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Michael Phillips: In 'Days of Wine and Roses' composer Adam Guettel took on the challenge of putting alcoholism to music

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Does addiction have a sound?

Popular culture and several of the world’s greatest jazz musicians, from Charlie Parker to Bill Evans and back, say yes. It does. Many, in fact.

Film composers have dramatized all kinds of notions, rarely great or truthful but certainly dramatic, about what a life-threatening bender might sound like for full orchestra. In Miklós Rózsa’s heavy-breathing, Oscar-nominated score for “The Lost Weekend” (1945), Ray Milland drinks his way into oblivion accompanied by strings, brass, reeds and the then-alarming novelty of the electronic and otherworldly theremin.

A decade later, “The Man with the Golden Arm” — the Hollywood take on Nelson Algren’s tale of the heroin-addicted gambler Frankie Machine, played by Frank Sinatra — turned the title character’s chemical highs and lows over to Elmer Bernstein’s blasts of what might called “danger jazz.”

Then in 1958, television’s prestigious “Playhouse 90” series introduced a different, more claustrophobic portrait in addiction with “Days of Wine and Roses.” The JP Miller drama, directed by John Frankenheimer, told of a three-way love affair between a public relations executive (Cliff Robertson), the company secretary (Piper Laurie) who joins him in a downward spiral, and whatever they’re drinking that night.

This was harsh stuff, even within its hopeful framing device of the Robertson character, Joe Clay, sobered up and sharing his life story at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It’s very hard to find online today, though for now the Internet Archive has a streamable copy.

 

When “Days of Wine and Roses” went Hollywood, in the feature film sense, the music took over and practically drowned the 1962 adaptation directed by Blake Edwards, with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in the leads. For millions of a certain age, just reading or saying the title leads directly to humming the Henry Mancini love theme from the 1962 movie. That theme will never die. Even if it’s not telling the truth about its own story.

Now we have the latest iteration of that story, which has been transformed into an unlikely, singular and heartbreaking stage musical currently in its Broadway premiere production. To be clear, “Days of Wine and Roses” is not going for size or spectacle. Its emotional fullness, however, feels enormous thanks to music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, a book by Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss”) and sublime turns from Kelli O’Hara and Brian D’Arcy James under Michael Grief’s direction.

I wanted to know how Guettel, now 59, went about dramatizing and bringing together these two lonely souls, even as the story tears them apart. Guettel’s own struggles with addiction found their way into the process, through the characters.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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