The Light in the Piazza: A Rough Guide for the M.D. Part 1: Landmarks of Guettel’s style

July 15, 2014




Adam Guettel is, for my money, the most compelling and fascinating musical theatre writer working today. I will not go into his incredible heritage and background, others have done so extensively elsewhere. I’ll focus here on what I’ve found in playing and studying his music. Guettel writes very very little. We get only a show or two out of him every decade, which makes the collapse of The Princess Bride a real blow to musical theatre, since Guettel’s output is so spare. From Floyd Collins through Myths and Hymns to The Light In The Piazza, (the three projects of his which are generally available at this writing) Guettel has developed a deeply personal musical language characterized by these 5 features, among others:

1) An idiosyncratic piano style that often relies on figures that cross from one hand into the other, with the left hand often leading a rhythmic figure that washes up into the right in a frenetic flurry of notes. This feature of his work has precedents in Sondheim (Another Hundred People, Every Day A Little Death), Schwartz (West End Avenue, Meadowlark), and even Bach. (Bb major prelude, WTC book I) Guettel seems less interested  in working out every successive permutation of a cell of pitches than Sondheim and less interested in overt pianistic display than Schwartz. In Guettel’s work, it’s almost as though the piano is being strummed rather eccentrically like a guitar.  With a few exceptions that I’ll point out later in the guide, playing these figures in Guettel’s music seems almost improvisatory, a rhythmic activation of a harmonic idea using both hands actively across the measure.

2) An obsession with moving interior chromatic lines. Guettel’s harmonies are tonal, but they often move in unexpected ways, led by the most subtle ear for harmony active in musicals today. A careful listen to nearly every Guettel song reveals a bassline or interior moving part of the harmony that leads the chords in unusual directions. The bassline is often leading the charge into exotic harmonic territory. In a must-hear interview on Tim Sutton‘s excellent podcast “The Voice of the Musical”, Guettel explains:

“I played upright bass for many years, played out in clubs, and did that sort of gig for a long time, on the upright bass, and it gave me a really good training into not just the kind of harmonic relationships that exist under a lot of songs that one might hear in a jazz club or even at a wedding, because I’ve played hundreds of weddings, but also how to make a melody out of a bassline, which I think is even more important, that the root of the chord is not always the way to go, that to create something that is a kind of subterranean melody, that is almost as strong, if you can as the melody itself is something that can help to propel a song forward.”

This harmonic subtlety gives Guettel’s music a quality of melancholy and a rich and exotic flavor of the unknown. Several of my friends dislike Guettel’s music. Among these friends are some of the best musicians I know, who say they can’t follow where Guettel is going harmonically. In the same interview I quoted from earlier, Guttel has mentioned that his late mother Mary Rodgers critiqued his early work:

“… a melody has to have some opposing energy and something unexpected about it, it has to lead the harmony, it has to be able to exist on its own, and it has to come home, and take us back to where we’ve come from. And some of these things I now observe more in the spirit of them, rather than the letter. I don’t always return to the same key, but I’ve held on to some of those basic precepts.”

Guettel is one of the few composers working in musical theatre who uses voice leading to take the music to unexpected directions, with strong direction but very subtle inflection. I find this harmonic ambiguity refreshing, and I actually hear the influence of his Grandfather, Richard Rodgers. I imagine Rodgers would have been completely confused by the harmonic progressions of Dividing Day or Let’s Walk, but in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best work, there is often an interior line moving stepwise and driving the harmony in some aching and unexpectedly beautiful direction. Think for example of the chromatically descending bassline, harmonized in 10ths in This Nearly Was Mine, under the lyric “One love to be living for”, or the end of You’ll Never Walk Alone, “walk on/walk on/ with hope in your heart/ and you’ll never walk alone…”, driven to the climax by an interior line that begins on a G, the fifth of the first inversion tonic chord, then rises a half step at a time to A, then dropping back down to G to climb by half steps back up to C. I don’t think Rodgers was working that out intellectually, but intuitively; whenever middle-period Rodgers is looking for that big emotional payoff, he finds an interior chromatic line, in a kind of distillation of his fanciful chromatic excursions with Hart. Guettel is taking that aching ambiguity a further step, to the point where the key destination becomes unclear. I think this is the key ingredient of that exquisite, painful ache of his music, and where Guettel leaves behind those with more conservative harmonic palates.

