The Light in the PiazzaIntiman Theatre

Through July 19.

It's one week before the first preview of The Light in the Piazza, the new musical by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas, which is receiving its world premiere at Seattle's Intiman Theatre--the first musical production in the theater's 30-year history. After a 2002 workshop at Sundance Theatre Lab and weeks of rehearsal in Seattle, the primary work of the show--learning songs, designing sets--is largely done, leaving this afternoon open to exploration of the small stuff.

In a large Seattle Center studio, director Craig Lucas and choreographer Pat Graney are working through a dialogue break in the duet sung by Light in the Piazza's young lovers--Clara, a mysterious young American woman, and Fabrizio, her Florentine paramour. With an easy back-and-forth, Lucas and Graney consider the lovers' every gesture--who touches who first? where?--with a precision that ignites the scene (in the first bloom of love, every touch is a symphony) while honoring its source material.

First published in the New Yorker in 1958, Elizabeth Spencer's The Light in the Piazza was soon hailed as a short-fiction masterwork, a sumptuous tale of an American mother and daughter's romantically complicated Italian sojourn rendered with an economy, grace, and wit that endeared Spencer to generations of readers. Among them was Adam Guettel, the acclaimed young composer (and grandson of Richard Rodgers) whose mother directed him to Spencer's novella in 1998.

"I was looking for a vessel to express the sound of being in love," explains Guettel, 37, who arrives during a break in rehearsal. "I went into this field [musical theater] because I wanted to express emotions beyond 'I'm in love, I'm in lust, I want to get laid, I'm over you.' I wanted to use music to express more." Guettel found what he needed in The Light in the Piazza, especially the character of Clara, whose mysterious naivety, so mourned by her mother, appealed to Guettel as a romantic ideal. "Clara is a version of myself," Guettel says. "A pure version. Where I've become calloused, by shame or regret or narcissism, she remains pure."

The musical Piazza took a great leap forward when Guettel joined forces with Craig Lucas, author of such celebrated works as Reckless, Prelude to a Kiss, and Longtime Companion and associate artistic director of Intiman, who signed on as book-writer--and eventually director--for the project. Lucas was an admirer of Guettel's 1996 off-Broadway musical Floyd Collins (based on the true story of a Kentucky spelunker fatally trapped in an underground cave) and was quickly drawn in by the Piazza novella. "Adam entered the story through Clara's head," says Lucas. "I was more interested in her mother, Margaret, the type of 1950s woman who went to Radcliffe, then got married and made quiche. There was something in her that I hadn't seen dramatized--the difficulty in letting go of one's child."

The next year and a half brought Piazza's Sundance workshop, followed by final casting and the start of rehearsals in Seattle, where Guettel and Lucas enlisted Graney to help bring Spencer's dark, witty romance to theatrical life. "It's not so much dancing as staged movement," says Graney of her work in Piazza, her first foray into musical theater. Known for her poetic explorations of pedestrian movement, Graney says she's spent most of Piazza's rehearsal process "cutting back superfluous movement, while keeping the natural movement habits of the actors."

"Fairy-tale naturalism," Adam Guettel calls it. As rehearsal resumes and the actors playing Clara and Fabrizio review their blocking, I see what he means. Spinning out of close, idiosyncratic dialogue, the lovers' voices soar beyond each of their languages, joining in music that is classically, unabashedly romantic.

Which brings up the task set before The Light in the Piazza: enchanting an audience of strangers, night after night, on the heightened level of the musical. When I ask about Piazza's secret in casting its spell, Lucas' response is immediate: "It's Adam's music. The first time you hear it, it's something special, and it stays special. It's extraordinary."

To his credit, Guettel refuses to jump through hoops to "entice the contemporary audience." "Engaging in that game, with irony or whatever, won't draw in anyone new, and will only make those already on our side suspicious," says Guettel. His defensiveness is understandable, but he quickly drops it for the plainspoken romance that is at the heart of his new musical. "Falling in love takes us back to that pure place that Clara inhabits," Guettel says. "Hopefully, Clara awakens that version of ourselves which some of us pine after. That's the bet. That's the great gamble."

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