Inside FLOYD COLLINS
background and analysis by Scott Miller
Raucous comedy, moments of great tenderness, muscular, powerful American music, family, faith, and metaphysics. It’s all there in Floyd Collins, one of the most impressive first efforts in the history of musical theatre. With this show, composer Adam Guettel (rhymes with kettle), established himself as the most likely candidate to lead the next generation into the musical theatre terrain that Stephen Sondheim has explored for the last forty years. Floyd Collins is a musical full of complexity and sophistication worthy of Sondheim, yet also full of the emotional force that the story demands, because, though it is a story about media exploitation, greed, glory, and prejudice, at its core it is even more about family, faith, and God. It is one of those musicals, along with West Side Story, Company, and Ragtime, that only could have been written by Americans. There is a brashness, an openness, and a muscularity in Floyd Collins that is uniquely American.
Though Floyd Collins got some mixed reviews and even a few negative ones, many reviewers saw the promise of genius that lay behind this unique and special show. USA Today called it "one of the most riveting events of the season." New York Newsday called it "one of the three or four truly great musical theatre scores of the decade." New York Magazine said, "This is the original and daring musical of our day . . . a powerhouse." Entertainment Weekly said, "The melodies soar. . . In Adam Guettel a vital new musical theatre writer has emerged." Variety said Floyd Collins was "easy to admire . . . sometimes ravishing." The Los Angeles Times called it "plaintive, often inspired . . . Adam Guettel is a composer for the new century." In 1999, the Cleveland Plain Dealer called it "a work of exhilarating imagination and humanity . . . daring, intelligent, and almost unbearably poignant."
As these and other reviewers could see, Floyd Collins is one of the most interesting, most risk-taking, and most emotional shows written in the 1990s, a show as unconventional in its storytelling and in its musical language as it is in its subject. Stephen Sondheim said during a visit to St. Louis in 1999 that he considered Floyd Collins the best musical written in the last twenty-five years. But other critics (including those at The New York Times, and The Village Voice) missed a great deal about Floyd Collins, trying to force it into one or another existing category rather than allowing it to exist outside convention, creating its own unique category of musical theatre. The New York Times complained about the show’s "billboard dialogue," declaring the show’s lyrics "evoke not so much specific characters as abstract sentiments."
A reading of the show was first done in composer Adam Guettel’s living room in 1992. After major rewrites and further development, the show was then done in a full production at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia in 1994, in a more operatic version. The entire opening sequence was replaced, retaining only the echoes. The original opening had been more stream-of-consciousness, more inside Floyd’s head. The new opening did a better job of introducing the audience to Floyd and was easier to sing and easier for the audience to process, with a clearer structure. This opening now included several musical motifs which would be used throughout the rest of the score to lend the show a sense of musical unity. The show was revised and opened again March 3, 1996 off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon in New York. A cast album was released which created more interest in the show, and it was produced at several regional theatre in 1999.
The story of a man trapped in a cave may not seem like musical material but it’s a story that needs both the things only a musical can supply. First, it is said that in a musical a character breaks into song when his emotion becomes too big for spoken words. That’s why West Side Story, Carousel, and Sweeney Todd had to be musicals; spoken words cannot contain emotions that large. The same is true of Floyd. This is a story of enormous passions, enormous fears, and profound love. This story needs music. Second, musicals are the only contemporary theatre form in which the soliloquy still feels normal. Shakespeare’s audiences were used to soliloquies, outward expressions of inner thoughts, but contemporary naturalistic theatre has discarded this device. Musicals, on the other hand, still use soliloquies, in songs like "C’est Moi" and several other songs from Camelot, "Being Alive" in Company, "Johanna" in Sweeney Todd, "Now" in A Little Night Music, "One Song Glory" in Rent, "I Know Things Now," "Giants in the Sky," "Moments in the Woods," and other songs from Into the Woods. In Floyd Collins, with the main character stuck in a cave, usually with no contact to the outside world, the only way we can get inside Floyd’s head is through soliloquy, in songs like "The Call," Time to Go," How Glory Goes," and others.
The Ballad of Floyd Collins
Despite the fact that he was arguably the greatest caver who ever lived, Floyd Collins probably would have never become famous outside of Kentucky if he hadn’t been trapped. But on Friday, January 30, 1925 a rock slipped onto his foot, trapping him one hundred fifty-five feet down an impossibly narrow passageway, fifty-five feet below the surface of the cold wet Kentucky ground. That twenty-six pound rock pinning his foot turned him into one of the famous men of the 1920s. Floyd’s story would appear in newspapers all over the world and it would become the third biggest news story of the decade, after Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.
Several books about Floyd were published within six months. The song, "The Ballad of Floyd Collins" (not the one in the musical) became a nationwide hit. Floyd’s brother Homer and his father Lee both went on the vaudeville circuit telling the story (often inaccurately). Homer was trying raise money to remove Floyd’s body which had been left in the cave once they found him dead. Lee was just looking to make more money off his son’s tragedy. In 1951, Billy Wilder’s film Ace in the Hole was released, based loosely on Floyd’s story. All the names and many of the facts were changed and the period was updated, but Floyd was still mentioned by name once. The story of Floyd has become so much a part of our culture, the television sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun did a parody episode in 2000, with Dick and Harry initially getting trapped, a subsequent cave-in, arguments between family members and experts, a media frenzy, press conferences, and family members profiteering. How many people in 2000 knew what 3rd Rock was parodying is hard to tell but the source was obvious.
The Greatest Caver Ever Known
Floyd came from a poor Kentucky family who lived in Flint Ridge, Kentucky. Lee Collins was born in May 1858 and was sixty-seven when Floyd was trapped. Lee’s first wife Martha bore him eight children: Elizabeth in 1883 (who died at age three), Jim in 1885, Floyd on April 20, 1887, Annie in 1890, Andy Lee in 1895, Marshall in 1897, Nellie in 1900, and Homer in 1903. Though several were present at the site of Floyd’s tragedy, the show’s creators combined them into just two siblings, the two youngest and the only two still living at home in 1925, Nellie, who was twenty-five when Floyd was trapped, and Homer, who was 22. Martha died in 1915 of tuberculosis and Lee married Sarilda Jane Buckingham, known simply as "Miss Jane," whose first husband had died in a cave.
