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Floyd Collins: Nonesuch Records
by Adrienne Day

At the mention of the word "musical," most savvy New Yorkers cringe. Musicals evoke images of times past, when Broadway was booming, when investors made money instead of losing it on large, flamboyant Andrew Lloyd Weber-esque extravaganzas. That was for tourists, streaming northward from places like the Statue of Liberty and South Street Seaport, to herald the big-namers on the big stage. Most of us rarely venture past 14th Street, if we can help it.

Adam Guettel's soundtrack for the new musical Floyd Collins doesn't cater to the masses like Cats or Phantom of the Opera does: it isn't big or bad-assed, and it doesn't knock your socks off. What it does offer is some of the most original orchestration offered in a long time by musicals following in Weber's wake (who, coincidentally enough, has been recently knighted, perhaps in sympathy with his latest failures). Guettel's use of the harmonica, of fiddles and banjos, is unique and inspiring as well.

The story itself is simple enough. Based on fact, it is set in Barren County, Kentucky, in early 1925. We are introduced to a man with a mission: Floyd Collins (Christopher Innvar). At the time, many farmers and landowners in the region were competing in a series of "cave wars" to discover and open (for the benefit of the public) the biggest and most beautiful caves in the area. America was riding the crest of the Roaring Twenties at this time, and this made for a large social and fiscal gap between the classes of the inter-war era. In fact, Floyd Collins can be interpreted, at least in part, as an allegory for such an inequitable distribution of wealth. For the have-nots, there was extra incentive to succeed. Nellie (Theresa McCarthy), Floyd's sister, sings of this in "Lucky," a clever, pretty melody that speaks of the possible future with money ("Gonna git a little respect/Gonna hol' our heads up erect").

Floyd, eager to escape the rural and poverty-stricken life he leads, believes that he has found the greatest find of all, a cavern with linking tunnels to all of the caves in the region. He sets out exploring, oil lantern swinging high, singing, only to be trapped underground by a fallen boulder. The irony here is forcefully apparent. Floyd is seeking his fortune to escape the confines of his limited existence, yet it is his very ticket out of "Barren County" that buries him alive. In fact, it is this confinement that delivers him the recognition he desires.

The opening track, "The Ballad of Floyd Collins," is a hauntingly beautiful, lilting melody; a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. (It is reprised in a longer version on the latter half of the CD). The next three tracks follow his progress down into the caves, in one place cleverly using echoes to simulate his voice echoing underground. All of the tracks sung by Christopher Innvar are powerful and executed beautifully, as are the tracks by Nellie and his stepmother Miss Jane (Cass Morgan).

As attempts to rescue Floyd fail again and again, news of his confinement spreads. A circus of sorts springs up about the cave, as thousands of onlookers flock to the scene. This sets a precedent for one of the first "media circuses" of our time, real-life tragedies that have become the staple of our tabloid diets. The fact that Floyd perishes three days before he can be rescued becomes almost irrelevant in this regard: He has served his purpose, his 15 minutes come and gone, tiding us over until the next grisly event.

Adrienne Day

New York, New York

1997

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