‘Floyd Collins’ casts light out of a caver’s darkness

You could make a case that Floyd Collins remains the most talked-about American explorer of the last 90 years, except for astronauts. They had to soar upward through thousands of miles of outer space. All Collins had to do was go down 60 feet and stop.

It was the stopping that made him famous. Because once Collins got wedged in Sand Cave – a misnomer for a crevice in the ground in his native Kentucky – he was trapped by a fallen rock in an inaccessible passage. Attempts to rescue him led to a newspaper frenzy in the pre-radio days of 1925, when reporters across America blasted daily updates onto front pages.

Floyd’s story has never died. It inspired multiple folk songs, a cynically brilliant film by Billy Wilder in 1951 (“Ace in the Hole,” aka “The Big Carnival”), a fascinating 1979 book called “Trapped!” by Robert Murray and Roger Brucker, and the musical “Floyd Collins,” which composer Adam Guettel and author Tina Landau opened off-Broadway in 1996. (It won an Obie, the off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony, for its score.)

Carolina Actors Studio Theatre will give the musical its Charlotte debut starting Thursday. Brucker, who has been intrigued by Collins for almost six decades – and who descended himself into Sand Cave six times to better understand Collins’ predicament – will come to Charlotte to talk about him.

“I didn’t set out to be Floyd’s spokesperson,” says Brucker. “I’m a storyteller, and his story gnawed at me. I’ve been in tight places myself, but Sand Cave was especially dangerous. It’s made out of breakdown boulders sort of cemented together with mud. Every time you went in, pieces as big as your fist would drop on you, and then a piece as big as your lunchbox would fall. As mud heats up, it begins to release those rocks. And when Floyd dug out pieces of this stuff (to go forward), his leg got stuck in solid rock.”

The need for compassion

Why did Brucker explore Crystal Cave, Collins’ most famous discovery, and pose next to his coffin after it was moved there? Why did the story take root with him – not to mention so much of America?

“I’m convinced Skeets Miller’s empathetic nature made it take wings. He talked to Floyd for several days and made many trips into the cave. What I hope (audiences) take away from this story is that some people show more compassion than the rest of us; they can face horrible odds trying to sustain another human being. If people acted more like neighbors, we’d have fewer instances like that shooting down in Florida.”

William “Skeets” Miller wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal and won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the two-week event. Wilder’s movie vilified the reporter played by Kirk Douglas, who needlessly extended rescue efforts and caused a tragedy. But Miller, so nicknamed because he was mosquito-sized at 117 pounds, did his best to bring Collins out and make the world understand his lonely predicament.

He’s a character in the Landau-Guettel musical, along with Collins’ contentious family and would-be rescuers. (And Floyd himself, of course.) Murray and Brucker’s book became the factual backdrop for Landau’s script, and he says it’s pretty faithful.

“People who lived in Floyd’s part of Kentucky are generally hard-working, not the stereotype of the lazy ignorant moonshiner. I had to convince the people who put on this play that they weren’t portraying hillbillies and rubes. It’s most authentic in the range of the characters’ concern, from Homer Collins’ feelings for his brother to (his father) Lee’s concern that he’d told Floyd he’d come to a bad end – and now he was right.

“If there’s a villain in the piece, it’s Henry St. George Tucker Carmichael, who’s portrayed as an arrogant know-it-all.” (He was the engineer who dug a shaft through rock near the trapped man.) “Allegorically, he represents the idea that science would save Floyd, though of course, it wasn’t going to.”

Did the creators take major liberties?

“I don’t think so. We did our best not to exaggerate in the book, and they followed it pretty well. The music is wonderful, and Adam has done a good job of capturing the essence of it. I agree with (Stephen) Sondheim, who admired it a lot.”

Caving and music

Brucker is nationally known as a caver and writer about caving: He helped map Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave and says, “For 60 years or so, it has been my main focus in life. It’s now 392 miles long, and some authors have predicted it will be 1,000 miles long by the end of this century.”

Yet Brucker is within his area of expertise as a music critic: He has written three opera librettos and graduated from Oberlin College in his native Ohio, where John Kander was a classmate. (You’d know him as the composer of “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”)

“I’m a curious person, and I always want to know how things are made,” says Brucker. “I think all people are born with an exploring instinct: Day-old infants want to find a nipple right away; if you put your little finger in their hand, they explore it.

“Part of society seems bent on stamping that explorer instinct out of us. When I was in kindergarten, we were making the highest tower anyone had ever built out of blocks. Then the teacher said, ‘Line up everyone, and go to the bathroom!’ I thought, ‘You don’t know anything,’ and that was the end of that. But I stayed curious.”