Floyd loved caves from the time he was a small boy. At age six, he went exploring in Salts Cave near the Collins home. He was often late or absent from school because he was caving. Everyone remembered him as completely without fear, putting himself happily into physical danger all the time. He saved his money and when he was twenty-three he bought thirty acres of land next to the family’s land. He found a small cave there, which he named Floyd’s Cave, and sold piece of onyx and stalactites from the cave to area souvenir stands. Floyd worked as a guide for local caves and learned everything he could about caves. In 1917 Floyd discovered a cave which he would later name Crystal Cave (because of its gypsum flowers) and open to the public as a commercial venture, with the help of the whole Collins family. It was only occasionally profitable but Floyd was more interested in finding new passageways and chambers than in making money. Floyd had a theory that all the caves in the area were actually connected in a vast network comprised of hundreds of miles of caves. No one believed him but today we know Floyd was absolutely right. As of 1999, three hundred sixty miles of connected caves, including Floyd’s Crystal Cave, have been discovered in the Mammoth Cave system, and the total is increasing every year. There are also other cave systems nearby that may be connected to the Mammoth system, which could bring the total to well over five hundred miles. And still today, as cavers find new passageways and new chambers they frequently find Floyd’s initials carved on the cave walls. No one had any idea how far he had explored.
The Kentucky Cave Wars
The Kentucky Cave Wars had been going on since the late 1800s. Because the land around Mammoth Ridge, Flint Ridge, and Cave City was often rocky and hard to farm, the natives soon found they might make more money by opening the caves to tourists. The Cave Wars really got going in 1915 with the discovery of the Great Onyx Cave, and the popularization of the Model T Ford, which made it easier for tourists to drive long distances to visit the caves. The cave wars got nasty, with people setting up booths and signs on the highway to falsely claim the big caves were closed and re-direct people to their own smaller caves. Sales agents, called cappers, would resort to outright lies to get business, posing as tourists themselves and downplaying the major caves, claiming all the caves were connected so every entrance was the same, and even hiding and throwing rocks down on tourists entering Mammoth Cave. Lawsuits were filed on a regular basis challenging ownership, disputing profits made from unauthorized connections to other people’s caves, and various other conflicts. This was the atmosphere into which the Collins came when they opened Floyd’s Crystal Cave.
The story of how Floyd got trapped and died in his Great Sand Cave is basically as the musical tells it. Some things are left out, like the court which was assembled to decide if Floyd’s tragedy was just another publicity stunt perpetrated by the cave owners to get more tourists. People are left out, like Johnnie Gerald, one of Floyd’s closest caving friends, who was in early versions of the musical but later combined with the character of Homer. Andy Lee, Floyd’s other brother, was also combined with Homer. Floyd’s brother Marshall was cut as well. Lt. Burdon of the Louisville Fire Department and other authority figures were all folded into the character of Henry Carmichael from the Kentucky Rock and Asphalt Company. Ed Bishop is an invented character, loosely based on the famous black cave guide Stephen Bishop.
The book Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins by Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Brucker (University Press of Kentucky, 1982, revised 1999) is an invaluable help to anyone doing the show or wanting to know more about the real story. It chronicles in great detail the morning Floyd got trapped and every day after that until the end. It goes into detail about Floyd’s descent into the cave, how he got trapped, and even includes diagrams of the tunnel. It’s helpful for directors and actors to line up the events in the play with the real life events, to see exactly when things happened, how long Floyd had been underground at each important moment, and how the telescoped events in the show correspond to the actual events. Landau and Guettel have taken liberties with the musical, to be sure, but they are remarkably faithful to the sequence of events, the major players, and the important moments.
Floyd had been digging in Sand Cave for three weeks a the beginning of 1925 and had blown a dynamite charge on Monday, January 26. It was on Friday morning, January 30 that he went down for the last time. It was a full day before anyone realized Floyd was missing. On Friday night, Ed Estes joked that Floyd was probably still down in his cave. On Saturday morning, Ed Estes, Bee Doyle, and Jewel Estes went to the cave and found that Floyd was trapped. They sent for Homer, who arrived that afternoon and immediately went down, though he couldn't get all the way to Floyd. After resting, and after others tried, Homer went back down at midnight Saturday night and dug for eight hours, only uncovering Floyd to his waist. Meanwhile, others went down to bring Floyd food, but were too scared to go all the way down, and left food and drink in crevices along the way. Sunday afternoon Homer went down again (which is the "Daybreak" scene in the show) and by Sunday evening, around one hundred people had gathered at the sight as news spread.
Reporter Skeets Miller went down for the first time on Monday morning, and the stories he filed from the cave were soon picked up by the Associated Press. On Monday afternoon, Lt. Burdon decided to pull Floyd out with a harness, despite the fears of the local cavers that it would kill Floyd, as it had done to another trapped caver some years before. They tried to pull Floyd out with the harness but quickly gave up the idea. The first newspaper accounts appeared around the country on Tuesday, February 3, as it became front page headline news. Carmichael showed up at the site on Tuesday morning and organized men to shore up the entrance to the cave while others went down and cleared out the rocks in the passageway. He also began looking for a place to dig a shaft down next to where Floyd lay trapped. Homer objected to the shaft on the grounds that the drilling could easily vibrate loose rock in the cave which could crush or at least further shut off Floyd from the outside.
Skeets went back down Tuesday evening with a crowbar, a jack, and other tools, as well as electric lights to keep Floyd warm. It became a competition between locals and "outlanders" to see who would rescue Floyd first. One newspaper quoted a local, who said, "It’s funny. Fellas that wouldn’t have lent Floyd fifty cents are pert near killing themselves going down that hole to pull him out." Early Wednesday morning the shaft leading down to Floyd began to collapse from all the movement within it. Soon Floyd was completely shut off from the outside world and trapped worse than ever. On Wednesday night, Johnnie Gerald and Lt. Burdon organized a crew to try to remove the cave-in from the passage. Late Wednesday night, Johnnie Gerald got past the first cave-in but found another one. There were now over two hundred fifty people at the site.
