Adam Guettel in Concert: review

Slide Cabaret, June 6

American composer-lyricist Adam Guettel

American composer-lyricist Adam Guettel

Tony Award-winning Broadway composer-lyricist Adam Guettel is currently in Australia for the first time for a series of performances and masterclasses.

Soon to appear at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and Melbourne Cabaret Festival, he did a one-off performance at Sydney’s Slide cabaret lounge this week.

The grandson of legendary musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers, Guettel has been compared to Stephen Sondheim, while Sondheim himself has described his music as “dazzling”.

I must confess that I didn’t know a great deal of his music before seeing him perform at Slide. I have a cast recording of his musical Floyd Collins (which Kookaburra was going to perform a few years ago but then cancelled) but only a passing acquaintance with his other shows – so the chance to hear his music, performed by the man himself, was special and very welcome (thanks to producer Jeremy Youett of Your Enterprises).

Accompanied on piano by his longtime musical director Kimberly Grigsby (musical director of Spider-Man on Broadway), Guettel performed songs from Floyd Collins, The Light in the Piazza (for which he won Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations) and his song cycle Myths and Hymns.

He also sang a few numbers from several new musicals he is currently writing including Days of Wine and Roses based on the 1962 film about an American couple who succumb to alcoholism, and Millions based on Danny Boyle’s 2004 film about two young brothers whose mother dies and who find millions in stolen cash – a musical Guettel described as being “about saints and cherubs” and how the boys “un-break their hearts”.

For several of the numbers he was joined by Haley Bond, a vocalist with a beautiful, pure voice, who he revealed to be his fiancée. As you’d expect there was an easy, intuitive rapport between the three of them.

Guettel has a great deal of charm, displaying a nice, self-deprecating, laid back sense of humour. He kept talk fairly tight, telling us mainly about the songs, but there was a lovely honesty to the way he engaged with the audience.

He played guitar for a couple of numbers, explaining amusingly how he is self-taught on the instrument so has to retune it when he wants to change key, as he did between two numbers here.

You can see why he is compared to Sondheim (though for my money he doesn’t rival Sondheim – but then who does?). His music is often complex with shimmering textures and emotional intensity. Many of the songs had a melancholic, yearning beauty but there were none you’d describe as showstoppers and for a cabaret show it could have done with a bit more variety musically, more changes of mood, and more light and shade.

Perhaps Guettel sensed that because at one he said that next time he came to Australia he’d bring some perkier songs.

Perhaps too, the songs didn’t have quite the same power performed out of context that they would have in the shows they come from.

Nonetheless, it was a treat to hear him perform his own music, much of which is undeniably beautiful, and especially to hear the new material, including a song called Something That We Know, which he said had never been heard publicly before. Fans of his will be very happy – and doubtless the show will win him more.

Adam Guettel performs at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on June 22 and the Melbourne Cabaret Festival on June 29 & 30.