Tag Archives: music

33 Variations

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend. ”
– Ludwig van Beethoven

True artists are their art. There is no separation between the human being and their creation; humans are merely a vessel for their creation.

These are some of the hypotheses offered in Moisés Kaufman’s new play, 33 Variations, which is currently in previews tn-500_fondawm0129211488at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. The idea of combining the story of how a series of songs came to be through the eyes of both Beethoven, himself, and the musicologist studying his sketches nearly two hundred years later, is what initially drew me to this play. When it was announced Jane Fonda, after a 46 year absence from the stage, had signed on to play musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt, I bought my ticket knowing that the words “sold out” would likely follow soon after.

As expected, I was the youngest person in the theater, by a good 30+ years — and that’s being generous. Nearly everyone at the Sunday matinee I attended came to see Jane. They thought they had an idea of the Jane they were going to see: Barefoot In the Park Jane, Klute Jane, Julia Jane, Coming Home Jane, The China Syndrome Jane, and, maybe even Hanoi Jane. If you grew up in my generation, however, your point of reference is more likely to be this Jane:jane-fonda2
which is probably why the audience tipped in favor of the grey-headed set.

But now the older crowd has one-upped their younger, theater-going counterparts, because 33 Variations is a beautiful, exquisite, modern work of theater. It is everything a play should be and more. Frankly, I’m almost surprised it made it up to Broadway and didn’t find a home downtown. It has the feel of experimental theater with a spare, but detailed and ingenious set, which combines pen, ink, paper, piano, sound, words, and musical visuals, via a screen on stage.

Moisés Kaufman has created an original piece of theater that marries language and music in an arresting fashion. To hear each line played on a piano by Diane Walsh, while Ludwigkellermannandfonda van Beethoven (played tremendously by Zach Grenier) “thinks” each note through out loud allows you to feel as if you are right there with him. In the words of Dr. Katherine Brandt, “I feel like I am looking over his shoulder as he composes.”

There were beautiful moments of straight monologue underscored, softly, by the piano, that nearly had me in tears. Like when Dr. Brandt says Beethoven’s variations stopped time: “They found moments to live in and expand. Right before he takes her hand to dance, when he misses a step, or asks, ‘will she like me? ‘” And, the goal of the present-day story in 33 Variations is to stop time as well. Katherine needs time to finish her paper, to learn more about her daughter, and to leave the world with one last thesis proved.

Oddly enough, for a woman so well-learned, Dr. Brandt seems content not having any sort of self-exploration beyond her investigation into the past of others. The story might be at fault here, but this is where Jane Fonda shines the brightest. In Dr. Katherine Brandt, Fonda has created a character, a vessel, that does not allow second-guessing. She comes up with a hypothesis and proves it, no further questions asked. The confidence, cockiness and self-absorption run high, but instead of writing the character off as a bitch, Fonda plays her as a deeply flawed, but fiercely intelligent woman. Perhaps the kind of woman we all are, deep down. She may show a few cracks, but does not break. She is, quite possibly, the ultimate expression of the public woman.

The supporting cast carve their own characters so meticulously, it feels as if each of them take turns becoming our lead actor, from Susan Kellerman (Katherine’s German counterpart, in more ways than one) to Samantha Mathis (who portrays Katherine’s daughter) and the dynamic Don Amendolia (as the music publisher, Diabelli who composes the thema on which Beethoven’s variations are based), Erik Steele (as “Friend of Beethoven”), Colin Hanks as “Nurse Mike,” (who manages to make the most of a part thatfullcompany331 could use a little more), and of course, Zach Grenier as Ludwig van Beethoven, they are all vital notes in each of the variations. It is a testament to both Kaufman as a writer-director, and the cast themselves, who appear to have the utmost respect for each other and allow each character, each variation, its moment to shine.

With all the revivals and adaptations, it’s rare to walk out of a theater feeling as if you’ve witnessed something unique and learned a few things along the way, but 33 Variations allowed me to feel a glimmer of promise for the future of theater. Hopefully, this play will inspire the work of other playwrights and perhaps in their work, we’ll catch a similar turn of phrase, a note, emotion, or maybe even discover the next Beethoven.