By Thursday, with nothing new to report, many newspapermen were making up things to write about, including Floyd’s fictional girlfriend and dog. General Denhardt and the National Guard arrived Thursday morning and took over. That morning the decision was made to dig a shaft next to the cave to reach Floyd. By Friday night, they had only dug seventeen feet, less than six inches per hour. Miss Jane arrived for the first time on Friday, a week after Floyd had first been trapped. By now, four hundred automobiles were on the road to Sand Cave and more than fifteen hundred onlookers were there, along with several motion picture companies from Hollywood. The films made by twenty-year-old Cliff Roney were being shown nationwide.
On Saturday, sound tests were conducted with microphones to see if they could hear Floyd, but they heard nothing. They had no idea if he was still alive. By Saturday afternoon, two thousand people were watching.
By Sunday afternoon, the shaft was only twenty-three feet deep, about halfway down. Estimates of the crowd on Sunday ranged from ten thousand to fifty thousand. It had become a country fair, with peddlers hawking food and drink, elixirs, balloons, and other souvenirs. Rumors began circulating that this was all a publicity stunt.
On Monday, it was announced that there would be a military inquiry and maybe a grand jury investigation into whether or not Floyd’s tragedy was a hoax. On Tuesday morning, the military inquiry convened. They continued digging the shaft, reaching forty feet by Tuesday evening, and suddenly cave crickets began appearing, indicating that they were getting close. On Wednesday, two phony telegrams were received, claiming Floyd was not in the cave at all, that he was out and safe. One was supposedly from Floyd himself. On Thursday, the walls of the shaft began to collapse. Floyd had been trapped for thirteen days at this point.
On the morning of Friday the Thirteenth, the shaft diggers said they could hear Floyd coughing. Stories immediately began circulating from the press that Floyd had been freed. They kept digging but that night, more shoring collapsed. On Saturday, February 14, the military inquiry delivered its finding that Floyd was indeed trapped in Sand Cave. The shaft was fifty-four feet deep, with just six feet to go. On Sunday, they began digging the lateral shaft over toward where Floyd was trapped.
On Monday morning, February 16, they broke through, but Floyd was dead.
An American Icon
The minute Floyd’s story hit the papers he became an American icon, a symbol for all that is American, for being an entrepreneur and for his good ol’ American ingenuity. Floyd was taking what he had – an uncanny understanding and knowledge of caves – and using it to chase the American Dream. He really was the greatest caver ever known. He theorized in the 1920s that all the caves in the area were connected and only in the past few decades have we discovered that he was absolutely right. Even today, as the explorers in Kentucky cave country continually find new passages, they continually find Floyd’s initials carved on the walls when they get there. Like the greatest Americans throughout history, Floyd was not only ingenious and adventurous, he was also first. Floyd was all over the Mammoth Cave system long decades before anyone else found these passages. He was a true American explorer and we find out the extent of his exploration early in the show as his friends talk about him, his passion for caves, his willingness to risks, and the frequency that he gets trapped and wiggles his way free.
Floyd’s father Lee thinks the caves are get-rich-quick schemes, that Floyd and his friends want success without hard work. But he’s wrong; Floyd works very hard. When he opened Crystal Cave, he and his whole family worked like crazy to get it ready for the public, to advertise it, to staff it, and to make it a success. We see in the first caving sequence in the show that Floyd knows the work ahead of him if Sand Cave is to be opened – he has to find financing through a caving banker, he has to smooth the floors, build stairs, build a refreshment stand, a ticket office, a curio shop, erect signs on the highway, and many other things. He’s even thinking about advertising and marketing ideas. He knows all this from his experience with Crystal Cave and he knows there’s a lot of work ahead of him again with Sand Cave. It’s true Floyd wants to leave behind the back-breaking work of farming on rocky, infertile land, but he doesn’t want to abandon hard work; he merely wants to work differently. He wants to use his ingenuity and his instincts, to be a business man in the American tradition. He’s not cut out to be a farmer, but he is cut out to be an adventurer and an entrepreneur.
But Floyd is also another kind of symbol that Americans in 1920 could relate to – he’s a symbol of being "stuck" in America, of being trapped, unable to move. Floyd’s trap is literal but many Americans were metaphorically trapped, by awful jobs, crippling debt, and horrific living conditions. The American Dream was not available to many Americans and they saw themselves in Floyd, trapped and helpless despite his talents and ambitions. They had an emotional stake in his rescue because they needed rescuing too.
Homer is a symbol of the American Dream too. The character of Homer is actually a combination of the real life Homer and Floyd’s real life friend and fellow caver Johnnie Gerald (who was a separate character in earlier versions). Homer has bought a Model T, a serious American status symbol. He says Mrs. Jones has told him he could be a movie star, another widespread American dream. He has a wholly American distrust of outsiders like Carmichael. He believes in self-determination, in community, in family, all very American ideals, and Carmichael is a threat to all that. In fact, some historians speculate that if the local cavers could have run the rescue, they might have saved Floyd, but people who knew nothing about caves were given control of the rescue effort.
Why It Shouldn’t Have Worked
Like Rent, Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, Hair, and Jacques Brel, there are lots of reasons why Floyd Collins shouldn’t have worked. The most obvious is that the main character becomes immobile after the first scene. How do you build a musical around a guy who can’t move a muscle? Guettel and Landau’s answer was simple – make the focus Floyd’s family rather than just Floyd himself. The story becomes less about Floyd, the trapped hero, and more about this poor Kentucky family pushed to the breaking point by events beyond their control. It becomes about Homer’s battle with the outsiders, Nellie’s psychic connection to Floyd and the path toward her rescue of her brother, and about how Lee and Miss Jane handle the attention, the scrutiny, and the responsibility for making life and death decisions on behalf of their boy. It becomes, in fact, about the community itself, its character, its history, its strength.
