Sunday, July 14, 2013


If you've read my review of the original cast recording for Floyd Collins, it'll come as no surprise to you that I'm a huge fan of Adam Guettel. I firmly believe he's one of the greatest post-Sondheim composers. But something else inspired me to write a review of The Light in the Piazza. I just came back from a production at the world famous Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario and it simply left me speechless. Never has a musical moved me so deeply and purely. I've owned and listened to the cast album for a long time, but that was my first live encounter with the show. Hence why I feel compelled to review this recording.

Light in the Piazza premiered on Broadway in 2005 and won an impressive six Tony Awards including Best Original Score for Mr. Guettel. It's also the last Adam Guettel musical to have graced the stage in 8 whole years. Piazza, also featuring a libretto by Craig Lucas, is based on the Elizabeth Spencer romantic novel and tells the story of Clara Johnson, a 26 year old girl with the mental development of someone only 10 years old after a childhood accident from which she suffered brain damage. While vacationing in Florence, Italy with her overprotective and emotionally conflicted mother Margaret, she has a 'love at first sight' with a local named Fabrizio. Though Margaret attempts to keep the two apart on account of Clara's condition, the strength of their love is enough to overcome the plethora of obstacles and emotional struggles each faces.

Guettel's lush, gorgeous, and effectively dissonant score draws heavily and primarily from the classical genre, and is written with a European sensibility that is very different from his usually very American work. Thought still very true to the style of song-writing that Guettel is known for, Piazza is certainly his most immediately accessible score, unlike Floyd Collins and Myths and Hymns, two excellent musicals that require time and care to truly appreciate. There is still a large amount of melodic and orchestral complexity to be found and this is an album that begs repeat listens not just because the songs are terrific, but because there's more to discover musically with every play of the album. Intricately woven and taut, but this music still soars.

The score for Piazza features a fair amount of songs written almost entirely in Italian, a brave and fascinating choice. However, these songs, sung so well by a cast led by Matthew Morrison as Fabrizio, are never unclear... they are beautifully acted, and can be followed and appreciated even without the visual component. Speaking of the cast, attention must be paid to them for so effortlessly and flawlessly handling what is easily one of the most challenging musical theatre scores in at least a decade. Guettel has never been known to write easy songs, but much of Piazza makes Sondheim seem like a breeze. Props to Kelli O'Hara, and incredible Victoria Clark, and Matthew Morrison, as well as the remaining cast and the orchestra itself.

Attention must also be paid to Mr. Guettel's astounding and gorgeous lyrics. A line from the heartbreaking song Dividing Day in particular is worthy of mention: "I can see the winter in your eyes". Out of context, some of Guettel's lyrics may seem odd or, well, unintelligent, but once you know the show and the plot, the "unintelligence" suddenly become flat-out brilliance.

And props to Adam Guettel. Floyd Collins and Myths and Hymns didn't garner him nearly as much praise and respect as he deserves. Light in the Piazza proves to the world that he is a force to be reckoned with. Only three musicals churned out over the course of nearly 20 years, but the term "Quality over Quantity" has never been more true. Listen to Piazza, Floyd, and Myths. Listen to the future of musical theatre.

Tracks Not to Miss: Victoria Clark's painful and hauntingly beautiful performance of Dividing Day, the intensely romantic Say it Somehow, the love-struck Fabrizio's Il Mondo Era Vuoto, and Clara's soaring The Beauty Is (with an incredibly addictive piano line).


  1. Victoria Clark is certainly of the highest caliber on this recording, and O'Hara sounds beautiful, but I was more impressed with the young Katie Rose Clarke who took over for Kelli during the Broadway run. Dividing Day is beautiful, along with the jaw-dropping Fable. But, there are also a lot of forgettable filler songs that throw the cast album off pace. Totally agree with most of the analysis, and I love this blog. I want to see a list of your favorite cast albums, I've made my own, but I've only got about 75 and counting. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you Brian! I have been planning on doing a list of my favourite cast albums, so that'll certainly be coming very soon.

      I agree about the preference of Ms. Clarke over Ms. O'Hara. The actor I saw as Clara at The Shaw Festival this past weekend was more like Clarke and I appreciated it. There's an innocence and an effective lack of polish vocally that works so well.

      Also, Fable is definitely worthy of mention. I'd never fully listened to that song until I heard Patty Jamieson do it at Shaw. I was sobbing. Now it's one of my favourite songs from the show, while before it wasn't.

      Thanks for reading! Please spread the word :)