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Unearthing One Man’s Purgatory : The creators behind ‘Floyd Collins’ tap into the dark side of American musicals for the tale of a man buried alive and the ensuing media circus.

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

In the winter of 1925, a Kentucky spelunker named Floyd Collins went searching for a hidden cave to turn into a tourist attraction--but what he really wanted to find was a ticket out of his hardscrabble and dreary farmer’s life. While making his way through the dank passageways beneath the earth, he got stuck in a narrow tunnel and, until his death 15 days later, remained trapped more than 150 feet underground.

Rescuers from the National Guard and the Red Cross, among others, were summoned. And as the story got out, scores of reporters, miners, pilots and filmmakers swarmed the site. Then came the looky-loos, as well as the barkers hawking their wares, and the con men.

“Man Trapped in Cave!”

“Rescue Shaft Nears Victim in Cave’s Grip”

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“Rainstorm and Cave-Ins Delay Work on Rescue Shaft”

“Collins Is Yet Alive”

“Hope Rises Only to Fall in Race to Save Collins”

“Collins Found Dead in Cave”

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Headlines screamed as the man’s precarious situation lingered on. A nation hung on every word. And so the spectacle continued, many decades before baby Jessica McClure fell into a West Texas well in 1987. Indeed, the sad story of an otherwise undistinguished farmer’s son has held a place in the history books mostly because it provoked what became the first in a long line of media frenzies. Thousands of others may have perished in fires, floods and other calamities that year, but Floyd Collins captured the country’s imagination. And the cause of this collective empathy has as much to do with journalism as it does with human nature.

Monumental catastrophes are, after all, virtually incomprehensible. It is the trauma of the individual that allows us to imagine ourselves in his place. Indeed, that’s what Aristotle understood when he wrote that the sense of recognition, and the identification of a theatergoer with a character, are essential to tragedy.

Years later, Collins’ misadventure still had resonance for composer-lyricist Adam Guettel and writer-director Tina Landau, co-creators of the musical “Floyd Collins,” opening Thursday at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. This production will mark the West Coast premiere of the piece, which first appeared at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia in 1994 and played off-Broadway in 1996.

While searching for a subject for a new musical, a brief account of the 1925 chaos caught Landau’s eye. “I came across it in [a collection] of Reader’s Digest ‘Amazing American Stories,’ ” recalls the quietly articulate artist, seated in an Old Globe rehearsal hall one recent afternoon. “It was just a paragraph, and it said the words ‘Deathwatch Carnival.’

“It described simply that there was a man who was trapped underground, and over his head arose the first great American media circus,” Landau continues. “I took the idea to Adam and he immediately said, ‘This is it.’ ”

Guettel and Landau were not the first to seize upon the saga of Floyd Collins. For instance, in 1951 Billy Wilder made a film inspired by the story, called “Ace in the Hole.” For Wilder, however, the victim was not the star. Rather, he focused on an ambitious reporter (played by Kirk Douglas) who exploits the hapless caver’s misfortune to advance his own career.

Yet for as much as the Collins spectacle foreshadows today’s news business practices, Landau and Guettel found themselves drawn more to Collins himself. “The thing that Adam and I responded to was simply an image of a man trapped,” Landau says. “That image is so haunting to people. What interested us is a man who believes he has the luck, who thinks he’s going to live forever, facing his death.”

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“Floyd Collins” uses neither fancy stage hydraulics nor elaborately clever set pieces to convey the simultaneous realities of a man stuck in an underground hole and the hubbub that arises above him. Rather, director Landau and set designer James Scheutte have opted for a more minimal approach, with the actor playing Floyd spending much of his stage time lying prone on a plank and using only gesture to portray his entrapment.

“Besides the magnitude and complexity of the music, the scene work is incredibly tensing, with all the panic, agony and different states of emotional decay that he’s in,” says Romain Fruge, the New York-based actor who portrays Floyd Collins. “It’s really been a process of learning to pace myself. I have enough claustrophobia myself that the horror of what this man went through is unthinkable. It’s the greatest challenge I’ve ever had: taxing, but really fulfilling.”

Context is conveyed largely through the sound design (by Dan Moses Schreier)--which included both rock slides and straining timbers when the show was seen in New York--and Guettel’s score. Mixing the vivacious energy of the mainstream musical tradition with an equally prominent mild dissonance, the composer also includes references to vernacular idioms such as bluegrass throughout the score.

Such a grim and static subject as the plight of the doomed Collins might not seem ideal raw material for a musical, yet it may be precisely the dark side of “Floyd Collins” that makes the work feel both archly American and particularly contemporary.