The other thing they did was create a rich inner life for Floyd, communicating beautifully to the audience Floyd’s deep love for the cave and the world underground. They gave him a healthy fantasy life, so that the actor playing Floyd could move in two scenes, once in "The Riddle Song" and again in the dream in Act II. And in creating the physical world of the play they found a strong but simple visual representation of the narrow passageway in which Floyd is trapped. By keeping the set nearly bare, by keeping the inside of the cave and the environment above ground almost wholly within the audience’s imagination, they opened up so many possibilities that a "normal" musical could never utilize. Just as Floyd must live only in his mind once he’s trapped, so too does the physical world of Floyd Collins exist only in the audience’s minds. Guettel says this minimalist style allows the audience to participate more rather than less, by using their imagination, by conjuring not only the cave but also the environment above ground in their mind’s eye. It focuses the audiences attention on the people rather than the sets, just as shows like Hair and Rent do. Tina Landau, who directed several early productions of the show, came from the experimental theatre community (like the director of Hair did), and she brought that aesthetic with her.
The other problem they faced was how to write for uneducated, inarticulate characters. Floyd was not a bright guy, although his instincts for caves were amazing. Most musicals rely on soliloquies in which characters tells us what they’re thinking and feeling, as in great songs like "Soliloquy" from Carousel, "Now/Later/Soon" from A Little Night Music, half the score of Follies and the entire score of Songs for a New World. But Floyd doesn’t have the vocabulary or self-knowledge to give us all that information, and neither do any of the other locals. Again, Guettel and Landau found the perfect answer – they focused the show on the emotional world instead of the intellectual world. This is not a show about people who think too much – that’s Sondheim’s territory – this is a show about hope ("The Call," "Lucky"), fear ("I Landed on Him"), memory ("Daybreak," "The Riddle Song"), anger ("Git Comfortable") love ("Heart an’ Hand," "Going Through the Mountain"), and faith ("How Glory Goes"). Sondheim has always said that content dictates form, that the style and structure of a show should depend on the story you want to tell, and never has this been more true than with Floyd Collins. Guettel and Landau had an unusual story to tell and they found new, unusual methods for telling it, fashioning a very unusual musical in the process. Just like the great writers of the past, Guettel says they didn’t set out to break rules or to forge new territory – they just set out to tell Floyd’s story the best way they could.
A Stone History Book
The cave is just as major a character in Floyd Collins as the title character. Floyd talks to the cave as a person and refers to it more than once as "she." In a way, the cave is the antagonist, both Floyd’s lover and his executioner. The cave is Floyd’s world, more real to him than the world above ground, the only place where he feels comfortable. He tells Skeets Miller, "It’s jes’… when I’m under… I feel right in my bones." Though Floyd is uneducated and even inarticulate, he becomes a true American poet when he describes the caves he so loves:
Every wall looks wet,
Meltin’ with a snow made a’ cream…
Shinin’ everywhere with tiny diamonds.
Shine the lantern an’ git
All the colors of the world comin’ back.
. . .
No tellin’ what’s on these walls,
Layerin’ on slow
Like a stone history book
With a couple of sentences ‘bout me.
And more than Floyd could ever know the caves did indeed tell his story once he was gone, as cave explorers today continue to find Floyd’s initials carved on the walls of newly discovered caves – exactly like "a stone history book with a couple of sentences" about Floyd.
Listen to a Tale…
In fact, the story of Floyd Collins is storytelling. Because all the important action takes place a hundred and fifty-five feet below ground, because television doesn’t yet exist, there can be no direct, unbiased reporting (if in fact you think television can be unbiased). And Floyd’s lasting fame is the result of storytelling as well, the embellishments and drama imprinted on the actual events leading up to Floyd’s death. Composer-lyricist Adam Guettel and bookwriter and original director Tina Landau use storytelling as a major theme throughout the musical Floyd Collins to show how Floyd’s predicament was communicated to the world, how the players in the drama disgraced themselves, and how entertaining and simply passing the time was different in 1925.
Storytelling takes many forms in the show. It figures prominently in many of the songs in the show, "The Ballad of Floyd Collins" (obviously), "Tween a Rock and a Hard Place," "Lucky," "Daybreak," "The Riddle Song," and "Is That Remarkable?". We see Jewel begin to write "The Ballad of Floyd Collins" midway through Act I, mirroring the actual "Ballad of Floyd Collins" (a different song in real life, that became very popular throughout the country), which later in Act II, blossoms into a full length song. And as we see Jewel’s song develop, we also see his understanding of Floyd’s situation and his understanding of himself develop as well.
"Tween a rock and a Hard Place" is an important song for several reasons. First, after spending twenty minutes alone with Floyd, the audience finally meets the social context from which Floyd comes, in the persons of Floyd’s friends and fellow cavers, Ed Bishop, Bee Doyle, and Jewel Estes. Second, after the very sophisticated music of the lengthy opening sequence, music that requires a great deal from the audience, "Rock and a Hard Place" gives the audience some respite. It’s a simple song structurally and harmonically, and it establishes the very important musical contrast between the world above ground and the world under ground. Third, and most important, it firmly establishes the theme of storytelling. Doyle, Bishop, and Estes tell each other progressively harrowing – and perhaps fictionalized – stories of bravery, each trying to outdo one another. We see the practice of distorting the truth long before any reporters show up. We see that exaggeration is common here, that storytelling – and embellishment – is in all of us. If these three can distort the truth and we find it charming, why do the reporters become villains for doing the same thing?
The reporters represent a similarly dishonest form of storytelling – exaggeration, distortion, bald fictions – but it seems a bit more dangerous here, perhaps because it’s not just casual bragging. Here, the storytellers’ audience doesn’t agree to the same rules, that distortion is just good entertainment. A reporter’s audience expects the truth (however unlikely that may actually be). The dishonesty is less benign in this case because it’s all for the sake of selling papers, storytelling disguised as objective reporting. Newspapers are frequently used as historical documents decades later; what would we think of Floyd’s story today if the papers were our only source of information?
