Adam Guettel wrote Floyd Collins, a musical based on the true story of a man who became trapped in a cave he had discovered, dying a few days before he could be rescued. It's not a happy story - he discovers quite a few things about himself that he has trouble dealing with once he has no company apart from his own voice.
Guettel does something amazing in this show, something that, as far as I know, hasn't been done anywhere else in the musical theater canon - he has Floyd sing, in harmony, with his own echo as it bounces around the walls of his prison. He accompanies himself to keep from going insane, follows the flow of his own words until the line between sanity and clarity of thought blurs and fades into meaninglessness.
When he finally dies, Guettel's music plays off Floyd's last fleeting moments of sanity, bringing into question where the loneliness ended and the redemption began, where exactly his humanity gave in to the unexpected withdrawl. Only by being forced to pull back from his exterior world was he able to finally see his neglected interior realm. In the most concrete sense, he was trapped in a small room with his soul.
- - -
An echo is more than a mirror. As the voice bounds and rebounds it goes through subtle iterations of timing and pitch, becoming something simultaneously ghostly and frigidly human. It becomes larger than life, a sonic landscape of things that cannot rightly fit inside a fragile human frame. It spins and dances, morphing into something totally other by the time it comes back to where it started.
And, like us, it dies. It fades slowly, its last keening breath lamenting all the things about ourselves we can't possibly know until it's too late - that we are temporally flawed, finite and infinite, blessed and unrepentant. We eat this life alive and give back what we can, an amount that seems to be too little, too late, no matter what vantage point we take ourselves in from.
But still, through all of that, we sing. We sing long and hard, losing our breath to the canyon that sucks it straight from our lungs, internalizing our every conscious though and spiting it back at us, a chimera of its former self - otherworldly enough to be foreign, but rooted so close to the center of our lives that it still, after all those years, makes us shiver and weep.