A Musical Vacation to Italy

by Shari Wattling and Zachary Moull

Theatre Calgary heads off on an Italian vacation with The Light in the Piazza, the Tony Award-winning musical about love and motherhood set in the sundrenched squares of Florence. “This is one of the most beautifully stirring musicals ever written,” says artistic director Dennis Garnhum.

While Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara tour Florence in 1953, a gust of wind carries Clara’s hat to the feet of a handsome young Tuscan man. As this twist of fate blossoms into love, Margaret must decide whether or not to share a secret that may destroy her daughter’s happiness. The story comes to life with what the New York Times hailed as “the most intensely romantic score of any musical since West Side Story.”

At Theatre Calgary, The Light in the Piazza features audience favourite Susan Gilmour as Margaret and Anwyn Musico as Clara. Christina Poddubiuk’s stunning set and costume designs evoke the rich history of Italy and the romance and style of the post-war era. Director Michael Shamata makes his return after helming Theatre Calgary’s hit production of Mary Poppins in 2014.

The Light in the Piazza is based on the novella by American author Elizabeth Spencer, who travelled to Italy in the summer of 1949. Spencer marvelled at the beauty of Italian culture and the warmth of the people she met. “Their gladness filled the air and reached out to all corners,” she said. Spencer wrote The Light in the Piazza a decade later during a cold winter in Montreal, fondly remembering the light of Italy.

Playwright Craig Lucas and composer-lyricist Adam Guettel created the musical, which made its New York premiere at the Lincoln Center in 2005. Guettel has a major Broadway pedigree – he’s the grandson of Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein), the legendary composer of musicals such as Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music.

The genesis of the musical is truly a family story. After reading Spencer’s novella in 1960, Mary Rodgers, Guettel’s mother, suggested an adaptation to her father. The elder Rodgers thought the story was “lovely, but not for him.” Mary Rodgers made the same suggestion to her son nearly forty years later, while he was searching for his next creative project. “The sounds of being in love were waiting to spill out of me,” says Guettel. “I wanted to find a vessel for those sounds.”

Guettel’s inventive score for The Light in the Piazza fuses Broadway with classical music and romantic opera — the Florentine characters sing in Italian and the onstage quintet is headlined by a harp. The result is utterly contemporary. “If the lush melodies bear the influence of Guettel's grandfather,” writes Guardian critic Alfred Hickling, “the incisive lyrics and adventurous harmonies mark him out as a natural successor to Stephen Sondheim.”

One of the musical’s biggest fans? Elizabeth Spencer herself, who was delighted that Guettel and Lucas captured the sensations she felt in Italy many decades ago. “The music is just soaring,” she says. “It catches you up right away. It’s almost miraculous.”