And though reporter Skeets Miller is one of the only people in the show who acts honorably throughout, still he is a reporter, and Landau dramatizes the gap between truth and journalism by having Skeets actually speak the punctuation of his reports, as reporters had to do when dictating a story over the phone. It gives his speeches an artificiality and a distance that reminds us that this is coming through a filter. Like the reporters, Cliff Roney shows up to tell Floyd’s story on film, and he too wants to fictionalize things, to make the story "better" than it is. But is his objective really any different from Guettel and Landau’s? More to the point, is it possible to find objective truth? Are there different kinds of truth? Have Guettel and Landau told Floyd’s story truthfully even though they’ve left out incidents and combined characters to give their work structure? Is it possible to get at psychological or emotional truth without adhering strictly to all objective facts? And like the musical Assassins, can Floyd Collins be truthful without being entirely accurate historically?
Perhaps it all comes down to a question of audience expectations. Bishop, Doyle, and Estes expect each other to embellish their stories. They make allowances for this and they know the truth is probably less interesting, less heroic than the storyteller describes it. Cliff Roney’s audience is sitting in a movie theatre, watching a film; the question here is whether Roney presented his film as documentary or not, and if he were making the film today, would it become the nebulous "docudrama"? Guettel and Landau’s audience does not expect a musical based on a true story to be a documentary, to include every incident and every character. In fact, Guettel says one of the earlier versions of the show was a live "four-hour documentary" and he realized how wrong that was. He realized that as a dramatist it was his job to focus the story, to make his audience feel the truth, rather than learn facts. But though Guettel and Landau focused the story, the reporters on the scene added to the story, facts that did not help to get at the truth. They invented a girlfriend and a dog for Floyd, neither of which represented any kind of truth at all. Their audience expected facts and more often than not, the reporters gave them fiction.
One of the most emotional, most personal examples of storytelling in the show is the song "Daybreak," a beautiful, deeply felt dramatization of the bond between Homer and Floyd. Homer has gotten down to Floyd for the first time and discovers what Floyd already knows – the situation may be hopeless. Floyd is beginning to lose his calm, beginning to break down, and for the first time, twenty-four year-old Homer has to take care of thirty-seven year-old Floyd. It’s a moment of passage for both. Homer understands Floyd. He sees Floyd losing his grip and knows exactly what will calm Floyd. Floyd feels safest below ground and he feels most comfortable with Homer and Nellie; these three have a bond that is rare among siblings. So Homer reminds Floyd of a night when the three of them snuck out and went down into the first cave Floyd discovered. They spent the night there, in the pitch blackness, with only the touch of each other’s hands to connect them, in the cool silence where nothing could touch them or hurt them, where Floyd was in charge, in Floyd’s world. And this story, this memory, is what Floyd needs at this moment of desperation. It calms enough to fall asleep, perhaps for the first time since he was trapped, in the safety and company of his little brother.
The other parallel example of storytelling is also between Floyd and Homer. At the end of Act I, as Homer is once again trying to dig Floyd out, Floyd’s spirits are sinking. Again, Homer knows the answer is to take Floyd back to happier times. This time, Homer does this by creating riddles, the answers to which are symbols of their shared childhood happiness. To dramatize the impact of these memories on Floyd, Guettel and Landau allow Floyd to rise up off the ramp that stands in for the cave passage. For the first time since Floyd was trapped at the beginning of Act I, he stands up and moves centerstage with Homer as they move back in time to these happy memories. Floyd and Homer go back to the quarry where they swan as kids, a time and place where Floyd felt free and unfettered. It’s not only an exciting moment musically but it’s also a stunning visual moment as Floyd stands up for the first time in an hour.
As the verse ends, Floyd and Homer return physically to the cave, but here again, Guettel and Landau surprise us. Floyd and Homer return to the cave but switch places, with Homer now trapped and Floyd digging. It’s a physical parallel to the fact that Floyd is now asking the riddle and challenging Homer. They’ve swapped places verbally and so Guettel and Landau swap them physically as well. We see that Floyd feels in control for the first time since he was trapped. Homer has successfully cheered Floyd up and taken Floyd’s mind off his helplessness. Again, it’s a stunning visual effect that communicates brilliantly the emotional state of our hero. The structure of the second verse mirrors the first; Floyd asks a riddle and the answer is a memory from their childhood, this time their favorite swing tree. And again, once the answer is guessed, they both move out of the cave and into the middle of the stage as they physically relive this happy memory. But this time, the flashback leads to an unexpected place. As Floyd remembers the feeling of flying off the swing tree out over the water in the quarry, he sees himself doing a dive they called Jesus on the Cross, but this image reminds Floyd of death, of being trapped by fate, and this image leads to the memory of dropping into the cold, black water, going deep under the surface, down into the rock. And despite Homer’s best efforts, Floyd’s thoughts return to the cave and being trapped. And as his mind goes back to the cave, he also returns physically to the ramp on which he has spent all of Act I.
Homer makes on more try, this time with a riddle that has an obvious riddle, an answer that reminds Floyd how close the brothers are ("kinda like a friend an’ kinda like a brother"), how easily Floyd has escaped so many times before from being trapped, and how successful their new enterprise will be. And just as Floyd guesses the answer, Homer breaks through and he and Floyd make physical contact for the first time. Floyd is still trapped, but finally Homer can see him and touch him, rather than just hear him. This is real progress (or so it seems), and Floyd finally has something to be optimistic about, and more than that, a hug from Homer means the world to Floyd. The first act ends on a high note, but one that we’ve seen throughout this song is very precarious.
Family and God
Two of the strongest themes in Floyd Collins are family and God, the two things that sustain Floyd while he’s trapped a hundred and fifty feet below ground. Floyd talks about his family a lot and it is clearly very important to him. He wants his father to be proud of him to approve of him, to be proud of him, and Floyd mentions this more than once in the opening caving sequence. When he dreams of success, it’s not just for him but for the whole family. He want to set his family up on a valley farm, good, fertile land, rather than the hardscrabble land they now own. He wants to make life easier on Lee and the family.
