Sunday, August 26, 2007

Moises Kaufman: 33 Variations (a layered play about the composition of Beethoven's famous variations)


From Aug. 24, 2007 to Sept. 30, 2007 Arena Stage in Washington DC (in the Waterfront district, not too far from the new Nats stadium) is presented a “preview” of “33 Variations”, by Moises Kaufman, also directed by him, in the auxillary Kreeger Theater, which has a conventional stage with stadium seating.

The play presents two layered stories: one, Beethoven’s composition of his famous Variations on a Theme of Diabelli, Op. 120, for piano, and maybe the longest variation form composition in music literature. The tale is that a publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) wrote a perfunctory waltz theme and invited fifty composers, including Beethoven, to write one variation a piece. He would publish all fifty for a handsome profit. That was numbers-driven music publishing, 19th Century style; and perhaps the dilettante Diabelli (mostly businessman and not artist) thought of himself as the composer's "search engine" in the pre-tech enlightenment era. Beethoven reportedly thought the theme was too trivial to be worth his attention, and relayed the message back through his business manager, Schindler. But then he took an interest, and first was going to write six variations, and the number grew to 33. The variations include a fugue, and the last variation is a stately minuet (ending on one forte C major triad), which Kaufman choreographs to give the play (about 120 min) a curious epilogue. The variations would be composed over many years, with a three year break, and Beethoven’s compositional style would deepen as his deafness intensified and finally, in 1822, became total and complete. The cerebral style is reflected in some other variation sets that form the finales of a couple of late sonatas, no. 30 in E Major (used in a critical scene in the indie movie "Trick"), and the last, in c minor (with the Arioso and variations). For the play, a pianist (Diane Walsh) plays excerpts from about half of the variations in the sequences in which they were actually composed.

The story is told in parallel with the tale of an aging musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Mary Beth Peil) who is dying of ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- we don't learn "the diagnosis" for a while), with her daughter Clara (Laura Odeh) having to care for her. A male nurse Mike (Greg Keller) helps, and there is some development of a romantic relationship with the daughter. Dr. Brandt travels to Bonn to research the composition of the variations, and the parallel stories are told simultaneously, sometimes with characters from both on the wide stage at the same time. The stage background includes compartments and projections of Beethoven’s handwritten notes and handwritten scribbly drafts. The point is made that Beethoven composed from written notes and represented the common man (in the post French Revolution era) where as Mozart had been a prodigy composer of the Austrian court.

During the modern story, the daughter is encouraged to grow closer to her mother, with a degree of forced intimacy (the term is used in the script) that frightens her at first, as she resists having to touch her mother to give physical therapy. Later, though, she winds up feeding her mother.

The musicology of the piece, as discussed in the play, presents the Diabelli Variations as a mediation on the nature of dance, starting with a dance that is more social (the waltz) and ending with one the is stately, courtly, proper and conservative (the Minuet, which used to be the third movement of most symphonies until Beethoven popularized the scherzo). Beethoven would explore the dance more fully in the Symphony #7 (with its famous Allegretto in place of a slow movement, and a finale that could almost work in a disco). My own piano lessons with the Sherwood course emphasized form, with the Sonata form being the most developed, and the variations being a special opportunity to explore musical fabric for its own sake. I recall a piano teacher calling the Liszt Legends (St. Francis Walking on the Water -- one of my favorites) variations, but they are not in the same sense. The most famous modern example of variation form is probably Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (a theme often used by other composers for variations).

After the play, Kaufman led a Q&A for the audience. I said that I saw this as a film as well as a play. Kaufman says that the idea for the play came to him as he was visiting a Tower Records store just before Tower Records shut down.

The play is a stunning mixture of music as aesthetics, and the moral side of family values.

I did pick up a CD of the Diabelli Variations, a London Decca 4758401 with Vladimir Askenazy as pianist (49 min) with a supplement: "12 Variations in A Major from Paul Wronitzky's Ballet Das Waldmadchen", WoO 71 ("The Forest Maiden"). The Diabelli, when played at home, does have a hypnotic effect. The entire composition is in C Major except for the fugue, Var. 32, in E-flat, and the Minuet indeed provides an ironic conclusion, final C Major chord and all.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Comedy Club on DVD: Eddie Izzard, Kate Clinton


Netflix has a number of DVD’s of comedy-club like monologues. Some of them do a lot of satire on GLBT issues, or other major political controversies and show up the hypocrisy of politicians.

Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill (Ella Communications / Edgewater, 1999) is one of several Izzard shows. The subtitle, of course, refers to the famous 1980 Brian de Palma film. It was was originally produced in New York City at the Wesbeth Theater. Izzard is a transvestite, dressed in a fleshy cape covered with stars and wrapped around “her” body, with a bowl haircut that resembles a man’s. The stage has a wall with what looks like a map of the LA area. The DVD starts out with narration about San Francisco, trying to link the cable cars to Alcatraz, before the comedy show starts. He talks about why he didn’t join the Army, but how he could teach the Pentagon a thing or two. He mentions “don’t ask don’t tell” early on, and comments that the Ban deprives the military the element of “surprise” whatever its shock and awe. The comments sound strangely prophetic given the date of the show. He goes ahead and plays world history teacher, talking about Stonehenge, Henry VIII, the way we were during the two World Wars, and then brings us up to date on Bill Clinton. At one point he mentions “The Gesture” and doesn’t quite tell us what it was, at least when I was in the Army: aka “OGAB” aka “O Go Way Butterfly!” (This informal skit got acted out in the eyebrow barracks at Fort Eustis (Fort Useless) VA in 1969 by the men (one of them having shaved some of his forearm to give blood) by imitating Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips, and then just doing the limp wrist and saying the lithp-lisp "yeth: with a moon face; it was a real show. It was followed by invocations of me as Chicken Man long before I became Mr. Burns of The Simpsons.) Later Izzard talks about Steve McQueen (“The Blob”, “The Great Escape”) as a caricature of an American Man. He gets around to talking about space exploration, how we keep looking for monsters on Mars and don't find them, and also makes a strange comment about anthrax, two years before it was a public issue.

Comedy Presents: Kate Clinton (2006, Liberation / HDNet), performed in LA, is a bit more to the point on the gay issues, asking all the obvious questions about how straight society is to be harmed by gay marriage or by letting gays serve openly in the military.

Another comedy performance to check out is "Suzanne Westenhoefer -- Live at the Village" from the Village Theater in Hollywood (2004, Image). She certain has fun with the urban legends about gays.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Senioritis, from Cappies


Senioritis, as a colloquial term, refers to the tendency of some high school seniors to slack off after getting college acceptance during their senior years at high school. This has become a big problem at some universities, who have sometimes withdrawn acceptances, or placed students on probation at admission.

The musical Senioritis(135 min) is produced by Cappies, and written by nine students in Virginia and Maryland. The book writers are Miriam Engle and Maggie Shaw; the music composers are Riley Keenan, Dustin Merrell, A. J. Pendola, Abi York; the lyrics are by Erick Pope and Maddie Underwood. The play is directed by Glen Hochkeppel. I attended a performance Aug. 5, 2007 at McLean High School in northern Va. The show started about twenty minutes late, as the production team set up digital recording and rehearsed the audience in applause, talking, and laughing, to add to the DVD, which will eventually be sold.

The musical is in two Acts, and seventeen scenes, with an intermission after Scene ten. Some scenes have more than one song, and others are all spoken. The stage props are rather simple but fill the wide stage with color, giving the effect of a 3-D movie of a musical of the “Hairspray” genre. It reminded me more of that than of the obvious “High School Musical.”

Nevertheless, the story concerns a number of students slacking off while producing their own musical, a “High School Mystical.” Some of the songs have surprising and amusing names, such as “C’s and D’s Are Very Good for You” (the teachers); “Senioropolis” (where the kids stage the musical in mock Greek times with togas and just a hint of dirty dancing), “Crackdown.” “Older Woman and a Younger Man”, “You’re Fired” and “Admission to Life” – which is what college is for.

In fact, there are some clever lines about other social issues, like a “global warming drill” or a line where one student fills out his college admission essay and wants to say, “If I don’t go to college, I’ll have a miserable life.” Later, the student contests what his father wants him to do with his life. There are little shreds of issues of great moral importance. The conspicuous regal character in "Mystical" seems to be called "Babushka" -- I'm not sure of the significance of using a Russian doll (there is actually a toy retail chain by that name, as in the Mall of America near Minneapolis) as character nickname.

Apparently this musical will be performed in the Kennedy Center lab, Aug 6-7.

Andrew Karlsruher has directed a short subject on this theme that Fox Searchlight Pictures is due to release this year.

In 1956, in 7th grade, I acted in the comic operetta "The Sunbonnet Girl" by Morgan and Johnson. The operetta seems to date back to about 1930, descriptive link here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Comedy Club in line at the Washington Monument


Well, I paid $4.35 for a timed ticket at the Washington Monument (the real one) at 9 this morning, picked up the ticket in the kiosk-building on 15th St, walked up the incline and found it to be an efficient experience.

As we waited in the time ticked holder's line, the park attendants decided to entertain us with a ten minute comedy club. They said we would climb the 555 feet of stairs because of one them had as training for the 52nd Airborne. At one point they tried to get me to join the act.

I say, invite Hiya Shia LaBeouf to put on an act some time during a visit.

The Monument is the highest structure in Washington DC, whose building height limits have always been controversial. Out in the suburbs, the limits seem to get higher quickly. The other high points are the Capitol, The Post Office Tower, and the Washington Cathedral. At one point, another visitor loaned me his high powered binoculars and I could see a black limousine with Dick Cheney getting at the White House on the Ellipse. Just lime in the movies.