By his early teens, Adam Guettel was enjoying a career on the operatic stage that would be the envy of any young singer—not to mention adults three times his age. In gigs as a boy soprano at the Metropolitan and New York City operas, Guettel was flexing prodigious musical muscles even before hitting puberty.

A few years and chest hairs later, Guettel's musical interests were maturing—and he wasn't so much interested in assuming the familial mantle of musical theater songwriting (his granddad is Richard "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" Rodgers; Gypsy author Arthur Laurents is his godfather). So Guettel went his own way, soaked up Stravinsky and Stevie Wonder, played in a few rock bands, went to college and, well, a few hit shows and Tony awards later, it looks like he's well positioned to assume that mantle after all.

Guettel (pronounced "gettle"), a '60s child, has always walked the line between opera and musical theater. And with his breakout hit musical The Light in the Piazza, he has composed a gorgeous score that has critics scrambling for the appropriately highfalutin, gushy adjective: "lush—romantic—operatic!" Guettel, somewhat surprisingly, takes issue with that last descriptor.

"I think 'operatic' is a term that is something of a misnomer, in the sense that when most people read that word, they think of opera in the 19th-century terms of implies a kind of cloudiness or melodrama, which we don't do at all."

Piazza is a swoony romantic story by playwright Craig Lucas (based on a novella of the same name by Elizabeth Spencer), whose writing Guettel says allowed his lyrical side to take wing. And he feels this lyrical gift separates his work from that of his peers on Broadway. "Life is a nuanced and multicolored thing, it's not only about screaming at the top of your lungs, which is what much contemporary theater music tends to be," he says, taking a pointed jab at the hyper-amplified jukebox revuesicals so in vogue.

So instead, with a cast of golden-throated actors singing what is one of the most tuneful and lovely Broadway scores to be heard in several seasons, Guettel's come full circle: marrying his love of joyful popular music with a well-pedigreed background.

"When I was young I listened intensely to Stevie Wonder, and I prayed to God that the song 'Golden Lady' would stop skipping on my record player, and in fact, it stopped skipping! I don't mean to sound like a nut," he says, "but my prayers were answered."

Broadway Across America at the Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Saturday, April 10-14; 2 pm Saturday, April 14; 1 and 6:30 pm Sunday, April 15. $23-$70.