He is particularly close to Homer and Nellie. When he first gets trapped the first name he yells is Homer’s. We see how close Floyd, Homer, and Nellie are in the song "Daybreak" and in the dream sequence in Act II. They share everything, most notably their joy. As we see in "Daybreak" and "The Riddle Song" Homer and Floyd know each other even better than most siblings, their fears, dreams, and what makes them happy.
But Floyd’s perspective on family isn’t the only one we see. We also see some important moments with Lee and Miss Jane. Miss Jane has one of the funniest and most touching lines: "All of us is a bit touched if you look close. That makes family." We see in the song "Heart and Hand" that Lee and Jane love their family deeply. In fact, it’s one of the only times we see beneath Lee’s gruff façade. Miss Jane believes in God and family every bit as much as Floyd. In Act II, she says to the grieving Lee, "When death comes a-partin’ a family, you don’t know the whole lonesomeness till way long after. I done witnessed the God-fearin’ man turn to the devil at such times . . . but I also seen the weak grow stronger in all sorts of love."
It’s significant that both Homer and Lee suffer a kind of breakdown when they have to face their impotence, their inability to rescue Floyd. Nellie comes close to a breakdown before "Going Through the Mountain," when she too is feeling important, as the men at the camp keep refusing to let her go underground to see Floyd. Family is everything to these people, and facing the impending loss of one of their own is devastating. But Nellie’s breakdown is only momentary because she realizes she can see Floyd even without going under.
God is another major theme in the show. Though Floyd is not religious ("I know I warn’t no Sunday-school Mama’s boy."), he is a spiritual man ("But faith is hopin’ for somethin’, believin’ what you cain’t see. I had faith all my life."). He tells Skeets he knows his mother is up in heaven. He tells Jewel Estes that when it’s his turn to die, he wants to meet Jesus above ground. When Floyd realizes he’s dying, he turns to God to ask him what heaven is going to be like. He’s not afraid of death because he believes in heaven and he believes he will be reunited with his mother, something he’s been waiting for. God and spirituality is a comfort for him, especially now. Like Les Misérables, Floyd Collins sets up a contrast between two views of God, a merciful God and a vengeful God. In contrast to Floyd who believe in a benevolent, non-traditional, non-specific God, Lee believes in an old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone, vengeful God. Lee believes the Devil led Floyd into the cave and that only prayer can get him out. Yet Floyd thinks God let him into the cave, that God gave him the honor of being the first person in Sand Cave’s wondrous chambers.
Floyd’s spirituality is tied to Nellie’s mysticism. The show makes it very clear that Nellie possesses some kind of psychic abilities, that she and Floyd have some kind of very real supernatural connection. Nellie is a strong-willed woman, which could easily be interpreted as crazy among uneducated folk in 1925 rural Kentucky. And she’s psychic, which would definitely be considered crazy in that time and place. In Act II, she "hears" Floyd during Lee and Homer’s argument, and she starts singing to Floyd. Lee hears this and assumes she’s going crazy again. Is this why she was locked up in a mental hospital? Did she hear and talk to her dead mother? And did she tell anyone at the hospital that she could hear her brother Floyd back at home?
As we meet her, she has just returned from a lengthy stay in the mental hospital, and we see that she has learned (either in the hospital or maybe before) how to live in her head, how to escape the unpleasantness and restraints of the real world by escaping inward. She sings in Act II:
Some people go place to place;
Some people go underground;
Some gotta go crazy like;
I jes’ journey in,
An’ that is where I’ve been.
In other words, Homer has to explore the world, Floyd has to explore underground, Lee is losing his mind, and Nellie travels inward and finds piece in the psychic realm where she can be with her mother and sometimes with Floyd. When Nellie and Floyd really connect psychically in Act II, they sing "welcome home" to each other – this is where they belong, together in the psychic world. Nellie tells us that she and Floyd were "together" when she was in the hospital, even though they weren’t together physically. She carries her mother’s life force with her, which she shares with Floyd.
Nellie and Floyd’s psychic connection becomes an important dramatic device. When they connect – Floyd underground and Nellie above ground – we hear the same music in Act I and Act II, a kind of psychic musical motif. They are both connected deeply to the natural world. Floyd and Nellie both apparently talk to the crickets. Floyd talks to the cave. Nellie hears things – her mother? – in the wind. When Floyd first hears Nellie in Act I, Skeets hears only the wind. The wind becomes a symbol for their special gifts. When Floyd hears her in the wind and asks if she’s come to rescue him. In fact she has, but neither they or we know that yet. In Act II, she hears the wind blowing and she tells Skeets that it’s getting to be time – meaning time for Floyd to cross over, to with his mother. Has her mother told her this through the wind? She says into the wind, "Cave-in don’t matter none. I’m a-come to you, Floyd – no matter what." Floyd has told her that he dreamed of a cave with a gold at the end of the rainbow. Is this heaven? Did he dream his own fate and not know it?
Nellie comes to Floyd in his dream, which arguably happens in the blink of an eye, just as Skeets breaks through the cave wall, and she helps Floyd cross over to heaven. In real life, the diggers swore they could hear Floyd just before they broke through, but when they got there he was dead, just as it happens in the show. But in that moment that he lets go of the physical world, Nellie takes him on a journey to help him understand what’s happening through the world of the dream. Nellie does finally rescue Floyd by helping him escape his physical tomb by entering heaven. Lee treats Nellie like a cripple, and nobody thinks Nellie can do anything, but ultimately she’s the only one who can save Floyd. Early in Act I, Nellie tells Miss Jane that she and Floyd will sing a "cave duet" and in fact they do, just before Floyd dies.
