Noises Off: ‘Light’ in Seattle

NEW YORK — The Seattle critics loved Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas‘ new musical, “The Light in the Piazza,” and so did Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer is the 81-year-old writer of the original short story of the same name, published in the New Yorker in 1960. That year, McGraw-Hill published the novella, after Spencer restored a few cuts made by her magazine editors.

There was also a 1962 movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux as the mother and daughter traveling in Italy and finding questionable romance.

Spencer just returned to her home in Chapel Hill, N.C., after taking in the June 14 world preem of “Piazza” at Seattle’s Intiman Theater. She liked what she saw enough to stay for the second perf, too.

“It was a beautiful experience,” Spencer said of witnessing a musical version of her work. “Adam soaked up the book. He didn’t change my characters, he went after them musically.”

There have been some liberties taken. “The story is largely the thoughts and feelings of the characters, so they had to externalize some of the action,” Spencer says. “I wouldn’t know the first thing about writing a musical for the stage, but Adam felt that the story itself almost breaks into song.”

Others must agree. Over the years, several scribes have approached Spencer aboutbringing “Piazza” to the stage, but nothing ever jelled into music. Then, five years ago, “Adam got interested in the book, and I got interested in him.” He sent her a CD of his legit tuner “Floyd Collins,” and Spencer liked what she heard.

Guettel insists he hasn’t seen the movie. Spencer recently watched a tape of it with a friend. “It’s difficult not to make Florence look beautiful,” she offers. One gets the impression she prefers the new musical.

Next up, Guettel and Lucas take their show to the Goodman Theater in January.

“That Chicago wind in the winter, I’m not so sure,” Spencer says.

‘Heart’ beats again

Nearly 20 years after its world premiere, “The Normal Heart” returns to the Public Theater in February.

First presented in 1985, Larry Kramer‘s seminal AIDS drama ran at the Public for a year, the longest continuous run of any play in the theater’s history. Its return will mark the first time the venue has presented a revival of a contempo drama.

In an unusual arrangement for the downtown venue, the Public is presenting the Worth Street Theater’s production of “The Normal Heart.” Carol Fineman, longtime publicist at the Public, is producer at Worth Street, a ground-zero theater company that has presented cabarets related to 9/11 and the Iraq war. Its most recent full-production was the Gotham debut of “Four” by Christopher Shinn.

Fineman’s tenure with the Public began with the first “Normal Heart” production. Its revival will be directed by Worth Street’s artistic director, Jeff Cohen.

“The Normal Heart” was Kramer’s cri de coeur against the lack of response to the AIDS epidemic. Politicians, the media, medical experts and gay orgs all take hits in the play. “It is a plague that never need have happened if people had paid as much attention to it in the beginning as they did with SARS,” Kramer says.

More than 600 productions have been presented of the play worldwide. “As the plague continues and goes farther and farther into places you’ve never heard of — that’s where it is being done,” says the playwright.

When Fineman first approached him about the revival, Kramer had a more ambitious venture in mind.

“I wanted to do ‘The Normal Heart’ with my other play, ‘The Destiny of Me,’ which is a companion piece, and present it like ‘Angels in America’ over two evenings,” Kramer says.

Fineman’s response: “Let’s do this one first.”

Kramer says he had been in talks with Jack O’Brien to stage his two plays in repertory at San Diego’s Old Globe.

“The Destiny of Me” opened at the Lucille Lortel Theater in October 1992.

Worth Street is currently casting its production of “The Normal Heart.”

Brad Davis opened the play in New York, Richard Dreyfuss starred in the Los Angeles production and Martin Sheen performed it in London. Kramer offered this advice to his new producer: “Check out Rob Lowe. He stopped me on the street and said he wanted to do it.”

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