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33 Variations

Jane Fonda returns to the stage in Moises Kaufman's play.

33 Variations and Its 190-Year Trip to Broadway

Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations stands alongside Bach’s Goldberg Variations as one of the greatest works of its type ever written for the piano. Completed in 1823, the piece has inspired academic discourse, countless recordings and now a play, Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations. Though Beethoven has appeared on Broadway at least twice before 1910’s Beethoven and 1984’s Beethoven’s Tenth starring Peter Ustinov, Kaufman's new drama is a breakout gig for the Diabelli Variations, as he weaves their story through one involving a terminally ill musicologist’s rocky relationship with her adult daughter.

So how did a set of waltzes nearly two centuries old turn Beethoven into Broadway’s hottest classical music import since that Amadeus kid, much less inspire Jane Fonda’s first performance on a New York stage in 46 years? Let’s start at the very beginning a very good place to start with a tune largely dismissed as schusterfleck—which translates roughly into “hogwash.”

First Movement: Diabelli & Beethoven
In early 1819, a music publisher named Anton Diabelli commissioned 50 of Vienna’s greatest composers to write a variation on a waltz he created. His aim was to publish the pieces in one volume, with proceeds benefiting the widows and orphans of the Napoleonic Wars. Easy money for a good cause, it seemed, until Ludwig Van Beethoven turned the project into a four-year pain in der hintern.

Beethoven scoffed as Diabelli’s offer, blasting the waltz as unworthy of his time. Diabelli was incensed, knowing his book would be incomplete, and likely less profitable, without Beethoven’s contribution. At some point, however, Beethoven began work on not one, but a series of variations on the waltz, and Diabelli announced plans to publish the new compositions in a separate volume.

Exactly why did Beethoven change his tune? Facts are scarce, and myths are legion. Some believe Diabelli paid the composer handsomely for a large set of variations. Others think Beethoven just wanted to prove he could make great art from slim material. Or literally one-up Bach, whose Goldberg Variations capped off at a mere 32.

What’s certain is Beethoven cranked out 22 variations before summer, all written in a “merry freak,” according to his pupil Carl Czerny. He then put them aside—something he rarely did—to complete a mass and some piano sonatas. Years passed as the variations lay untouched and Beethoven grew increasingly deaf. Like many friends and colleagues, Diabelli wondered if the once-great composer was washed up, and lost hope of ever publishing a complete set.

In early 1823, Beethoven revisited the old sketches and completed them during another three-month “merry freak.” Stunned by the finished work, Diabelli published the two-volume Vaterländische Künstlerverein in 1824. One volume featured Diabelli Variations, while a second collected the 50 other pieces commissioned five years before.

Second Movement: Beethoven & Kaufman
A hundred and eighty years later, Moises Kaufman was in the mood to hear some Beethoven, so the director-playwright headed for Tower Records near Lincoln Center. A clerk picked out a copy of the Diabelli Variations and told the story of how they came to be. Tower Records has since gone out of business, but if that clerk’s still in town, Kaufman owes him a drink, or house seats, or both.

"It immediately captured my imagination,” Kaufman said last spring. “Why would someone of Beethoven’s stature choose such a trivial melody and spend four years on it? It’s like Philip Glass becoming fascinated with a Britney Spears song.” Sensing the subject’s dramatic potential, he went home and started writing that night.

Known for his investigative, non-fictional approach, Kaufman creates theater the way Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood: take a real-life event, gather all facts and personal details, and mold it into an accurate yet compelling drama. No slouch when it comes to research, he and his Tectonic Theatre Company found fame with Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, then spent two years readying The Laramie Project, the story of Matthew Shepard, for the stage. The Beethoven project took three years.

The sleuthing started with Dr. William Kinderman, a professor of musicology at the University of Illinois. The two worked around the clock for several days, and Kinderman provided contact info for peers and associates, whom Kaufman grilled via e-mail— not just for their classical expertise, but also for insight into their lives as musicologists. Two years after walking into Tower, he packed up and headed for Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, Germany.