Sure Enough, His Fortune is What He Found
Because of the nature of this story, and because Guettel and Landau had real life events to follow in their story structure, death looms large in this work. But though the end of the show is objectively depressing, it doesn’t feel that way in performance. In the opening number, Skeets sings, "Sure enough, his fortune is what he found." His fortune – his fate – is to die in his cave. His three friends are introduced with the comic "Rock and a Hard Place" but though it’s a very funny, playful song, it’s all about near death experiences and introduces death as a theme. Then we find out Miss Jane’s first husband died after being trapped in a cave. We find out Floyd dreamed of being trapped. At the end of Act I, Homer says to Floyd, "You ain’t gonna drown or nothin’, ya know," and yet he will. The official cause of Floyd’s death was drowning, from the water dripping down into his throat. It’s a throw-away line that only registers as creepy for the people who know the real story.
The Sound of Glory
The music of Floyd Collins does so much of the show’s dramatic work. As mentioned above, content dictates form. Like Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, Guettel’s music functions as two separate but inter-related scores which describe the two different worlds of the play. The music of the world above ground is a fairly authentic recreation of 1020s Kentucky bluegrass, its rhythms, its forms, and its instrumentation. The music of Floyd’s world beneath the ground is in Guettel’s own quirky, far more sophisticated musical language, owing much to Sondheim’s tradition but also uniquely Guettel’s voice. The underground music also hints at the now familiar Americana style developed by Copland and used by many after him, full of open fifths and broad anthems.
The one exception to these two languages is the Act II opener, "Is That Remarkable?", a faux vaudeville number performed by three newspaper reporters. Again, as Sondheim did in Anyone Can Whistle, Guettel uses the musical vocabulary of early American musical theatre as the language of falsehood and insincerity. Is this a rejection by Guettel of traditional musical comedy? It’s easy to see Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, the first of his truly ground-breaking scores, as such a rejection. Does Guettel and Floyd Collins also share this view? One might argue that "Remarkable," the only song in the show in that style, isn’t integrated into the fabric of the score very well, belonging musically to neither the world above or below ground. But it works because the very different sound of this song belongs to the very different reporters, the outsiders, the city slickers, the manipulators. They don’t belong in this world and so they get music that doesn’t belong in the show’s musical world. It’s a valid musical choice and the show’s only old-fashioned show stopper.
In 1999, while the show was running at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Guettel added a new song, "Where a Man Belongs," to replace "Rock and a Hard Place." Though the new song is a strong one and better characterizes the community as a whole, it doesn’t fit easily into the fabric of the show. First, though it takes place above ground, its music is more like the music of the underground. Second, it’s about the community rather than individuals, about ideas rather than people, and it robs the audience of their initial identification with Bee Doyle, Ed Bishop, and Jewel Estes, which is so very important late in Act II. Guettel admits that it’s often very difficult for a writer to come back and add material to a piece years after its creation, to get back fully into the world and vocabulary of the show. Just as Sondheim’s later additions to his shows ("Make the Most of Your Music" in Follies, "Something Just Broke" in Assassins) feel grafted on rather than organic to the pieces, so does "Where a Man Belongs." And though Guettel prefers the later song, he acknowledges that others may disagree and may prefer to use "Rock and a Hard Place."
The Act II musical sequence, "The Carnival," is mostly dialogue over underscoring, along with cave calls and yodeling from Floyd. At first glance, it seems that this piece also breaks the rule of the two styles; it takes place above ground but sounds like the music of the world underground. But at the end of the piece, we find that Skeets has been narrating this sequence to Floyd while Skeets digs. So in reality, the sequence takes place underground, in Floyd’s imagination as Skeets describes the vendors, the automobiles, the crowds, the balloons and souvenirs. So strictly speaking it follows the rule of the two styles, and perhaps it even offers us a clue that what we’re seeing is yet another example of storytelling, a view of the world the only way Floyd can now see it – in his mind’s eye.
Tying the Score
The use of musical themes and motifs have been as staple of opera have hundreds of years, but since the era of the modern musical in America, since Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, these devices have found their way into the more sophisticated American and British musicals. Sondheim has become the master of the practice and the younger generation of composers, Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, and others, have learned well from him and his scores.
Musical themes and motifs are bits of music (motifs are just shorter themes) that are tied to characters or ideas, to help tell the story, to connect people and ideas, to support textual themes, and to lend a sense of unity to the score. In Floyd Collins, almost all the motifs Guettel uses come from the opening caving sequence. Floyd going down and getting trapped is the genesis for everything going on above ground. Just as all the other action comes from his initial action, so too so much of the other music comes from his initial musical sequence. One of the most prevalent motifs is the echo phrases in "The Call," the four-note phrase that jumps way up on the second note than skips back down (it’s the last echo phrase before the lyric "There ain’t never been another man in here"). This motif shows up in a lot of places throughout the score, representing Floyd’s cave.
Much of the music that underscores Floyd getting trapped the first time (called "Trapped" in the score) comes back whenever bad things happen in the cave, in Skeets’ underscoring for "I Landed On Him" and in the Act II cave-in and shaft collapse. The first time Floyd gets trapped the music quotes the melody of the song "Lucky" at the end. It’s an interesting moment because we haven’t heard the song "Lucky" yet, so we can’t yet recognize the melody. But this foreshadows Floyd’s connection to Nellie, and once we do hear "Lucky," in which Nellie tells Miss Jane the things Floyd has told her, we hear a musical connection back to Floyd – an ironic connection since Nellie’s talking about lucky and the motif connects us back to the cave-in. Also, when we first hear it in the cave-in, it’s dissonant, using "wrong" notes that distorts the melody. It’s not the pretty melody Nellie will soon sing; Floyd’s luck has gone wrong.
The nonsense syllables Floyd and Homer sing in "The Riddle Song" show up as a "brother" motif a few times in the show, representing the courage Homer brings Floyd. Floyd sings this musical snippet right before the cave-in that shuts him off from Homer and the others in Act II. Floyd senses the cave-in coming and it becomes his version of "Whistle a Happy Tune." This same motif shows up in the dream.
