How Do You Write a Musical About Addiction? Adam Guettel Has Some Ideas | Playbill

Special Features How Do You Write a Musical About Addiction? Adam Guettel Has Some Ideas

The Light in the Piazza composer goes deep, and dark, in Broadway's Days of Wine and Roses.

Adam Guettel Heather Gershonowitz

Days of Wine and Roses is some of the most difficult subject matter Adam Guettel has ever chosen to make into a musical—and this is the same man who launched his theatrical career with Floyd Collins, a musical about a man who gets stuck in a cave and dies there.

“For me as a writer, what I can do is what feels like it has genuine energy that could perhaps even justify singing. That can’t be found completely on the rosy side of the spectrum,” Guettel says, speaking to Playbill in November while working on revisions for his latest musical’s Broadway bow. The work played an Off-Broadway world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company last year. It is currently in previews at Broadway's Studio 54, where the musical will officially open January 28 where it will play a limited engagement until April 28.

Adapted from a 1958 teleplay and the 1962 feature film by book writer Craig Lucas, Days of Wine and Roses chronicles Joe Clay and Kirsten Arnesen’s struggle with alcoholism. And the effects of that addiction on display here are a lot more than slurred words and broken promises. The plot has stars Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James in some of the darkest scenes of their careers.

But Guettel says that anguish, or rather where it comes from, is also what makes the story sing. That’s perhaps never more present than in O’Hara’s anthem sung early in the show, “There Go I,” which Guettel says was his attempt to musicalize what addiction tells its victims. It’s a haunting song about a quest for more, for a frustratingly unknowable goal that always feels just out of reach—and how that mystery can send you down dangerous paths looking for answers.

“I think that is the great howl into the cosmos that is always just about to come out of us,” Guettel says. “That’s what singing helps with, no matter where that howl is coming from.”

Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara in Days of Wine and Roses Ahron R. Foster

The song is also, like much of Guettel’s writing, not so easy to sing. He famously comes from a pretty esteemed lineage—Richard Rodgers was his grandfather, and Mary Rodgers his mother—but Guettel’s musical style sits decidedly outside the ‘40s hit parade oeuvre that kept tunes from Oklahoma! and South Pacific on the radio. His writing is somewhere closer to art song territory, but with a streak of pop that has helped it find a home in musical theatre (Piazza won Best Original Score at the 2005 Tonys). He’s known to pick unusual intervals and rhythms that stretch the abilities of even the most adroit singers—but there’s a reason.

“It's not that I deliberately write things that are hard,” Guettel explains. “I write things that I hope naturally and explosively are ecstatically emotional. That requires a certain level of technique.”

With James and O’Hara leading the cast, no one is worried about vocal technique when it comes to Days of Wine and Roses. “When I go back to Adam’s music, no matter what it is, I tend to feel like I was born to sing it,” O’Hara tells Playbill. She has a fair amount of experience singing Guettel's songs, having earned her first Tony nomination originating the role of Clara in Guettel and Lucas’ The Light in the Piazza. “It’s hard to explain, but it feels easy to me,” she explains, before admitting, “It sounds hard.”

Challenging music is in O’Hara’s wheelhouse. Though she’s made her career on Broadway, her training is in opera. She studied at Oklahoma City University with the late, great voice teacher to the stars Florence Birdwell, who counted such Broadway favorites as Kristin Chenoweth amongst her former students. O’Hara says that background gave her the toolset to rise to the occasion of Guettel’s music, no matter how tricky. And, she says, that’s what lets her gave her a home on Broadway.

Brian d'Arcy James, Kelli O'Hara, and Adam Guettel Heather Gershonowitz

“When I hear [a Guettel song] for the first time, I think, ‘that doesn’t make sense to my ear,’” O’Hara says. “And then I start to sing it. And I think, ‘Oh, that’s exactly what it should be. That’s what I’m feeling right now.’” Her ultimate goal is to get inside the character, to get to the acting. And, she says, the technique and the acting aren’t necessarily even separate goals. As O’Hara says Mrs. Birdwell often used to tell her, “If you mean it, the technique will fall into place.”

But that doesn’t always mean it’s easy, or even straightforward. O’Hara cites the Days of Wine and Roses song “Morton Salt Girl.” In the scene, Joe has encouraged Kirsten to come with him to AA meetings and work towards sobriety, which makes Kirsten feel abandoned. She sings: “What about the laughing? I want to laugh. Crazy, what are you afraid of? Is it living?”

To O’Hara, the “crazy” felt like the peak of emotion, both in terms of her interpretation of the words and in the music, which has O’Hara singing pretty high. Then Guettel came up to her at a rehearsal and pointed out that those measures were marked pianissimo, or extremely quiet. At first, O’Hara balked. “You’re like, ‘I made sense of it emotionally and vocally, and now you want me to sing it very quietly—way up high?” she remembers.

“I think the thing about Adam that’s different than a lot of composers is that he’s putting himself inside the character a lot,” O’Hara explains. “Most of the time, if he makes a choice about something, it is so pure and true to the sentiment—the character—that eventually, when I come around to what he wanted, it was the right choice. When there’s a melody that makes you feel a little bit unsure, I tend to realize after a while that it’s not vocally unsure. It’s human unsure. It’s how the character feels. That is wild. It feels like magic.”

Between the subject matter and his unique writing, Guettel says audience reactions to Days of Wine and Roses have run the gamut. He got to be at the theatre for many of the performances during the musical’s Off-Broadway run. Sometimes he overheard people dragging the show. Other times, he saw people leaving with tear-stained faces, people that often came back multiple times.

“It is sort of unforgettable,” Guettel says of the show. “That’s OK with me, if that’s all it ends up being: indelible.”

Photos: Days of Wine and Roses Stars Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James Meet The Press

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