In 1925, Collins ventured into a large cave with a mind to turning it into a tourist attraction. On his way up to share his discovery, a watermelon-sized rock fell on Collins' foot, trapping him.
"He was squeezed in so tight, couldn't even get down there to brush away the debris to free his leg," says Guettel.
In the seventeen days Collins was trapped, thousands of people gathered above ground to watch the ultimately doomed rescue unfold.
The crowd included everyone from famed pilot Charles Lindbergh (who was flying negatives from the site to a newspaper) to purveyors of food and souvenirs to service the throngs of curious onlookers and media.
"And then there's Floyd down there trying work out whether or not his life has added up to anything, and will he get out and what happens if he doesn't," says Guettel, who recognized the multi-layered story as great fodder for a musical.
"The ripples that go into his family are particularly touching."
Show first opened on Broadway in 1996
Floyd Collins first opened on Broadway in 1996 to critical acclaim. The score weaves together elements of Americana music with classical influences, even drawing on the echos of the cave.
Although he grew up in New York City as the son of a prominent family (he is the grandson of famed composer Richard Rodgers) Guettel says he can relate to the Kentucky cave explorer.
"As a composer you spend a lot of time alone," he laughs. "I love...discovering a place no one else has been before. In my own way I do that from time to time as a writer. And Floyd's great thrill and edification in life was to say 'God gave her to me first' and spell his name out on the floor."
'Last thing I wanted to do'
Guettel says he backed into the field of musical theatre, despite his reservations about entering the same field as his legendary grandfather.
"It was the last thing I wanted to do...it just seemed like an like an idiotic move. There's the nepotism thing," says the maternal grandson of the man behind classics such as Oklahoma and The Sound of Music.
Guettel admits that, on the surface, there's not much of a market for the kind of musical theatre he wants to do.
"It's almost like being a manuscript illuminator. There's not a big market for esoteric, highly embroidered musicals about obscure fellows who've died in caves."
Despite success in rock bands and as an actor, Guettel found that creating musical theatre was his calling.
"It was the hardest thing I'd ever tried to do," Guettel says, "and you never get good at it. You just can only get better."
Guettel has garnered critical praise for his work, including Tony awards for Light on the Piazza.
"I'm proud to be a member of a very small army," he says. "We're wandering around in our own little set of values. And I think it's better to hold a candle in the dark."
Vancouver's Patrick Street Productions' verson of Floyd Collins runs at the York Theatre from March 11 - 30. The cast includes CBC Television's Kevin McNulty (Arctic Air) and Krystin Pellerin (Republic of Doyle).