The solo violin at the beginning of Act II, as Homer acts for Cliff Roney’s film, is a slow version of one of the main themes in "The Carnival," foreshadowing the craziness that’s coming. Roney’s movie is only the beginning, the music is telling us. It’s going to get worse and it’s going to get even more out of control. Also, the accompaniment figure that starts "The Carnival" is a faster version of Floyd’s cave echo motif from the beginning of the show. This echo motif and a motif from "Lucky" show up all over "The Carnival."
In the middle of Act II, as tempers flare between Homer and Lee, Nellie hears Floyd and starts singing to him music that's based on several of Floyd’s echo calls from the beginning of the show, including Floyd’s our-note echo motif. The end of this musical underscoring also quotes other music from the opening caving sequence ("No more plowin’ a hardscrabble field"), but this time it’s dissonant and harsh, to underline the fact that Floyd was doing all this to impress Lee, to help the family, and now the family is being torn apart by it.
The dream is full of musical motifs. As Nellie prepares Floyd for crossing over, she starts with music that includes Floyd’s four-note echo motif, the same music we heard as when they connect psychically in Act I. Homer shows up in the dream representing Floyd dreams of success, and Homer’s music reprises "Time to Go" from the opening sequence. This is the music of Floyd’s dreams of success. As the dream crowd sings Floyd’s praises, Floyd sings the brother motif from the "The Riddle Song." As the scene focuses on the family, we hear more music from the opening, this time another occurrence of the "hardscrabble" motif. This is Floyd’s hope of making success for his family and finally getting approval from Lee. As the dream music gets busier and more complex, Nellie and Jane join Floyd is singing a melody from the beginning of the dream, a section in which Nellie reassures Floyd that everything’s going to be okay. Family is where Floyd finds comfort, but Lee is noticeably absent from this moment.
The dream climax as Floyd quiets everyone and demonstrates to them the immensity of his cave by doing his echo call from Act I. But this time, there is no echo. This is not the real world and things don’t work the same way here. This is the first big clue that Floyd is dreaming, that he has not really been rescued. Floyd can’t understand why no echo returns him, and it’s Lee, the one whose approval means everything to Floyd, who bursts Floyd’s bubble, who tells him that it’s all a dream, that Floyd is still trapped in Sand Cave. The crowd begins chanting Floyd’s epitaph, "The Greatest Caver Ever Known" (actually, the real epitaph is "The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known"). Floyd is dead and it’s time to cross over to the other side.
Ideally, the dream sequence should fool the audience as it fools Floyd. The audience should believe that Skeets broke through, and that like other artificial storytelling devices throughout the show, Nellie's leading Floyd off the ramp where he lies is just a stylistic device. But there are clues. Floyd rises easily up off the ramp just as he did in the fantasy sequences in "The Riddle Song." In the real world Floyd can only come and go through the hole over his head; he can only just step off the ramp in his imagination. Also, the lighting is different from the scenes in the real world. Some directors chose not to fully stage the carnival, to keep it as storytelling like the opening "Ballad of Floyd Collins," and like Skeets’ various monologues, with the actors standing still on stage facing the audience. This not lends the show a degree of visual unity, but it also helps fool the audience in the dream into thinking that the unreality of the scene is just a stylistic choice. Of course, the biggest clue that it’s only a dream is the lack of an echo when Floyd calls into the cave.
The show’s final song, "How Glory Goes" is one of the show’s most moving moments and also a fascinating piece of theatre craft. The word glory figures prominently in the first and last of Floyd’s songs. And we can see in the different ways the word is used in these two songs how Floyd’s world view has changed. In "The Call," Floyd says that the sound of the echoes in the cave is "the sound of glory" calling to him. The echoes, the voice of the cave, the symbiotic relationship Floyd feels with the cave represents to him his future – success, wealth, fame, respect, and comfort for his family. But over the course of the show, Floyd lets go of those dreams. Eventually, his only dreams of the future are being free and being above ground. He lets go of his dreams of great success, although we see in the dream sequence, he does not completely forget them. By the time the show ends, Floyd’s idea of glory has changed. Now, glory is heaven, being with his mother and being with God.
What’s so wonderful about the way Guettel and Landau wrote this last song is the utter consistency in Floyd’s character. He knows he’s going to heaven, but he wants to know what he’s getting into. He wants to know what to expect. He’s never been scared going caving because he always knew what to expect. He knew he was ready for anything. But heaven is a completely foreign place for him and he wants to be prepared. In the song, he asks God questions about what heaven will be like, and in his questions we see what Floyd’s own vision of heaven is – being with his mother, trees, wide open spaces, lots of light, the smell of freshly baked bread, friends and family all around. At the every end, Floyd does what he knows best, what he always does when he goes into an unknown cave. He does his cave call out into the great unknown to see how big it is. That’s what he knows, that’s how he explores, and it only makes sense to him to measure the size of heaven the same way he measures the size of a new cave chamber.
Though Floyd dies, though we may wonder if he might have been rescued if there had been less chaos above ground, the end of the show is not really sad. After all, Nellie had rescued Floyd. She has shown him the way to heaven, where he will be reunited his mother. Floyd is going from one kind of heaven – his caves – into another kind of heaven. He’s a born explorer and he’s not afraid.
The original off-Broadway cast album is available on CD. At press time, neither the script nor score had been published, but Adam Guettel said there are plans to publish the piano vocal score and vocal selections. The most valuable tool in understanding these characters and the events that transpired while Floyd was trapped is the book Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins by Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Bruckner, which was revised and expanded in 1999. This book chronicles the entire ordeal in great detail, day by day, hour by hour. It explores all the major players in detail. And it also contains great pictures. as well as diagrams of Sand Cave, Floyd’s path down, and how and where he was trapped. Also, it’s still possible to visit Sand Cave and Floyd’s grave in Cave City, Kentucky, and if you talk to the locals and get the insiders’ secrets, you can also find Crystal Cave (down a long, unmarked dirt road), where Floyd’s house and refreshment stand, the staircase Floyd built, and the entrance to the cave still stand. Both Crystal Cave and Sand Cave have been closed, but there are other caves in the area where you can take tours to get the feel of being down under. For any fans of the show, it’s well worth the trip.
Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.