There has, after all, long been a dark side to the American musical. Certainly, it’s an essential component of pioneering 1940s works such as “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel"--both of which just happen to have been composed by Guettel’s grandfather, Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, who also penned the words for the similarly complex “Show Boat” he created with composer Jerome Kern. These shows were, in many ways, a prelude to the revolution wrought by Stephen Sondheim, in whose work darkness becomes even more interior and morally ambiguous.

In the past few years, moreover, darkness has come to seem an unavoidable aspect of shows about a younger America--as if the approaching millennium has prompted a need to reexamine our rosy hindsight about the last time a century was young. “Ragtime,” “Parade” and now “Floyd Collins” do not completely eschew nostalgia for the first few decades of 20th century America, but they do insist that we recognize the roots of current social ills (racism, anti-Semitism, media exploitation) in these times.

This more angst-ridden reviewing of history is one aspect of “Floyd Collins” that has won it fans. Playwright John Guare, for example, went to see the musical in the spring of 1996 and subsequently agreed to write the album notes for the original cast recording (Nonesuch, 1997).

“Floyd Collins,” he wrote, " . . . trusts its dreams, trusts its music, trusts its audience, trusts you, to follow it deeper and deeper into its dark territory there below the earth. As Stephen Sondheim musicalized the unexplored territory of modern neuroses to let us see ourselves, Guettel and Landau have dramatized the paradox of what it’s like to live in the most bountiful country in the world and at the same time be on the edge of an abyss that separates you from ever getting there.”

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Globe artistic director Jack O’Brien--whose theater is co-producing “Floyd Collins” with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia, where it was first seen--also points to the work’s underbelly.

“It’s a serious piece about very serious themes,” he says. “This is a provocative, creative attack on the material, the roots of which are very much in our psyche and national profile.

“This is a much more personal, subjective kind of piece,” O’Brien says. “It belongs in a more intimate space than the Broadway musical theater can supply. It’s the kind of work that I like to think theaters like ours, regional theaters, do best.”

The New York reception was mixed for the production of “Floyd Collins” that opened at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in 1996. New York magazine’s John Simon hailed “Floyd Collins” as “the original and daring musical of our day,” and the piece won Obie and Lucille Lortel awards. Other opinions, however, were respectful but equivocal. “If earnestness alone were what made a musical great, ‘Floyd Collins’ would be in the stratosphere,” wrote the New York Times’ Ben Brantley.

Then again, it should also be noted that expectations were running particularly high during the 1995-96 season, which also included both “Rent” and “Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk.”

That “Floyd Collins” may well have been overshadowed is another reason for this second staging, which boasts most of the original creative team but an entirely new cast. “This piece . . . didn’t seem to be a delivered hit, the kind that would take care of itself,” O’Brien says. “I’m hoping this will rectify that.”

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Guettel, 34, was born and raised in New York. He sang with the Metropolitan Opera and other companies as a boy, and moved into playing bass in jazz groups as he matured.

New York-born Landau, 36, is the daughter of two film and television producers. As a child she went often to the theater--including many Broadway musicals--and the family moved to Los Angeles when she was 14.

The pair met when they were undergraduates at Yale, and they first collaborated when Guettel wrote a song for a revue that Landau conceived and directed. After graduating, Guettel wrote theater pieces and several one-act operas, as well as scores for film and television. Landau made her mark primarily as a director. They’ve also worked together on occasional projects.

A tape of an operatic version of “The Christmas Carol” that Guettel and Landau did for Trinity Repertory Theater caught the eye of American Music Theater Festival co-founder and producing director Marjorie Samoff, who commissioned a new work from the pair. In 1991, Landau began to hunt for a subject knowing only that she wanted something set in the U.S.

“I somehow got it into my head that I had to do something American,” she says. “I had just traveled in Greece and France and had talked to a lot of people that I felt were knowledgeable and passionate about their history. And I was [thinking] I know nothing about anything that’s happened in this country before one moment ago.”

Once she and Guettel decided to do the Collins story, the duo launched into a year of research. They traveled to the cave country of Kentucky to get a better feel for the place and its people, and even interviewed some of Collins’ distant relatives.

Guettel also used the time in Kentucky to soak up indigenous music from the region. “It was very important to me to be mindful and respectful of it,” he says, speaking by phone from his Vermont studio, before joining Landau in San Diego for the last phase of the rehearsal period. “When I first went down and went caving, I listened to a ton of it. I bought some tapes and did some musicological research about hill music.

“Once that initial phase was over, I felt I had given myself the background information, had fed those sights and sounds into my heart,” he says. “But, I wasn’t out to copy that style.”

