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Elizabeth Spencer and the musical adaptation of The Light in the Piazza

Tuscan romance

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The Light in the Piazza
Feb. 13-18, Progress Energy Center, Raleigh
Broadway Series South

"Sooner or later, you've got to confront the Italians themselves": Author Elizabeth Spencer, at the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • "Sooner or later, you've got to confront the Italians themselves": Author Elizabeth Spencer, at the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill

In 1998, Chapel Hill novelist Elizabeth Spencer was facing a tough decision: Who would she allow to adapt her novella The Light in the Piazza into a musical?

It's a good thing for Broadway she didn't base her decision on first impressions. If she had, composer Adam Guettel wouldn't necessarily have gotten the green light. "He seemed very eager about it, and he was a very attractive young man," she recalled of their first meeting, when we spoke last week. "But he looked much younger than he was, and I thought, 'He's too young to do all that.'"

A bit of research—and CDs of Guettel's unconventional music theater works Myths and Hymns and Floyd Collins, which won the Lucille Lorton and Obie Awards for best Off-Broadway musical in 1996—convinced Spencer to grant him the option.

As we said, good thing: The resulting musical was nominated for 22 major theater awards before winning six Tonys and five Drama Desk honors in 2005, including top nods in both competitions for best score and orchestration. New York Times critic Stephen Holden's review of the soundtrack called Guettel's work "the most intensely romantic score of any Broadway musical since West Side Story."

The touring version of the musical opens next Tuesday, when Broadway Series South presents The Light in the Piazza at Raleigh's Progress Energy Center.

From the diaphanous opening phrases of the overture, we know we've left the world of the conventional Broadway musical far behind. Guettel's score conveys a particularly shimmering suspense—and with it, a passion so intense that the lovers who feel it are compelled to doubt their senses. There's a tentative, haunting quality as the luscious strings and harp resist resolving into solid major chords. Though the music is seduced by beauty, still it constantly seems to ask, "Can this dream be believed?"

"Isn't that wonderful?" Spencer asked. "Because that's in the book, too. Though we're really worlds different from each other, he got it. That's the amazing thing. The music is just soaring; it just catches you up right away. It's almost miraculous."

Still, there were many obstacles in the work's odyssey from page to stage. Following its initial publication in The New Yorker, Spencer's novel was made into a 1962 film with Olivia DeHavilland, Yvette Mimieux and George Harrison. At the time there was interest in adapting it for stage. But when Spencer gave her agent a theatrical option on the work without a cut-off date and subsequently left him, he held up the stage rights to the work until he died—some 20 years later in the 1980s.

"I just forgot about it," Spencer said. Somewhere in the subsequent years, Guettel was looking for inspiration for a new musical work. His mother, Mary Rodgers—daughter of renowned Broadway composer Richard Rodgers—suggested Spencer's novel. In doing, the proposed adaptation came full circle. Guettel's grandfather was one of those who'd actively considered making a musical of The Light in the Piazza in the 1960s. The son would actually take it on.

By then, Spencer knew the drill with movie and theater people: "You don't get your hopes up. People take options on stories and then, for one reason or another, things don't get made. Adam couldn't find anybody to work with him on the book for the show and things dragged along for two to three years. I think he probably shelved it. But then he happened to meet up with Craig [Lucas, who wrote the musical's book], who had already read the novel. Then things really caught fire.

"Movie people don't tell you anything," Spencer noted, "they just buy the property and off they go. But Adam kept sending me things. UPS would arrive with a little package, and in it was a new song he wanted me to hear. He told me all the words to a new one in a restaurant in New York. He sang a new piece to me over the telephone."

Spencer downplays her feedback on the work in progress. "Since I'd lived in Italy, I had some suggestions on Italian culture, Italian manners. No matter how much you're impressed with Italian architecture or art, sooner or later you've got to confront the Italians themselves," she laughed.

Subsequently, Guettel lived for a season in Florence, where most of the novel takes place. Spencer believes his experiences there gave him the words for "Passeggiata," the song in which two lovers try to surmount the barriers of language between them.

The musical's first tryouts at Seattle's Intiman Theatre posed a different dilemma. "At first, Craig tried to bring up a lot of different moments in a number of very short scenes," Spencer recalled. "You can do it in fiction, of course, and in movies. But when you try to do that on a stage, it gets jerky. I sympathized with his problems. Finally, he was able to condense the work. The best example is a great long scene where the Italian family, the Naccarellis, are all together, instead of little [episodes] in different places."

With problems addressed, a New York run originally slated for three months stayed 15 months instead. The strength of the run—and its brace of awards—sparked a 25-city tour.

Spencer can't wait to see it again. She'll be in the audience on its opening night in Raleigh.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

Correction (Feb. 14, 2007): The relation of Richard Rodgers to Mary Rodgers and Adam Guettel was corrected.


Review

Pentecost, Burning Coal Theater—The metaphors begin with the unsturdy scaffolding the audience mounts on both sides of Robert John Andrusko's gritty set which depicts an ancient cathedral—and an eastern European country—under intense reconstruction and repair. David Edgar's script still gets preoccupied with the minutia of art history, analysis and restoration, and yes, Pentecost still overreaches when an improbably inclusive world of refugees devolve at points into political mouthpieces. Still, this thought-provoking work scores big when its characters contemplate the fragility of civilization's achievements in the face of injustice. Recommended. (Through Feb. 11.)

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