Theater advance: '33 Variations' turns Beethoven piano masterpiece into intriguing theater
The play “33 Variations” simultaneously tells two intertwining stories in different time periods.
Between 1819 and 1823, in the final years of his life while struggling with impending deafness, Ludwig van Beethoven curiously composed a set of variations on a mediocre waltz. Two hundred years later, a modern-day music scholar is driven to solve the mystery even as her own health and relationship with her daughter crumbles.
“By juxtaposing these two stories, playwright Moisés Kaufman is building a bridge for the audience to travel through time, making the stories more accessible and relatable,” explains Brian Powell, dramaturg for Silver Summit Theatre Company’s production of the 2009 Broadway play.
“Beethoven’s deafness is usually regarded as sort of a 'tragedy of the virtuoso,' however, because the way ‘33 Variations’ unfolds, we are able to see Beethoven’s story as one of triumph and optimism. The musicologist, Katherine Brandt, is having a similar experience but because of her tenacity and stubbornness, we see how strong she really is as she copes with her terminal illness.”
“We watch both Beethoven and Katherine facing their mortality,” adds director Jesse Peery. “Their minds remain sharp, but their bodies are deteriorating. It is in these kinds of circumstances that we take each moment of life a little less for granted.”
"It's really a question about inspiration," playwright Kaufman has said. "What is it that Beethoven sees in this 32 bars of nothing? I always say it would be like if Philip Glass found a song by Britney Spears and decided to spend the next four years of his life studying and making variations on it."
Along with relating the two stories, the Powell explains that “33 Variations” is “a concert and a marvelous piece of theater in the same evening,” with a live onstage pianist playing the variations throughout the play. This convention prompted the New York Times to eruditely indicate that the drama “impressively and unobtrusively makes musicology accessible to the uninitiated without professorial condescension.”
“Music and theater work seamlessly together, so naturally this is a great medium to tell this sort of story,” says Powell. “The first thing the music does is set the tone for the scenes. At the same time, the play itself is written like a piece of music — full of emotion, rhythm and cascading crescendos.
"This play is so accessible because of how the music is utilized. You can talk all night about how brilliant Beethoven is, but this play allows his work to speak — and sing — for itself.”
Peery is drawn to “33 Variations” in part by its unique structure and for its ability to “provoke, stimulate and entertain,” which follows the theater company’s mission statement.
“I’m intrigued by the distinctiveness of this play,” he says. “I’m intrigued by the way Kaufman has changed the formula of what we see when we watch theater and by his use of innovation.”
Explaining what the playwright devised for audiences to discover through “33 Variations,” Peery says: “I imagine every single person will not only have a deeper and more profound appreciation for Beethoven, his works and his genius, but hopefully a deeper and more profound appreciation for the relationships in their lives.”
If you go
What: Silver Summit’s “33 Variations”
Where: The Leonardo Museum at Library Square
When: Nov. 7-17
How much: $22-$25
Tickets: silversummittheatre.org or 801-541-7376
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