Me, Musically

There are certain blogs I’m obsessed with and visit religiously. My all-time favorite out of these is the NYT’s Measure for Measure: How to Write a Song and Other Mysteries. Music is one of the purest forms of writing and interpretation. The depths and volumes one has to convey when writing lyrics, a part for a cello or even singing, is genius at its finest. Reading this blog is bittersweet, because it triggers a wellspring of memories.

Music defined much of my early life. My parents quite accidentally provided me with an incredible musical foundation. Unlike my peers, I was never allowed to listen to Madonna. The rule was if you wanted to listen to anything, it had to play on a record (I didn’t get my own tape player until I was 10). This meant listening to whatever we had in my house, what could be pilfered from my grandparent’s Bronx apartment or what we could pick up at garage sales and second hand record stores. My mom’s collection consisted of Cat Stevens, Janis Joplin, the Flashdance soundtrack, Star Wars (no one knows where this came from), Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles and the Moody Blues. My grandparent’s apartment held Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Prima, Dean Martin, Lou Monte, Ella Fitzgerald, the South Pacific soundtrack, Billie Holiday and the Three Tenors. My Dad’s one album was the hit single, “American Pie.” Being naive, I assumed everyone listened to this stuff, when they weren’t listening to MC Hammer

When I was 12, we got our first CD player, with a six CD changer. It came with six free CDs: Bette Midler’s “Experience the Divine,” Highlights from Les Miserables, A Smokey Mountain Christmas (Christmas music as played by Earl Scruggs, on his banjo), Barry White’s Greatest Hits, the Best of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and a mix CD that featured such early hits as, “In the Mood” and “Rhapsody In Blue.” I fell in love with all of it. The call and response of blues, and the jazz of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was only appropriate to listen to at full volume. I had a very definite visual to go along with RIB, as it was my idea of what the Harlem Renaissance must have felt like. I have no idea how or why I connected a white, Jewish composer to an African-American movement, but mentally, it worked for me. It was only later in college that I discovered this was in fact Gershwin’s intention, as he said the piece was meant to be “heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.”

Beyond jazz, I was also in love with Broadway music. From the Les Miserables “highlight” soundtrack, to the Andrew Lloyd Weber CD, I had music from thirty years of Broadway right at my fingertips. I started singing them all, alone, in the living room. The songs always played at full volume, so I couldn’t never quite hear my voice above the music. It was my grandmother who told my parents she thought I might be a good singer and perhaps they might want to get me lessons, if anything, to relieve them all from hearing the same song over and over again while I worked to “feel it” throughout my body in the right way.

It had never occurred to me that people could go for voice lessons, so when I went to my first lesson, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. We went through scales and then I was asked to sing something. I didn’t own any sheet music, so I just went ahead and started, a cappella, not knowing how it was going to work. It turns out, I had perfect pitch, timing and belted so vivaciously that I felt a physical vibration in the room from it. That was all it took, I was hooked. Lessons began twice a week, then I found a mentor who worked with me an additional day a week in exchange for my babysitting services. I sang along to everything, including the violin parts of classical music. My voice was way more mature than my 13 year old body let on. I auditioned for local musicals, joined a jazz group where we performed at some really cool venues.

Eventually, I started going to Manhattan School of Music for further training. This was in addition to my lessons with a maestro and his accompanist on the Upper West Side, my ongoing jazz group and attending recordings, rehearsals and performances and even the Drama Desk Awards, for an off-Broadway musical my mentor was starring in. My idea of an education was to absorb as much as I could from as many angles as possible. For instance, if I was singing something from Evita, I’d research Eva Peron and the presidency of Juan Peron. That was my life, daily commutes into Manhattan from my private middle/high school in Westchester and endless hours of practice and homework from both schools.

Despite all of the work, passion and time I devoted to my love, I never quite felt my voice was good enough to perform solo. I knew in my heart of hearts, it was, but a crippling stage fright overtook me 70 percent of the time. And despite the mature voice, I was still an adolescent with zero confidence. I was starting to burn out from all of the pressure and fear I had put on myself.

One day, when I was 16, I simply had enough. I stopped, abruptly and permanently. My music books, scores and endless notes, CDs and programs began to sit in my bookshelves collecting dust. Today, my voice isn’t anywhere near where it used to be (this is especially evident during Karaoke sing-offs), but music still runs through me like blood. I remember every lyric to every song I’ve ever had to sing, including ones from elementary school. I may have been able to turn off the voice then, but my musical memory and my love for the art, can never be extinguished.

— Downtown