The tragic story of caver Floyd Collins makes for an unlikely but entertaining and touching musical

On the evening of Jan. 30, 1925, Floyd Collins did not come home for dinner. He was busy trying to free his foot from a fall of rock that had trapped him 150 feet down in a Kentucky cave.

When he did not come home for breakfast, his friends started to look for him. Eventually they found him wedged in a tiny crevasse of sinister angles, pinned under tons of limestone.

Collins, 37, an avid spelunker, would not emerge to see the day again. But before he died, his plight would lead to what is now considered the first full-fledged media circus of the 20th century. The spectacle of a man fighting for life for 18 days, and the desperate efforts of the men who tried to save him, created a kind of fame that fed on itself. Between World Wars I and II, the Floyd Collins story fell just behind the Lindbergh crossing and the Lindbergh-baby kidnapping for sheer hype.

After Collins' body was laboriously recovered, his father sold it to a local cave-attractions magnate. The growing legend of his demise made a tourist attraction of his starved corpse, visible through a glass-lidded coffin. Placed along a popular path for tourists, the explorer had returned to the same backcountry cave where he died.

Just before the century turns, we again may visit Mr. Collins in a manner peculiar to modern America: the musical.

Floyd Collins, a critically acclaimed musical based on his final misadventure, will open the season of New Line Theatre. The tale of a cave explorer's ignominious end would seem strange fare for a musical -- maybe risking self-parody, even. (One song is titled "'Tween a Rock and a Hard Place.")

Not really, says New Line artistic director Scott Miller.

"Brushes with death can make really interesting musicals," Miller says. "Anything Goes just isn't as interesting as Assassins."

Who can argue with that?

The score for Floyd Collins was written by Adam Guettel, wunderkind composer and grandson of Richard Rodgers. Miller says that the music is 180 degrees from what you'll get with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Critics have called some of the tunes discordant, but not unpleasantly so. Cast member Michael Deak admits that many of the songs are challenging to perform.

But this is not your father's musical. Or your grandfather's, apparently. Floyd Collins is all about a freak accident that created one man's claustrophobic hell -- and the new kind of chaos birthed up on the surface by a pandering, voracious media and a morbidly curious public. The attempts to save Floyd by sinking an alternate shaft to him were flummoxed by people who knew nothing about caving and took charge of the operation, by the Kentucky moonshine being passed among the would-be rescuers, by the obstructive horde of gawkers drawn from miles around, and by everyone's favorite scapegoat, the media.

Radio and newspapers first suspected that the Floyd Collins story was a hoax concocted by a cave owner to bring in tourists. Folks soon found out it was no hoax, and they descended on Sand Cave in the Mammoth Cave region of Kentucky. Reporters mingled with the curious public, and the growing crowd soon included food vendors and hucksters selling balloons and souvenirs. Revivalist preachers speechified to the throng that Collins' fate was in the Lord's hands. Local officials failed to control the teeming crowd, which was getting in the way of the rescue miners. The National Guard was summoned. A barbed-wire fence was erected to separate the rescue workers from 10,000 socializers. The roads leading to Sand Cave were a traffic jam of Woodstockian proportions. The live burial of Collins was akin to today's highway auto collision that drivers slow to a crawl just to examine and appreciate -- only this accident lasted more than two weeks, and it seemed as if the whole country wanted a glimpse of the dying man.

Collins told rescuers that he felt cold and numb. It was 56 degrees at the depth where he lay. A steady trickle of snowmelt was dripping from the surface onto his face. He was starving and weak. Most of his body was pinned under rock. He was starting to hallucinate, and he was unable to tell sleep from wakefulness.

After 18 days of effort, it was over. A rescuer crawled from the cave tunnel to say that he had just seen Collins up close and that it didn't matter anymore. The caver was dead. A doctor said that the cause of death was probably exhaustion coupled with starvation.

How does all this look when performed in a theater? Previous productions of Floyd have adopted a minimalist approach, with Collins supported on a sort of stretcher that has been lowered into a depression at centerstage. There is little in the way of huge slabs of fake cave rock. The actor is propped up, facing the audience, his feet "trapped" beneath the level of the stage floor. He leans back, supine, and sings from this position for most of the show. In a hallucinatory fantasy number, he is freed and dances with the cast. Miller says this song has been known to make audiences sigh with relief from their vicarious claustrophobia.

In other songs, Floyd sings about his impending doom. Floyd's rescuers sing about his impending doom. And there's a bunch of other numbers. Somehow, the whole thing is strangely uplifting.

If this story seems familiar, that may be because of the 1951 Billy Wilder film The Big Carnival, originally titled Ace in the Hole. The highly cynical script is based on the incident, although it does invent a Mrs. Collins and other inaccuracies. Considered Wilder's first commercial failure, the movie stars Kirk Douglas as William "Skeets" Miller, the real-life journalist who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the accident.

And, of course, many will remember Baby Jessica, who lay trapped in a well but whose ordeal ended much more happily -- a swell idea for a musical.

Floyd Collins is performed at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 4-20, at the St. Marcus Theatre, 2102 Russell Ave. For tickets, call 534-1111.

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