Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins is an elusive musical: I consider Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza to be the finest musical of the past decade and travelled to Leicester to see the UK premiere when I should have been revising, but had never listened to this earlier work until this week. Prior to getting involved with this production, Robyn North was familiar with the piece, being a great admirer of Guettel who listens to her Light in the Piazza cast recording “religiously”, while it was entirely new to Glenn Carter. When he was approached for the role and given the music, he was particularly struck by the way in which “It has a very clear emotional line to it and it’s quite rare to have that kind of clarity; it’s not just in the music, but in the lyrics and script too.”
Both agree that the music is amongst the most complex they have ever learned, but North points out, “There’s always a reason why it’s difficult.” Carter elaborates, “Guettel writes very unusual rhythmic passages that recreate speech patterns. You’re forming thoughts as you go along in your speech, and he seems to be writing those kinds of rhythms when people are thinking and speaking and having general conversations. When it’s more declamatory, it’s a more melodic phrase. It splits up a narrative into almost naturalistic speech rhythms, which is very difficult to get under your belt, but once you get used to it, it makes perfect sense in the way in which the sentences are structured.” The cast are supported by “an eight-piece band, which is huge for a fringe production. It’s like having a folk band on stage and since it’s Kentucky in 1925, it’s proper country, bluegrass music, which is quite unusual for musical theatre. I hadn’t sung in that style before, but I love it,” says North. The technical crew have also been hard at work exploiting The Vault’s natural echoes with the echoing passages in the music, all of which are live.
Floyd Collins’s relative obscurity (the only other professional British production took place at the Bridewell Theatre in 1999) offers the freedom to approach the piece like new writing. North remarks, “We haven’t had to fit into a pre-existent mould and can discover it together as we go along.” As it’s one of the few musicals without a romance, North comments, “The love story is that of the family. Nellie and Floyd have an almost extra-sensory connection. They have a lovely big brother-little sister relationship. The way I’ve interpreted it is that Nellie has learning difficulties and I think he feels a special responsibility towards her.” Carter agrees, “It’s almost a spiritual connection. The father, stepmother and brother Homer are very industrious in trying to get Floyd out, whereas Nellie is with him emotionally to the last degree. When Floyd is on his own, it’s Nellie he talks about.”
Carter, who has played several real-life characters (including Tommy DeVito, Buzz Aldrin and Jesus Christ), is ambivalent about too much research and historical speculation and believes that engagement with the music and text and the chemistry amongst the cast is more useful. “I know Floyd’s story and all the details that I need to know, but as an actor, I’m playing the situations that are given to me, not trying to portray the ‘real’ Floyd Collins as I can only give an interpretation of how someone from that particular background might have reacted in that particular moment. If you enter rehearsals with an idea of who your character ‘should’ be, you’re shutting yourself off to discovery and using the chemistry.” Very little is known about Nellie, but North takes particular delight in having the chance to play a character with an authenticated date of birth.
Despite Guettel’s comparative lack of fame in Britain, Carter and North believe that if theatregoers are willing to take a chance, they’ll be rewarded by falling in love with the show. Carter claims, “There’s no better place, probably in the world, to see this show. It really is like being in a cave. I love fringe theatre because I love an audience to be very close. We’ve had a very safe creative environment in which to experiment. Derek Bond has created an amazing atmosphere, one that I’ve never experienced before.” North concurs, “Everyone involved is so passionate it’s tangible.” She points out that time to see a production in The Vault is limited as Southwark Playhouse is scheduled to move at the end of the year. “It’s cold, damp and dark. And it’s perfect.”
Floyd Collins plays at Southwark Playhouse (The Vault) until March 31st 2012. For more information and tickets, visit the website.