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Eschewing the 'Spam,' Tony voters go 'Light'

June 06, 2005|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

Score one for the ability of Broadway to take itself seriously.

In the Tony race for best original score, the top contenders generally were thought to be "The Light in the Piazza" by Adam Guettel and "Monty Python's Spamalot" by John Du Prez and Eric Idle. Guettel and "Light" won, even though "Spamalot" took the best musical prize.

"Light" -- or at least Guettel's contribution to it -- isn't especially light, at least not when compared with most of the hit 21st century musicals.

The score's unabashed romanticism probably would have pleased Guettel's grandfather, Richard Rodgers. That some of the lyrics are in Italian, befitting the story's setting in '50s Florence, is another token of Guettel's unwillingness to make standard concessions for the sake of accessibility.

By contrast, the "Spamalot" score is breezy nonsense. It's at its funniest when it's mocking Broadway musical pretensions in the mock-power ballad, "The Song That Goes Like This." A victory for the "Spamalot" score would have been a triumph of Broadway self-cannibalization.

Not that everyone would have bemoaned such a verdict. For all its purity of purpose, "The Light in the Piazza" hardly drew uniformly rave reviews.

Guettel's music and lyrics "juxtapose exquisitely sophisticated art songs with slushy soap-opera sentiments that trap the demanding melodic lines in the package of a bodice-ripper," wrote Newsday's Linda Winer.

"Guettel's modish music is the show's fatal flaw," wrote the New York Post's Clive Barnes. Ben Brantley of the New York Times found some of the songs "simply lovely" while also "very irritating."

Yet Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal called the score "a shimmering evocation of Italian sunshine, dappled with touches of sorrow" and the show itself the best new musical in nearly a decade.

Guettel never expected everyone to adore "The Light in the Piazza." In a 2003 interview in American Theatre magazine, he allowed that it might be "more appealing to a broader audience" than his previous work but added: "There's plenty in there that people will say is, well, elitist. For classical music nerds. Solipsistic. Not easily metabolized."

In a Los Angeles Times interview last year, Guettel said he didn't see "serving a more narrow audience as a bad thing. The challenge is to keep on going. It's like holding a candle in the dark."

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