Florentine piazzas are not built in a day — nor even in a year, if the Italian courtyard in question is the make-believe one in the...

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Florentine piazzas are not built in a day — nor even in a year, if the Italian courtyard in question is the make-believe one in the Broadway musical “The Light in the Piazza.”

“Light in the Piazza” debuted at Seattle’s cozy Intiman Theatre in 2003. Tuesday it returns in triumph, in a lauded tour playing the far larger Paramount Theatre, as a Seattle Theatre Group-Intiman Theatre presentation.

Set in 1950s Florence, and based on a deftly insightful novella by Elizabeth Spencer, the Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas work has had quite a journey: two “try-out” runs, yea and nay reviews on Broadway and much tinkering along the way. With Broadway shows so expensive to mount, and their chance for success so slim, how did “Piazza” beat the odds? And how has it changed since Seattle launched it?

Composer Guettel and Bartlett Sher (the director of Broadway’s “Piazza” and artistic head of Intiman) offer a candid peek behind the curtain at the nine-year odyssey of an unlikely Broadway hit.

1998: Love at first read

Guettel’s mother, composer Mary Rodgers, gives him a copy of Spencer’s story “The Light in the Piazza,” suggesting it might make a good musical.

Intrigued, Guettel buys the stage rights to the 1960 novella, about Margaret, an American housewife, and the romance between her lovely, brain-damaged daughter Clara and an ardent young Italian, Fabrizio. As their wedding looms, Margaret frets over whether to reveal her daughter’s condition to her fiancé and his genteel family, or hide it.

Theater preview

“The Light in the Piazza” plays Tuesday through April 29 at Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $25-$72 (206-292-ARTS or www.broadwayacrossamerica.com; information, www.theparamount.com) .

1999-2001: Retreats and collaborators

Working in a realm he calls “fairy-tale naturalism,” Guettel composes several songs inspired by Spencer’s subtly shaded love story. He collaborates briefly with playwright Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”), then links up with dramatist/Intiman associate Lucas.

The two head to Ucross, a remote Wyoming writers retreat. “They gave us a cabin, and we worked and worked,” recalls Guettel. “The project started sailing after that.”

Broadway? Guettel had “no expectations. I just hoped we’d get it done somewhere in New York, somehow.”

2002-03: The Seattle shift

Lucas and Guettel develop “Piazza” at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in Utah. Intiman manager Laura Penn sees the Utah workshop, and Intiman agrees to debut “Piazza,” with Lucas directing.

“My role was to encourage the collaboration, and be a backup player if Craig needed any help,” says Sher.

In May 2003, the action moves to Seattle — “too far away from New York for the national critics to see it” in its early stages, explains Sher.

After intensive rewrites and rehearsals, Lucas stages the $500,000 show (a fraction of what a musical costs on Broadway) on Intiman’s compact stage. It has an abstract set by Loy Arcenas, shadowy lighting, a small onstage musical combo and a cast led by New York actors Victoria Clark as Margaret, Steven Pasquale as Fabrizio and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Clara.

In June 2003, “Piazza” opens to general praise (with raves for Clark). But reviewers question the sketchy design values and the music’s bumpy blend of Broadway lyricism and sharp-edged modernism.

Some unfamiliar with the book (or the 1962 movie based on it) find Clara’s petulant behavior perplexing, and the wait to find out what’s wrong with her too long.

“Craig and I had to ask ourselves, ‘Who is Clara?’ ” says Guettel. “How do we frame her as someone you can identify with, but also different? What should we reveal about her, and when?”

To let Lucas focus on revamping the show with Guettel, it’s decided Sher will direct “Piazza” as it moves on.

“The switch was hard on all of us,” admits Guettel, “but Craig was a complete mensch about it.” Adds Sher, “There were times I worried if the show and our friendships could withstand the change. I love these guys and wanted us to stay friends, no matter what.”

