Floyd Collins, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, is a musical about historical figure Floyd Collins and his tragic death in exploring the caves of Kentucky. It is a truly beautiful musical, ranging from bluegrass music to passages reminiscent of Bartok and Stravinsky. I have a lot to say about it, but one thing that burns in my ears and affects me every time it occurs is a musical exchange that happens between the beginning and end of the show.
When the show begins, Floyd has a rather large monologue/musical scene where he is exploring caves. He uses a special yodel-call to measure the dimensions of the caves. He determines he has reached the perfect cave because his yodels echo back to him - and he begins to sing with them. One of the only instances of electronics effects being used in a musical, "The Call" has an extended sequence where the singer sings to their own voice on a loop-pedal. Layering upon itself, the echoes intensify but never overwhelm - a completely consonant exchange.
In finding his perfect cave, Floyd has found his dream. He wants to call it the Great Sand Cave and create a tourist attraction, gaining wealth and security for his family.
Important to note is that Floyd's brother and sister are pursing similar dreams. Nellie's hopes are to support and love her family, but ultimately have caused enough stress to put her in a mental hospital just before the events of the musical (she is released at the beginning). Floyd's brother, Homer, is a traveller and comes back to town soon after Floyd is trapped in the cave driving a brand new car.
The family is divided into sky, land, and earth. Nellie is the 'dreamer' - with metaphors of dreams, the sky, and the clouds in her characterization - and she is never let into the cave. Homer travels - (Oddessy much?) - and only briefly enters the cave, while also being tempted by Hollywood producers to enter the realm of fame (I'd say a similar ethereal realm of sky). And Floyd works in caves and, ultimately, does not survive them.
All of this comes to a head in the next to last number in the show - "The Dream." Floyd, having been trapped for days, begins to lose hope about his rescue. He wakes up from a nap and sees Nellie, who tells him they've finally freed him. Homer shows up in his new car and informs Floyd that the cave is now set to be a tourist attraction and everything is set. Nellie and Homer sing the same musical material as Floyd in "The Call" as they explain this - and as Floyd's excitement directly mirrors the musical development of "The Call" to the cave-echo section.
This time, however, as Floyd begins to sing, Nellie and Homer fill in the two echoes that sing with Floyd. Instead of echoes, the counterpoint is a counterpoint of sky, land, and earth - and a call that all three claim to have inherited from their deceased mother.
As Floyd realizes his dreams have come true, not only for the cave but for the unity of his family, he yells for his Papa to hear the call. Floyd yodels once again and the music suddenly cuts out - silence fills the stage - and Floyd decends into his despair and dying body.
The moment Floyd, Nellie, and Homer sing together gets me every time, upon every listening. At the beginning of the show, Floyd has, what could be seen as, a normal Musical Theatre wish. Economic stability and the good of the family - going up a social class too. His dream, however, betrays a deeper desire - one for belonging, one for community, and one for the presence of his mother. The mother's voice, in the shadows for most of the show, is heard here in her children.
As Floyd dies, he yodels one last time and the echoes follow - along with a haunting violin line - until they all blend and fade away. The source of the echo is gone.
Who hears hope? In Floyd Collins, Floyd has a gift to utter his own dreams and hear then reflected back to him. It could be said that this singing might have been the cause of the cave collapse too - meaning his dream was also his undoing. His dream at the end finds him at the dream's fullest potential as each sibling is able to 'ground' the other via their element - just as their mother did when she was alive.
Why is this of significance, other than my emotionally affective charge? In this case, the 'musical' of musical theatre is not just a narrative device - it integrates into the historical narrative in both the libretto AND self-reflexivity. Floyd's yodels and songs are his "I Want" songs and there is seldom a musical without one. The fact that he can hear it, as music, as well as Nellie and Homer, provides a commentary on the utopian and danger of following one's dreams. Nellie has been in a mental institution, Homer is without purpose or place (too much of a city-boy for home, too country for Hollywood), and Floyd dies in the earth that he wished to explore. The Call, for whoever hears it, is seductive but not unproblematic. It isn't merely 'how do we get our wish' - it is 'should this wish be granted'?
In any case, this moment makes Floyd Collins a contemporary musical that confronts the history of American Musical Theatre's preoccupation with unabashed optimism through the means of its own tradition (I don't think I could call this musical antimusical or metamusical, even though it is fairly dark and I'm claiming it is somewhat referential). Identified by Sondheim as his heir, I expect no less from Adam Guettel and look forward to more works by him in the future.