“Writing for musical theater was not something I ever wanted to do; it was the family business,” Adam Guettel, son of Mary Rodgers and grandson of Richard Rodgers, is quoted as saying in “Rodgers, Rodgers and Guettel: Statues and Stories,” the latest hour of words and music — performed by pianist Paul Masse and a roster of eight terrific singers including Telly Leung and Julia Murney — in the 50thanniversary season of the 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists series. Filmed live and physically distanced on the stage of the Y in October, it is available online through December 23.
Guettel did wind up a composer, after first playing in rock bands and trying to be an actor. “I went through all that stuff before I ended up realizing that writing for character and telling stories through music was something that I really loved to do. And that allowed me to express love.”
Thanksgiving Week seems an apt time to debut a concert revolving around a family of theatrical composers – especially since this show, much like Thanksgiving dinners, doesn’t always go smoothly.
Guettel is arguably the primary focus of “Rodgers, Rodgers and Guettel: Statues and Stories.” Of the 15 musical numbers, seven are by Guettel – all of them from his two best-known shows, the Tony-winning “Light in the Piazza” (his only Broadway musical) and Obie winner “Floyd Collins.” (Zachary Noah Piser is an especially good interpreter of these darker songs.)
Guettel is also quoted extensively, voiced by narrator Beth Malone from a variety of published interviews, offering his views about music in general, and tidbits about his family. “Grandpa was in the right place at the right time. He thought about the right things, even if he wasn’t the most enlightened person, personally, and he had perfect control of his technique.”
One fascinating tidbit: Guettel’s mother is the one who suggested he musicalize the story of Light in the Piazza, which was adapted from a novella by Elizabeth Spencer. Several decades earlier, she had made the same suggestion to her father. She didn’t see herself as talented enough to write the musical herself. “I was not my father or my son.”
Mary Rodgers’ modesty seems to have unduly influenced Masse, the artistic director of Lyrics and Lyricists and the author of the script. Only two of her songs are performed during the program. I don’t know how much I’m motivated by chivalry, but they are two of my favorite, both of them extraordinarily witty: “Shy” from Once Upon A Mattress, and “The Boy From…” from The Mad Show.
Mariand Torres sings “Shy” impeccably. But anybody who saw the extremely un-shy Jackie Hoffman sing the song in the 2016 revival of Once Upon a Mattress by the Transport Group would realize that impeccable is not the best approach.
Julia Murney does much better with “The Boy From…” But it’s a shame there is no explanation of this song, whose hilarious lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim under the pseudonym Esteban Nio Rido. There’s a story there, which we don’t learn. We aren’t told that it was written as a parody of “The Girl From Ipanema,” nor do we get the delicious details of the lyrics, which include the elaborately silly names of two fictitious towns. It’s a song that demands to be captioned, which drives home an important point: It is simply unacceptable that a video series entitled Lyrics and Lyricists does not offer closed captioning.
Out of the more than 900 published songs that Richard Rodgers wrote for forty Broadway musicals, “Rodgers, Rodgers and Guettel” presents six, which feel fairly random. These are mostly familiar songs, finely delivered — Nikki Renee Daniels sings “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from Pal Joey; Telly Leung “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific. But the less familiar are more intriguing. Allison Blackwell sings “Do I Hear A Waltz?” the title song of the only musical Richard Rodgers wrote with Stephen Sondheim as his lyricist – a lyricist (as we’ve seen) with whom his daughter collaborated as well, but nothing is made of this.
And Murney sings “Something Good” from the film for the Sound of Music, one of the songs late in life for which he wrote his own lyrics. This is something he realized he preferred. “Geographically, it couldn’t be better. I’m always there, whenever I want to meet me.”