2004: Little nips and big tucks

Before the next tryout in Chicago, Pasquale is cast in the TV series “Rescue Me.” Wayne Wilcox assumes the part of Fabrizio.

Much more is in flux. The compact Seattle set gives way to designer Michael Yeargan’s rendering of a piazza for the larger Goodman Theatre stage.

An entire segment, a taxicab ride, is cut. The revelation of Clara’s condition gets moved up. A dream sequence with big puppets is created — then scrapped.

And since there is “no passionate declaration of love from Fabrizio to Clara,” Guettel adds a new (Italian) love song, “Il Mondo Era Vuoto.”

A much-tweaked “Light in the Piazza” opens in Chicago in January 2004. The critics are respectful, but with caveats. In his review for theatermania.com, Jonathan Abarbanel doubts “anyone will make a commercial penny on [the musical], yet it’s a superbly crafted piece.”

More worrisome is the rep “Piazza” is getting as a high-brow piece to be coolly “admired” but not warmly “adored.”

Producers travel to Chicago to scout the show. Sher hears “a lot of interest from nonprofit theaters, and none from the commercial sector.” The creative team gladly accepts an invite from Lincoln Center Theater, a prime Broadway venue (but also a risk-taking nonprofit), to mount “Piazza” in 2005.

But first, more changes. Kelli O’Hara, who played Fabrizio’s sister-in-law in Chicago and Seattle, replaces Keenan-Bolger as Clara. Sher says the move would boost the romantic chemistry with a “Grace Kelly kind of Clara you fall instantly in love with.”

“Hundreds” of other actresses are considered before O’Hara gets the gig, though Guettel “always felt Kelli could be a wonderfully romantic Clara, in a pearly-mist kind of way.”

A new Clara necessitates a new Fabrizio: Matthew Morrison, co-star of “Hairspray” in Seattle and on Broadway.

Guettel adjusts his score as well, giving it “a richer, more generous and cinematic sound,” with six string players added to the pit band.

2005: Broadway buzz

In April, a more sensuous, lushly musical and vividly staged “Light in the Piazza” opens at Lincoln Center.

The creative team is delighted with the show’s progress, but the reviews are every which way. Guettel’s music is praised as the best Broadway score in a decade by some, blasted by others as “ill-conceived” and “unsatisfying.” Critics adore Clark’s performance and Sher’s “crystalline” staging, but are at odds on Lucas’ book.

However, there are finally some all-out raves: The Associated Press’s Michael Kuchwara calls “Piazza” the season’s best musical.

The mixed reviews don’t surprise Sher, due to the show’s unfashionably romantic, quasi-operatic bent. “Read the first reviews for ‘West Side Story’ and some of Sondheim’s inventive shows. They didn’t get [many] raves, either.”

But those who love “Piazza” tout it. Ticket sales climb, and the show has a respectable 504-performance New York run. It picks up 11 Tony Award nominations and six wins (including one for best score). It is telecast live on PBS, and the original cast CD wins a Grammy nomination.

2007: Full circle to Seattle

Captivated by Seattle’s “sweet-smelling air” and relative quiet, Guettel now lives here part-time. Sher is much in demand on Broadway and opera stages. Lucas is adapting Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and finishing a new play, “Prayer for My Enemy” — both for Intiman.

Meanwhile, “Piazza” sends out a touring edition that Sher claims is “essentially identical” to the Broadway show. Two in the cast appeared in the Broadway run: Katie Rose Clarke as Clara, and David Burnham as Fabrizio. Seattle actor John Procaccino plays Clara’s father. And Margaret is portrayed by Christine Andreas, who draws on her life as the mother of an autistic son for the part.

The Paramount’s “Light in the Piazza” will be a more polished, shapely work than the budding tuner seen here in 2003.

But its creators feel this city was instrumental to the show’s success. “It was a vulnerable little seedling,” notes Guettel. “But Seattle supported us and stepped up to give us valuable criticism. The show had a gorgeous gestation here.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com