Life & Culture

Interview: Adam Guettel

Sondheim loves him — find out why


If you don't know Adam Guettel's name, that's not too surprising. His work has not been performed on a major stage in London. But among those who love their musical theatre in New York, there is no one whose talent is held in higher regard. Except that of the greatest living composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. And even he counts himself as one of Guettel's admirers. So much so that Sondheim once cited a song from Guettel's first musical Floyd Collins (1994) among those he wished he had written. And as with Sondheim, Guettel also writes lyrics and music.

Guettel's reputation is in inverse proportion to the amount of his work that has reached the stage. There have been only a handful of shows. But feel the quality. In 2005 The Light in the Piazza won him two Tony Awards, one for the score, the other for the orchestrations. His work has some of New York's hardest-to-please critics grasping for superlatives. Some of it will be heard next week in London when he and Maria Friedman perform together for the London Festival of Cabaret.

Guettel has an illustrious forebear - his maternal grandfather Richard Rodgers, who with lyricists Lorenz Hart, and then Oscar Hammerstein, composed some of the greatest shows in the canon, among them Pal Joey, Oklahoma, Carousel and South Pacific. And his answer to the hoary old question about why Jews are so over-represented in Broadway musical theatre?

"I really don't know." And then with an eloquence that has something of a Barack Obama address, he casually adds: "I think part of the Jewish tradition is to protest. And singing is a form of protestation. It is gestural by definition and to lift the voice into song is akin to making waves." This is as insightful a response as you are likely to get to this question. So the Jewish relationship with musicals is a little like the Jewish relationship with God to whom Jews are as likely to argue with as pray to.

Ask Guettel a question about which he has thought often and deeply, and you get a masterclass. Songwriting, for instance. What makes a good song? "The most important thing about a song is 'why should this be a song?' So many songs are written that really are not elevated into 'songness'. The idea is not compressed enough; it is not metaphorical enough, it is not 'songy' enough. A song that is meant to be a song justifies lengthening the vowel [and] lifting the voice into song. Otherwise, just speak it."

I do throw out most of what I do

It's beginning to become clear why Guettel has fewer shows to his name than you might expect at 49. It's not the work rate, it's the standards he sets himself. "I do throw out most of what I do because I'm adhering to the standards I was brought up in," he says. The bar was set high by his mother Mary Rodgers, who was and, now in her 80s, still is a composer. It was she, not Guettel's grandfather, who drilled him into being a perfectionist.

"Her standards were very high, and her teaching technique was brusque to put it mildly," he says. "It was along the lines of: 'You call that a melody?; that's not a satisfying chord; you're disappointing me there; that's not a song; that's not what a song is about; you're leaving us in the lurch; that's just like everybody else; that sounds like Sondheim; that sounds like your grandfather; that's not good enough.' What the best teachers do - and what my mother did - was connect me to the inner teacher. This is the teacher within us who knows that something is not yet good enough. She gave me that paradoxical confidence to listen to my inner critical voice. Not too much, but enough to make sure that my standards are high and that I work hard."

Guettel also played hard in his past. There were addictions and excesses with drugs and women. He was good looking enough for his early ambition to be a film star to be no bluff. Maybe he's putting some of that experience to good use with another show that he's working on. Called Days of Wine and Roses, it is based on the Jack Lemmon movie about alcoholism, although Guettel says it is really a love story about two people who have to overcome a brutal obstacle.

For his part, Guettel no longer drinks. He's getting married a few days after we speak. The bachelor party was very sober. "There were no whores, no cocaine. It was very boring," he reports in a dry, wry delivery.

"When people ask about that part of my life, if I have regrets and if I would I do things differently, well yes. To live a blameless and perfect life would probably be very nice. But I don't write about perfect people or winners. I rely on the anguish of addiction as it played out in my life for all my writing and not just Days of Wine and Roses. Because to live on the earth is a lonely and sorrowful thing and I need to be able to access that."

It's a little pat, and possibly true, to say that it wasn't only his grandfather's composing talent that was passed on to Guettel like a family heirloom, but a weakness for drugs and alcohol too. It says a lot about the man that he's managed to let go of one and hang on to the other.

Other than one time when he was on his death bed and Guettel was playing piano in the next room, Rodgers didn't hear much of his grandson's music.

But Guettel still carries the memory of a dream he once had in which he is hurrying after his grandfather to ask if Rodgers thought he was any good. Rodgers had by now entered a lift and as the doors closed he said to his grandson: "You have your own voice," which as any artist knows, is another way of saying "yes".

Adam Guettel is in concert and conversation with Maria Friedman at the Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2 on May 20 and May 21.

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