Notes from underground

April 16, 2006.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

The plight of an ordinary man trapped in a cave captured the fascination of America 80 years ago. Theatre Latté Da offers the area premiere of a musical that tells the story of Floyd Collins.

This stuff, it seems, never gets old. The deaths of 16 coal miners riveted America this winter – particularly in Sago, W.Va., where false reports that 12 men were alive twisted the knife of tragedy. Even joyful outcomes, such as the rescue of “Baby Jessica” from a Texas well 18 years ago, or the bittersweet triumph of Aron Ralston – who cut off his hand when trapped by a boulder – feed our fascination with nature’s remorseless power.

It was no different in February 1925, when every front page reported the latest news from Cave City, KY., where intrepid spelunker Floyd Collins was trapped 150 feet below ground in a cold, dark cave so narrow that he could not reach down and lift the boulder that pinned his left foot. For 18 days, Collins’ plight captivated the nation, drawing to the rescue site both the curious and kooky – hucksters peddling elixirs, vendors dealing apples and hot dogs, jugglers entertaining bystanders. In short, a circus.

Odd stuff for musical theater? Or perfect dramatic grist? Director/playwright Tina Landau thought the latter when she came across the amazing first-person account of Skeets Miller, a cub reporter from the Louisville Courier Journal in 1925, who went into the cave, talked to Collins, gave him food and drink and reported to the rest of the world.

Landau wrote a script, and in the early 1990s, composer Adam Guettel set “Floyd Collins” to music. It premiered in Philadelphia in 1994 and was given an off-Broadway production in 1996.

Guettel’s subsequent best musical Tony for “Light in the Piazza” in 2005 has spiked interest, but artistic director Peter Rothstein had wanted to stage show is running through May 21 at the Loring Playhouse in Minneapolis. Rothstein has assembled a promising cast, including Zoe Pappas (“Awesome 80s Prom” at Hennepin Stages), William Gilness (“Anything Goes” at Chanhassen), Randy Schmeling (“Beauty and the Beast” at Chanhassen) and shaun Nathan Baer (“Batboy” at Minneapolis Musical Theatre).

But before he had committed to putting the show on Latté Da’s schedule, Rothstein made sure he had secured Dieter Bierbrauer as Collins. It was a match made in heaven because Bierbrauer has had this musical on his radar for a long time. So hungry was he for the part that even when we was subsequently cast in the lead of “Tony” in Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s “West Side Story,” he made it clear he’d have to leave the  lucrative job early to play Collins.

“I’d never heard musical theater done the way Adam Guettel does it,” Bierbrauer said before a recent rehearsal. “It’s the perfect marriage of musical theater and the classical format of opera.”

Not his grandfather’s grandson

Guettel is the grandson of composer Richard Rodgers, and his style with “Floyd Collins” is an idiosyncratic stew of bluegrass, vaudeville, folk hymns and atonal dissonance. It does not hum well and that has split critics on the attraction of the chamber work.

“The melody gene seems to have skipped a couple of generation,” wrote Ed Siegel in the Boston Globe, noting Guettel’s heritage in a 2004 review. “Like many of his contemporaries, he has wound up in a no-man’s land that is as inviting as a dark, cold Kentucky cave.”

On the other hand, critic Terry Teachout, writing a year earlier in the Washington Post, gushed about “Collins” that he was convinced he had seen “the first great post-sondheim musical.”

The evocation of Sondheim has resonance given that guettel learned his chops under the great man. Grandpa’s collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein mentored Sondheim. Small world.

Bierbrauer has not seen a production of “Floyd Collins,” though he did get to meet Guettel after seeing “Light in the Piazza” last year.

“I was like a 12-year-old girl,” he said with a laugh.

Rothstein studied with Landau at the La Mama Umbria international directors symposium in Tuscany, Italy, in 2003.

“She is very interested in the American aesthetic of performance, and what is the American experience, finding the American icons,” he said.

