It is not exactly news that Adam Guettel is a composer of immense talent. The grandson of Richard Rodgers (one is required to note that when writing about Guettel), he has a transcendent melodic gift, and has written more than his fair share of gorgeous theater songs.
Alas, Guettel, at 50, has had only three shows produced: “Floyd Collins,” first performed at Playwright’s Horizons in 1996; “Saturn Returns,” a song cycle put on by the Public Theater in 1998; and “The Light in the Piazza,” the 2005 musical that won him a Tony for best score. (One hears that Guettel has had bad luck over the years with shows that never made it to the stage. How one longs to be able to hear all that unheard music!)
“Floyd Collins” never really got much of a chance in New York; my Times colleague Ben Brantley didn’t much like it, and it closed after 25 performances. But it has long since become a cult favorite among theater cognoscenti, and with good reason. It takes what would seem to be an unpromising premise and turns it into something beautiful.
Floyd Collins was a real person—a Kentucky cave explorer whose foot became trapped in a narrow crawl space underground in 1925. He lived for two weeks, stuck in that spot, as rescue workers frantically tried to get him out. It was one of the country’s first media circuses, which Guettel and his co-writer (and director) Tina Landau capture with both humor and horror.
More than that, it is a meditation on family, and on death. In “How Glory Goes,” the show’s last—and finest—song, Floyd accepts that death is imminent and asks the Lord what heaven is like: “Is it endless and empty and you wander on your own….or does rising bread fill up the air from open kitchens everywhere?” I saw “Floyd Collins” at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 1999, and I’ll never forget the sight of people so moved by “How Glory Goes” that they openly wept as they left the theater. I was one of them.
Although the song has been recorded by Audra McDonald and Kelli O’Hara, among others, I contend that it has never been sung better than by the original Floyd, Christopher Innvar. Here is “How Glory Goes,” from the Floyd Collins cast album:
This post originally ran on November 4, 2015.