3) A Sondheimian and certainly Stravinskian use of collections of pitches in varied phrase lengths for rhythmic interest. His debt to Sondheim is well established, and he has expressed his admiration for Stravinsky in interviews. From the same interview I quoted earlier, he says:

“The way in which I’ve really been influenced by [Stravinsky] is phrasing. He invented… a kind of phrasing which has a circularity to it where he’ll lay out, I guess what we would call a cell, or a motive, or something, and start to break it into its component parts, in terms of its clauses, it’s musical clauses, and mix them and match them, and repeat little parts, and then go the whole way through, and then turn them upside down. He took melody and he created sort of like a living room out of one melody, where you knew all the furniture, and it just kept getting rearranged, and that fascinated me, and I think it’s applied sometimes in my music.”

We find this way of constructing music all over Floyd Collins. I can’t resist drawing a line between Stravinsky, Sondheim, and Guettel, because it makes my meaning clear, (and is just really fun)

Here is a passage from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire Du Soldat (1918). It was hard to find an easy-to-understand example of Stravinsky’s rhythmic game-play, but you can find it in virtually any of his scores, especially in The Rite of Spring or any pieces he wrote in the period immediately following.

Stravinsky Example












I hope you can follow this passage enough to understand what’s going on. I want to call your attention to the Double Bass (here marked Contrabasso and C.B). It’s laying down a little two note pattern, and that’s a very steady groove indeed; it keeps going even through multiple time signature changes. It’s essentially in 2/4, despite all that’s going on. Look at that Violin right above it. The violin has a vocabulary of a few little cells of notes: 1) a group of two thirds descending to a single note. 2) A shuffling little sixteenth note passage alternating thirds and single notes on the bottom. And then 3) a figure that opens from a third into a 7th, then another set of falling thirds, this one starting on D and F, leading the first time to another instance of the first cell of notes again. Notice how sometimes the first group happens on the G in the bass. Sometimes it happens on the A. Sometimes there are two little 16th note chunka-chunka things following the first idea, and sometimes only one. A new idea shows up in the middle system that is followed by the first cell of notes transposed up a whole step. At the bottom of this excerpt, there’s a long third, which unexpectedly turns into the third cell in another rhythm, but maybe you didn’t notice, because by that time the bassoon has popped himself in and has started his own game with little cells of notes. In your music textbook, you may read that Stravinsky ‘liberated’ rhythm from the tyranny of the barline, whatever that means. I don’t know if he liberated rhythm as much as he found a new way to use it through re-arranging bits of it. What he’s really doing is using groups of notes in a sort of collage fashion, or like a fun-house mirror. He gives you enough regularity to think you may know what is supposed to come next, only to give you something you may recognize, but exactly in the way you would never have expected. For the game to work, you have to recognize the pieces, expect them to fit one way, and then be delighted (or infuriated) when the pieces turn out to fit some other way.

Now compare a familiar passage from Into The Woods, in which Sondheim uses a rising cell of notes cell of notes, C,D, and F, with a culminating high note on G:

Into The Woods Example




We’re in 3/4 time here; the first cell begins on 1, the second cell begins on the & of 2, and then the release of the G falls on 1 of the next measure. The 3 against 2 pattern is felt as a little hemiola, and the repeated Ds in the next measure feel like 3/4 time again. The third measure of this phrase starts the same way, and then gets stuck bouncing back and forth between the top two pitches of the cell before releasing to the G. This establishment of a musical motif, and then the subsequent fracturing and reassembling in different parts of the barline is a legacy not only of the musical modernism of Stravinsky, but also the similar games played by Gershwin and others. Think of Fascinatin’ Rhythm, Anything Goes, Puttin’ on the Ritz, or The Wrong Note Rag, to name only a few examples of repeated patterns working against the grain of the meter to accent and syncopate the melody. It’s impossible to separate what comes from Jazz, what comes from the Modernism of Art Music, what is the legacy of popular song, and what might even be found as a part of the Ragtime aesthetic, but Stravinsky looms large in the background, especially when the composer seems to be truncating or extending the phrase length to keep the listener off-balance.

