Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
“33 VARIATIONS” – La Jolla Playhouse
AIRDATE: APRIL 18, 2008
It’s a seductive story. The kind that’s irresistible to a lover of history.
In 1819, the music publisher Anton Diabelli composed a little waltz tune for piano. And he invited the 50 most prominent composers in Vienna to create a variation of his waltz. Liszt and Schubert, among others, agreed. But Beethoven demurred. Then, Beethoven unexpectedly had a change of heart and mind. In fact, he became obsessed with the little waltz, and spent four years on the assignment, ultimately coming up with not one musical modification, but 33, famously known as the Diabelli Variations.
The story had a magnetic pull on the brilliant theatermaker Moisés Kaufman, best known for creating “The Laramie Project,” and for winning a Tony Award for his direction of “I Am My Own Wife.” His stock in trade is turning history inside out to plumb the emotional core. But historical fact and conjecture weren’t enough for him here. He interwove his Beethoven narrative with the tale of a fictional, modern-day musicologist as obsessed with Beethoven as Beethoven was with the waltz. She travels to Berlin to the Beethoven Archives, shortly after being diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Her deterioration parallels the composer’s failing hearing, health and sanity. She has conflicts with her daughter. Her nurse becomes her daughter’s boyfriend. The Teutonic librarian at the archives softens up and befriends her, morphing into yet another unappreciated caregiver. Across two centuries, the stories interlace, as we watch the Variations evolve, thanks to a wonderful performance as Beethoven and magical projections from his sketchbooks. As the pieces are being conceived, composed and described, we’re treated to magnificent snippets of the music, played live by consummate pianist Diane Walsh.
“33 Variations” premiered last summer at the Arena Stage in Washington , D.C. It’s been undergoing considerable changes during this West coast premiere. The piece still needs some work. But there is so much here that’s emotionally, dramatically and historically satisfying. It’s breathtaking to get even the tiniest glimpse into the artistic process and creative obsession, health concerns be damned. Kaufman is a dazzling theatermaker and director. The staging is superb, though the acting is a tad uneven.
The intertwined stories are fascinating. But we get more of the researcher than we need, and less of Beethoven than we want. Much more of the woman’s physical degeneration than necessary and less of a mother-daughter resolution than desirable. But the stubborn perseverance and indefatigable spirit of the historical figure and the fictional one are perfectly paralleled. The final minuet, which is, in fact, the final variation, brings the two worlds together. Would that Katherine’s post-mortem meeting with Beethoven had given her, or us, some insight or answers. We’ll probably never know what drove Beethoven to be consumed by Diabelli’s ditty. But the play certainly piques our intellectual and musical curiosity.
[“33 Variations” runs through May 4 at the La Jolla Playhouse]
©2008 PAT LAUNER