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If truth is stranger than fiction, it is also harder to stage. Early on, Guettel and Landau felt an obligation to represent the events as they actually happened. “I wrote something at the very beginning about how this story is so amazing that I vow to tell it exactly as it happened, out of respect for those people and what happened,” Guettel says, not without rue. “And that was our first draft: a long, boring, undramatic documentary.”

“Because so much of the piece is about the media’s distortion of the truth, it became important to us that we didn’t do what those reporters did,” Landau says. But as the collaborators worked, their original intentions began to brush up against complicating factors. “We got as many newspaper accounts from the period as we could, which we quickly discovered all contradicted each other.”

“Floyd Collins” premiered at the American Music Theater Festival in April 1994 and was generally well-received. But Guettel and Landau knew then that they had more work ahead.

The co-creators were beginning to recognize that the imperatives of historical truth might be at odds with their dramatic interests. “Neither of us had done anything like this before, where we were writing something from historical material,” Landau says. “The journey we’ve taken has really been about reaching a point where we said we have to make this ours. What does it mean to us? Whose story is it? What’s the point?”

Between Philadelphia and New York, Guettel and Landau made major revisions. But first came a change of philosophy. Initially, the collaborators tried to give equal time to various points of view. “When we first started working on it, we had four things we wanted it to tell, story-wise,” Landau says. “One was Floyd, another was his family. Then there was the story of the press. And the fourth story was sort of the confrontation between the locals and what they called the outlanders, who were the men who came in with technology and engineering to save Floyd by machinery.

“We started off thinking we could tell all four of those stories equally,” she says. “That’s really where we had to make the adjustment.”

The solution was as close as the story itself. “Floyd’s father wants the family to work the land above, the surface of the earth, and cover lots of distance and expand his farm horizontally,” Landau says. “And Floyd had this vision of going to one place and going deeper and deeper. And I remember the day that I realized that’s what we have to do: Stop trying to cover everything and follow Floyd.

“At one point, we were going to call the piece ‘Deathwatch Carnival,’ and we changed it to ‘Floyd Collins,’ which is not as colorful a title. But it reflects the shift we made from trying to create the entire kaleidoscope to focusing on the man.”

Not surprisingly, it took more than a nip and tuck to accomplish this change. Landau and Guettel cut a major character, reworked the carnival and the chorus of reporters and made many other changes in the book and lyrics.

In fact, “Floyd Collins,” which had once been conceived as an entirely sung-through musical, became much more a book musical, with sections of dialogue playing an increasingly prominent role.

“We did come to realize that the tone that the story naturally set needed to be obeyed,” Guettel says. “As we got to know the material, we felt that there was something inorganic about having people sing through everything.

“In some stories, that feels right. But there’s something about this story and these people that was gritty,” he says. “This is a very poor part of the U.S., and the texture and quality of that life felt such that we needed to have people speaking. Also, it takes a really long time to express ideas when everything’s being sung, and that only works with certain kinds of stories.”

Musically, the most significant change was in the opening segment of the piece. “I wrote a 25-minute segment at the beginning that was all sung, which was very detailed and naturalistic,” Guettel says of his first attempt. “My idea was to have Floyd be singing what he would be thinking all alone in his private universe.

“What I tried to do was set up the whole show: not just Floyd’s character, everything,” the composer says. “So he was down there having an anguished, free-associative time by himself. But the thing it didn’t do well was let us know what Floyd wanted.

“The rewrite was about making it clear what he wanted. I wrote only music for that: a focused, rhythmic cohesive piece that was probably 10 minutes shorter than what we had before.”

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Guettel and Landau have spent eight years, on and off, on “Floyd Collins,” which makes them now roughly the age of the caver when he met his untimely death. Yet unlike their protagonist, they are both poised for promising futures.

Both are working on new musicals with other collaborators, and while neither is involved in a project that draws on historical material like “Floyd Collins,” they’re likely to use the lessons they’ve learned in other kinds of work. The fundamental issues, after all, are about artistic license and the moral imperatives of storytelling.

“My understanding of the methods has changed,” Landau says. “I don’t think that it’s dramatically feasible, necessarily, to amass the facts and tell them in order. I do think one has to go through the multitude of facts and events and shape them somehow.

“I couldn’t even say I have a rule for where to draw those lines,” she says. “It’s a moral imperative that lives inside, something that you’re constantly gauging.”

“We were true to the spirit of the story, but not the letter,” Guettel adds, “and true to the spirit of the [Kentucky folk] music, but not to the notes.” *

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* “Floyd Collins,” Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends March 21. $23-$39. (619) 239-2255.


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