If Mozart was the boy genius from whom music emerged in note-perfect form, Beethoven struggled with and agonized over his work, compulsively sketching out even his slightest musical ideas. Some are well-notated, others less legible, many splattered with tomato soup. They’re all stored at Beethoven-Haus, where the composer was born in 1770. Less of a collection and more like a sacred paper trail, Beethoven’s sketch archive has long been a mecca for scholarly snoops. Kaufman arrived for the first of two visits, ready to roll up his sleeves.

Third Movement: Kaufman & His Play
During his research binge, Kaufman developed two storylines: a fictionalized account of Beethoven's struggle to finish the Diabelli Variations before losing his entire hearing, and one about Katharine Brandt, a musicologist with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis Lou Gehrig’s disease who races against time to resolve her own obsession—why did Beethoven devoted so much to such a minor trifle?— while half-heartedly addressing her estranged daughter’s need for closure. The action flip-flops back and forth, establishing many parallels between Beethoven and Katharine.

In addition to the fractured timeline, the play’s staging calls for other Kaufman-esque elements, such as Katharine’s frequent fourth-wall breaking. In some moments, she even schools the audience on how to listen to certain variations as projections of the original sketches display Beethoven’s music notations “lento,” “piano,” “forte” and personal reminders “need cheese and milk”. Kaufman also hired concert pianist Diane Walsh, who performs two-thirds of the variations during the play, as well as several bars from the sketches that have never been heard in public.

After workshops at Sundance Theatre Institute in Utah, Georgetown University, the University of Illinois and the Orchard Project in the Catskills, 33 Variations began rehearsals at Arena Stage Theatre in Washington, D.C.—the first time Kaufman created a new work without his trusty Tectonic troupe.

His unconventional, ever-probing approach often baffled the cast. Kaufman worked from a 100-page script or a “play document,” according to dramaturg Mark Bly, plus 130 pages labeled “unused moments.” Nicknaming the play 333 Alterations, an article The Washington Post asked Mary Beth Peil, who starred as Katharine, if the process was unnerving. “Yes!” she said, laughing. “And it’s definitely not for everyone. I know many actors who would run screaming from this work.”

33 Variations had its world premiere on August 24, 2007, and drew enthusiastic reviews. The following March, the play earned the Steinberg New Play Award during the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky. The following month, it debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, with Jayne Atkinson taking over the role of Katharine Brandt. Bloggers began buzzing that a Broadway premiere was “in the works and not far behind.”

Fourth Movement: Fonda & Broadway
The announcement of a 2009 Broadway production of 33 Variations wasn’t surprising, given its proven appeal. What did catch people off-guard—and turned the play into national news—was the casting of Jane Fonda at Katharine. Yup, that Jane Fonda. Forget the fact that she’d only acted in two movies since the Clinton administration. The last time Fonda appeared on a Broadway stage was in 1963’s Strange Interlude, when JFK was president.

Although she’s turned down many Broadway scripts over the years, Fonda signed on for 33 Variations not only because she loved the role of Katharine Brandt, but because she identified with the personal issues presented in the play. Fonda herself grew up with an emotionally withholding father actor Henry Fonda, and later sorted through a difficult relationship with her own daughter, Vanessa Vadim, now 40. “I’ve lived it from both sides,” the actress recently told The New York Times. “I know what it feels like to have a relationship with a child where you sometimes feel it’s two ships passing in the night and the signals can’t quite reach one another and you don’t quite know why.”

Plus, having lived in Atlanta since marrying Ted Turner in 1991 the couple divorced 10 years later, Fonda was simply excited at the prospect of living in New York again—not to mention reacquainting herself with a regimen of daily rehearsals, rewrites, cuts and director’s notes that get a production ready for Broadway critics and audiences. “I love notes,” she told the Times. “I’m going to be sad when this part of the process is over, and the whole thing is locked into place.”

Fittingly, Fonda is creating her own detailed account of her Broadway return by blogging on her website, Sometimes posting during the show “I’m writing this during a break in act two…”, she cops to technical mishaps “I just screwed up a line” and contemplates the stage savvy of her lapdog Tulea “she knows the difference between the applause at intermission and the applause at the end”. Maybe Fonda’s entertaining blog will inspire scholars 200 years from now, in a manner similar to Beethoven’s sanctified sketches. Just don’t expect to come across any tomato-soup stains.

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