder. In the ensuing media hoopla, 30,000 people descended on the area. Guettel and Landau’s show sets this media circus against the increasingly desperate and futile attempts of Floyd’s rescuers, many of whom seem more concerned with their own gain than with the plight of the man at the centre of the whole affair.
Guettel’s music employs guitars, fiddles, banjos and harmonicas. His lyrics have a conversational, slightly homespun quality which matches Landau’s dialogue and seem entirely in tune with the piece’s characters. Much of the show’s power derives from the contrast between the harsh lives of the Collins family and the brashness of the world which briefly envelops them at a time of tragedy.
The authors take care to ensure that the audience really get to know and care about these people. We sense the reliance that Floyd, his brother Homer and sister Nellie have on each other. Their mother has died and their father remarried a woman who loves these children but can never really be more to them than a caring aunt. One senses both his sense of guilt and her pain at her inability to reach them.
There are many telling details – Nellie has had some kind of a breakdown; the intensity of the children’s relationship at times seems almost incestuous. A brilliant lyrical touch is to have all three occasionally abandon words altogether and fall back on the wordless cries that children use to express the most basic emotions – joy, terror, love or pain.
Guettel’s music is challenging but brilliantly tailored to its subject. Much of it is very beautiful. There are gorgeous harmonies in the brothers’ Daybreak and The Riddle Song, Nellie’s Through The Mountain is both lovely and haunting and the melody of final number, How Glory Goes, lifts the evening to a stirring and uplifting finale. By contrast the vaudeville of Is That Remarkable powerfully invokes the duplicity of the media who prey on the victims of disaster and tragedy.
The quality of the performances match the material. Nigel Richards, Craig Purnell and Anna Francolini are terrific as the Collins children, Jeremy David is impressive as Skeets Miller, the local reporter who actually interviews Floyd in the cave. Although his story is syndicated to 1200
newspapers, he is eventually appalled by the way that the victim’s plight becomes secondary to the media’s thirst for a good story. Jill Martin is particularly moving in the role of Miss Jane, Floyd’s stepmother, as she tries to hold her increasingly warring family together in the midst of a crisis she cannot fully comprehend.
Clive Paget’s production and Louise Belson’s clever set allow the material space to breath while revealing its every nuance. The piece is not perfect – the first act is overlong, particularly when set against the tautness of a second half which builds the tension almost unbearably as the carnival
atmosphere above ground is set against both Floyd’s growing terror and his siblings’ fear and confusion as even Homer finds himself marginalised in the attempts to rescue his brother.
The music is challenging, sometimes dissonant and will not appeal to everybody. One suspects that it rewards repeated listening, only revealing some of its qualities with familiarity. However there are many rewards for anyone prepared to make the commitment to a challenging evening – not the least of them being the opportunity to take a glimpse at the likely future of musical theatre.
– Mark Jennett