And why would a man trapped in a cave be considered an American Icon?

Worldwide attention

Floyd Collins was an entrepreneur who chased the American dream. He was 37 in 1925 as he watched tourists flock to Mammoth Cave near his Kentucky home. What if, he wondered, he could find similar underground caverns on his property that would make him and his family rich? His prowess achieved local fame as he slithered into and out of cold, wet, wormy caves in search of one that “goes,” in spelunker parlance.

On Jan. 30 of that year, Collins was working his way thought a slim tunnel when a boulder fell on his left foot, trapping him. His family wasn’t too concerned initially when he didn’t return from his adventures – how many times had he squirmed into a tight spot, needing rescue? This time was more serious; Collins was in a space so tight that he couldn’t maneuver. People could reach him, but the could not pull him out.

Within days, the rescue effort was a sensation. Even in Minneapolis, the story topped the front page of the daily Tribune: “Physicians Rushed to Cave,” “Groans Heard in Cave Indicate Collins Lives,” “Hope to Save Collins Today,” “Hope for Cave Victim Fades.”

What made the attempt so poignant was that rescuers could talk with Collins, give him food and drink and offer comfort. Miller, a young reporter, crawled down many times, writing once that he “Tried to squirm over Collins’ body to reach the rock, but his body takes up nearly all the space. I squeezed in, hunting for some way to help him, until he begged me to get off.

As the drama continued, a Fellini-esque sideshow grew on the surface, with reporters, relatives and all manner of charlatans there to grab a piece of notoriety. The New York Times reported on Feb. 8 that 10,000 people picknicked at the cave site and a constant stream of cars brought people from hundreds of miles. “Hawkers are kept busy,” the newspaper reported. “Even the old-Time Medicine Man appears, and all do a thriving business.”

Ironically, an effort to warm the cave caused a rock slide and the path to Collis was blocked. A parallel shaft was dug frantically to reach him.

Miller, whose personal journey is one of the keys to the musical “Floyd Collins,” won the Pulitzer Prize for his astonishing work. He could not, however, save Collins.

“The quest is over,” reported the Associated Press on Feb. 17. When crews reached Collins, he was dead of exposure.

“It’s so distinctly American,” Rothstein said of this sad story. “He was trying to pull his family out of poverty and then to be buried alive.

“Everything about his musical is hard,” he said. “It’s hope-filled, and there is a sense of redemption, but emotionally, it’s really hard.

Remembering Floyd

2006.By Michael Metzger, Downtown Journal.

Vernon Dalhart sang whatever would sell. He sang light opera, Hawaiian songs, comic pieces, and even blackface minstrel material before turning his attention to country music back in the 1920s and ‘30s. Dalhart used more that 100 pseudonyms in his career, recording more than 5,000 singles, including the big hit, “The Wreck of the Old 97.”

By the time Dalhart died in 1948, however, he was largely forgotten. He had been giving vocal lessons and working part-time as a night watchman. One of the people he helped to commemorate in his long, forgettable career was Floyd Collins, a man whose story was at one time thought to be immortal but is today almost mostly evaporated from the pages of history.

But if you drive south on Interstate 65 in south-central Kentucky and take the Mammoth Cave exit, you’ll get a refresher course in the strange tale of Collins. He met his demise thereabouts in the soggy blackness of Sand Cave. Known as America’s greatest spelunker, Collins was exploring the cave alone with one light, no helmet, and in clothes ill-suited to subterranean adventure.

Naturally, when his foot got caught between a rock and a hard place, ol’ Floyd was in deep guano.

The subsequent search for the trapped caver was covered on live radio, sparking a nation’s ghoulish imagination.

His exploits and memory are resurrected in Theater Latté Da’s production of “Floyd Collins,” running now through May 21.

The musical features the tunes and lyrics of Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rogers, and Tony Award winner for “The Light in the Piazza.”