It’s fun to look at this bit of Floyd Collins in light of the Sondheim I’ve just discussed, because you could nearly sing the Sondheim lyric to it:

Floyd Collins Example 1






It’s a half step higher, of course, but here Guettel takes that C,D, F pattern, culminating in a G, and plays the game in 4/4. The repeated notes are here at the beginning, and the 3 note cell is at the end of the measure, beginning on the strong beat, 3. The next time the cell happens, it’s on the weak beat 2. Are we in 4? I wonder if we don’t hear it as a bar of 2, a bar of 3, another bar of 3, and another bar of 2. Without any accompaniment to anchor it, we’re left with a very strong pulse, a clear sense of the collection of notes in play, and a very weak sense of how many beats are in each bar. That’s both Sondheim and Stravinsky.

The Stravinsky element is also here in Piazza.  I’ll indicate those moments as I go.  Let’s get back to Guettel’s stylistic markers. Directly related to that use of phrase length is:

4) The extension (lengthening) of passages the second or third time through for emphasis, development, or to add excitement. We find this in Saturn Returns and Floyd Collins, but in The Light in the Piazza, the device is used in every number, excepting the scene changes. This device is incredibly effective and simple in construction, but often very very difficult to learn and memorize, because for many moments there are two variants that need to be performed correctly and in the right order, or you will wind up ‘taking an offramp’ to a road that doesn’t exist. I’ll clarify that later. Another composer might modulate into a higher key to add punch; some composers lately seem to modulate every 4-8 measures. Guettel rarely modulates passages up at the end of a song, instead he draws out some passage by adding new music and heightening the tension that was already there the first time through.

5) Extended use of Vocalise– (passages using Ah or Ooh or other vowels, melody without lyric) When one hears Guettel himself perform his material, one senses that these extended wordless passages are a central part of the composer’s personal style of expression; in his voice, they sound completely effortless. When these passages are notated, they often look like a thorny bramble bush of notes. I don’t know about Guettel’s process other than that he writes all the music first; only applying words at the end. He evidently had nearly an entire score of music for The Princess Bride before the project was scuttled, but he had not begun to write the words. I can’t imagine working like that, but that process certainly accounts for the originality of his musical expression; writing words alone, one easily drops into a rhythmic syntax that results in square phrasing musically. Music without words is free to find its own expression without any regard to the limits of obvious sentence structure and poetic meter. I wonder whether Guettel’s wordless passages occur at points where he is unable to craft words that match the emotional state of the characters. Normally in a musical, there are two levels: 1) dialogue, and then 2) song when dialogue is not enough to express the idea. In Guettel, there is yet a third level, where the song reaches a point at which the words themselves need to be jettisoned to make the point; words are no longer expressive enough. In The Light In The Piazza, this device of Guettels is put to a further use, because when our couple leave words behind, they are finding the point of connection beyond common language, which they don’t share. This point is made explicit in Say It Somehow, which is an entire scene and duet about that concept.

These characteristic qualities of Guettel’s music make for a very heady theatrical experience, and many listeners can’t come along for the ride. After one talk back, a gentleman came up and asked me why modern composers had abandoned melody. I told him I found the show full of melody, but that melody was clearly a matter of personal taste. He was ready to argue the point; he had heard no melody the entire show. Other patrons mocked the Ahs, saying “Oh, there they go, ahhing again.” One set of patrons openly speculated that the music had been written by students. If you program this very difficult show, be aware that the part of your audience that isn’t completely swooning might very well be totally baffled by this music. These are intelligent and cultured people, mind you. They just don’t find his musical argument compelling. But Guettel’s voice, surely one of the most original and compelling in the theatre today, must be programmed regularly, so our audiences can begin to address the work on its own terms.

In my next post, I’ll go into greater detail about this specific show, and I think I may have found a few things that may even surprise people who know this show extremely well. Stay tuned!




One comment

  1. Fabulous blog. Thanks Peter! Of course, I was pulling up You Tube videos to hear the harmonies you were speaking about. I had no idea that Guettel was a Rodgers. From South Pacific to A Boy From … to the Piazza. Beautiful music! (OK – A Boy From… is just total fun). Totally bummed out about The Princess Bride – his music would have been wonderful. Did it recently get scuttled again because I know the powers that be were putting it into development again?

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