FLOYD COLLINS is the somewhat notorious musical about a man stuck in a hole who dies. Three years ago the show fell down a hole caused by the demise of Kookaburra the National Musical Theatre Company when it too died. As such it has occupied a strange place in Sydney theatre’s imagination: the one that got away, the one that never was.
It also occupied a place in the imagination of Anne-Maree McDonald, the musical powerhouse who had been engaged as musical director of the defunct production. She loved the music and was determined to have it heard in Sydney. Somehow or other, this perfumed steamroller did just that - at City Recital Hall, Angel Place. She – with husband, former Opera Australia mover and shaker Stuart Maunder, through their company Meredith Shaw Pty Ltd – managed to assemble the original (stellar) cast and a scintillating mini-orchestra for the “one night only” event on Monday 3 May, 2010. It was a revelation.
The concert staging meant minimal props (a chair, a ladder), straightforward lighting and an onstage band of nine players: string quartet, banjo, harmonicas, guitars, electric keyboards, percussion and grand piano, conducted by McDonald. It also meant there was little to distract from the music and voices – and even less staging would have worked as well, given the necessary limitations on rehearsal and stage time.
Floyd Collins is by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau and when it was first staged, off-Broadway in 1996, it received a classic “mixed” response. Some critics loved it, others did not; it ran for just 25 performances yet won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, and the Obie award for the score. Watching and listening on Monday night the reasons for the variation in responses became apparent. To date his best known and most popular work is The Light in the Piazza, first staged in 2003 (Seattle) and on Broadway for 504 performances in 2005. According to those who’ve seen it, it’s a more mature and finished work – which you’d expect, quite frankly. But it doesn’t take away from his early achievement with this one.
Floyd is not Mary Poppins, despite the presence of James Millar (for long touted as Australia’s Poppins when the musical comes to Melbourne) in the supporting cast. Rather, Floyd Collins is a chamber piece, closer to opera than straight-up Saturday night coach party fare. It’s also musically ambitious and Guettel's first full-length show. In other words, it’s a young composer’s show – still experimenting, still developing yet full of beautiful musical ideas and originality.
The choice of the Floyd Collins story seems to be characteristic of Guettel’s approach to musical theatre. He doesn’t take the easy or obvious route and he loves to experiment with different musics. Floyd Collins (Peter Cousens) is the true story of a Kentucky man who, in 1925, went looking for a cave to rival the area’s great tourist attraction, Mammoth Cave. He found one but in doing so became trapped underground. Thanks to an enterprising young reporter, Skeets Miller, (Nick Simpson-Deeks) his plight captures the public imagination and also mass media attention: a scrum of reporters and photographers gather in a way that we recognize only too well in 2010.
Basing a musical on a character who disappears down a hole and remains there for the duration could be interpreted as either crazily foolhardy or wildly over-ambitious. Guettel and Landau pretty much solved the problem by focusing the action on events above ground – with his family and the media mob – and also having Floyd do the old fashioned but effective soliloquy whenever he has something to say. It also begins with an extended solo in which he establishes his happy-go-lucky nature, his hopes and also his joy at finding the cave that will give his dirt-poor family prosperity.
Peter Cousens sang the role of Floyd Collins with sweet-voiced innocence and bravado; the opening sequence culminates in an electrifying call-and-response as Floyd yodels into the cavernous darkness and waits for the echo. It’s a minor key yodel which instantly sets it apart from the usual Country style and signals that although the band features banjo, guitars and harmonica, this ain’t no hillbilly outfit.
Similarly when his sister Nellie (Trisha Crowe) and stepmother, Miss Jane (Queenie van der Zandt) harmonise on Lucky, it’s as if Emmy Lou Harris and Loretta Lyn had been let loose in Stephen Sondheim’s basement. The two voices soar and intertwine in music that is steeped in the American folk idiom while taking in influences far beyond. Magic.
As Floyd’s brother Homer, Michael Falzon (currently appearing in the West End and home just for this show) underlines why he is a bona fide international musical theatre star; his presence also served to prove how very good our homegrown talent is: the depth of talent in this company was tremendous. By the time they got to How Glory Goes it was clear that we’d seen and heard something special.
And that brings up the question of what next? I suggest that if Kookaburra had begun this modestly (in terms of $$$ expenditure) yet retained its ambition (in terms of musical and acting talent), it might not have disappeared quite so horribly down the plughole of cruel fate. With Floyd Collins McDonald and Maunder have adopted the Pinchgut model: the little opera company that could – and did.
Pinchgut, you might remember started up half a dozen years ago with the stated aim of putting on one musically excellent production per year of an opera (baroque) not to be found in the traditional repertoire. They started carefully and unpretentiously; financially shaky at first and then increasingly popular and assured as an audience began to build and anticipate their next moves.
Given the sheer excellence of Anne-Maree McDonald’s musical ability, passion and drive, it’s possible to see a musical theatre version of Pinchgut getting off the ground. Floyd Collins couldn’t find a large and popular audience in a month of Sundays, however, just as theatre companies stage Beckett, Pinter and more obscure yet rewarding and important works that we would not otherwise see, so too is there a case for work such as this one.
I hope McDonald and Maunder (and their terrific company) aren’t daunted by the ill-informed “review” in the local paper and actually do get down to working out how they can continue with the One Night Only Company. What we need is our very own Jeanne Pratt. Now there’s a thought.
Full cast: Peter Cousens, Michael Falzon, Trisha Crowe, Phillip Hinton, Queenie van de Zandt, Nick Simpson Deeks, James Millar, Peter Meredith, Elliott Weston, Andrew Conaghan, Phillip Dodd.