Alumni shed light on The Light in the Piazza

It’s not uncommon for guest artists, including Interlochen alumni, to help students prepare for performances. It is less common, however, for alumni artists to be so intimately acquainted with the selections the students are performing.

In November, the Interlochen Arts Academy cast of The Light in the Piazza hosted two guests: Adam Guettel and Victoria Clark. Besides being Interlochen alumni, Guettel and Clark played integral roles in the musical’s Broadway success, as composer and original cast member, respectively.

The pixels had barely arranged themselves into an image of the Light in the Piazza cast before Adam Guettel noticed something was missing. “I don’t see anyone wearing corduroy knickers,” he said to the students on the other side of the webcam.

Guettel’s confusion was understandable: Guettel’s first and only experience at Interlochen was as a Camper in the summer of 1980, when he studied piano and composition. “I didn’t get a lot out of the composition lessons,” he said, acknowledging that he wasn’t always the keenest pupil. “But I did get a lot out of listening to music.”

During his eight weeks at Camp, Guettel—the son of composer Mary Rodgers and the grandson of Richard Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame—soaked up the music of French composers, especially Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Guettel would go on to graduate from Yale University before writing the music and lyrics for The Light in the Piazza, for which he earned Tony awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestration.

The cast of The Light in the Piazza asked Guettel a variety of questions in an afternoon Skype session, ranging from his inspiration for the musical to following in his grandfather’s footsteps. Guettel also gave individual advice and insight to the actors portraying some of the musical’s major characters. At the end of the session, the cast sang a selection from The Light in the Piazza to thank Guettel for his time.

“This is a really ambitious thing to take on,” he told the students, as the musical’s score is very demanding vocally. After the excerpt, Guettel was whisked into Harvey Theatre for a Skype tour of the set. After a few minutes of admiration from Guettel, the session concluded.

One week after Guettel's Skype session,Victoria Clark, who debuted the role of Margaret on Broadway and is an alumna of the 1977 season of Interlochen Arts Camp, visited campus to work with the students.

Clark has returned to campus several times since 1977 as a clinician and master class instructor. Before The Light in the Piazza rehearsal, Clark hosted an hourlong vocal master class that was attended by all theatre majors. During the class, Clark used the Alexander Vocal Technique to help students relax their bodies, use proper posture and find their natural voice. “The spine and the lungs love length and space,” Clark told the students. “If there’s one word to write down in your notebooks, young people, it’s ‘space.’ The body loves and was designed to work with space.”

Clark’s techniques were not only designed to produce better vocal sounds, but also to encourage vocal health. Clark encouraged students—particularly women, who are tempted to be “belters”—to remember that they only get one set of vocal chords that must sustain them throughout their whole career. “I’ve had so many friends who have had to change their career,” she warned. “It’s very old-school to do both belting and soprano singing well. I’d rather see you do one thing brilliantly than 14 things ‘meh’ or even two things ‘meh.’”

After the master class, students transitioned to their various rehearsals, and Clark joined the cast of The Light in the Piazza in Harvey Theatre. Clark helped the students bring the scenes to life by focusing on the details—but she had a secondary motive for seeking perfection.

“You need to nail these,” she said of the songs in The Light in the Piazza. “Why? Because Adam Guettel went here, and he’s probably going to watch this.” In the rehearsal, she once again turned the Alexander Technique to help the lead characters maximize their vocal potential.

Clark also encouraged the scene’s minor players to be engaged, even if they aren’t speaking in the scene. “What made the six of you decide you’re not in the scene?” she teased. She then went on to explain the humor of the scene and how each cast member could use body language to maximize the situation. “It’s important to get a laugh in this scene because it’s one of very few slam-dunk laughs in this musical,” she said.

Clark focused special attention on the characters of Clara and Margaret. She emphasized the importance of making Margaret a likable, inviting character. “We’re following your story the whole show,” she told the young actor portraying Margaret. “If you don’t make your character inviting, we won’t be interested in your story.”

Clark also emphasized the importance of good posture in the cultural portrayal of Margaret and Clara. “Margaret grew up in a southern household in the 1950s,” said Clark. “She would have spent hours and hours walking around with a book on her head. If you don’t have good posture, we’re going to that she didn’t have a good mother.”

These were the types of little insights that Clark brought to The Light in the Piazza. The students responded enthusiastically to Clark’s ideas, showing delight at the difference that the small changes made. Clark herself acknowledged that this was exactly why she had been invited.

“I’m here as a resource,” she said.

The Light in the Piazza premieres on Thursday, Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. with additional performances on Nov. 18 and Dec. 2-3. For more information and to buy tickets, visit our ticketing website.