Jane Fonda's Broadway Homecoming

Jane Fonda's Broadway Homecoming Jane Fonda returns to Broadway after a 46-year hiatus to star in 33 Variations, the story of Beethoven's last obsession.
33 Variations star Jane Fonda
33 Variations star Jane Fonda Photo by Joan Marcus

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Jane Fonda's new workout is Broadway: theatre aerobics — doing 33 Variations, eight times a week, at the O'Neill Theatre. It has been 46 years since she was a Main Stem star, and her regimen now is quite different from the "go for the burn" edict she espoused in 1982 in her first exercise tape, still the top-grossing home video of all time.

What's changed? "Sleep," she says. "You need to get enough sleep. Sally Field and Eve Ensler — friends of mine who have done theatre in the past few years — said, 'Don't do anything else. Just sleep.' And I've discovered the wisdom of those words."

The 71-year-old actress and activist has indeed heeded the call to Broadway, but she hardly considers this new and utterly unexpected move a comeback. "It wasn't like I decided I wanted to do theatre and went looking for a play," she says. "The play looked for me, and the play found me at just the right moment in my life."

33 Variations — written and directed by Moisés Kaufman, who directed the Tony-winning I Am My Own Wife — wrestles with one of classical music's abiding mysteries: why Ludwig van Beethoven spent four of his last years writing (for a pittance) 33 variations on a simple waltz penned by Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli. That question has hung heavily in the air for 185 years, and it remains unanswered. So Kaufman conjured up a crusty contemporary musicologist (Fonda) to suss out a solution that gives the illusion of dramatic closure. Obsessed with Beethoven, she suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease, which gives her mission a desperate urgency.

"The play is not about disease," says Fonda. "What the disease does — as the deafness did for Beethoven — is add a time constraint. We both need to accomplish our passion, our obsession, while there is still time. There's a ticking time element to it.

Colin Hanks, Jane Fonda, Samantha Mathis and Zach Grenier in 33 Variations promotional art

"It's a very unusual play — very unusual — in that there are eight actors but there are really ten characters. The music is a character, and so is the set. In my passion, I conjure up the past, and the past is interwoven with the present. The set moves like a character and interweaves with us. Then, there's a classical pianist — Diane Walsh — who plays through it. As Beethoven talks about what he is writing and as I'm looking in the archives at sheets of music, you hear the music as he composes it. I have to say I've fallen in love with Beethoven. I'm in awe of him. The fact I'm able to converse with him — albeit during a hallucination but nonetheless — is very moving to me."

Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda was born Dec. 21, 1937 — the night that "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" premiered — and was named after a distant relative: the third Mrs. Henry VIII. She first set foot on a stage supporting her father, Henry, in a charity performance of The Country Girl at the Omaha Community Theatre. "Dad told me I was talented," she recalls. "I did it as a lark. I had no intention of being an actress."

Nevertheless, the lark took wing on Broadway in 1960 in There Was a Little Girl, winning a Tony nomination as well as a Theatre World Award. She was directed by a friend of the family, Joshua Logan, who put her in movies (via "Tall Story").

She won two Oscars (for "Klute" and "Coming Home") out of seven nominations — and an Emmy for "The Dollmaker," playing an uprooted rustic and echoing her father's famous Tom Joad. Nine of her movies have come from plays (among them: "Period of Adjustment," "Sunday in New York," "Any Wednesday," "Barefoot in the Park," "A Doll's House," "California Suite"), and one is coming to Broadway this season as a musical ("9 to 5"). She has even played a playwright on one distinguished occasion (Lillian Hellman in "Julia"), but "the only movie I was conscious was a play, because I purchased it for my father, was 'On Golden Pond.' I produced that and saw it as a play." It won her dad his overdue Oscar, Katharine Hepburn an unprecedented fourth Oscar and herself her only nomination as a [very] supporting actress.

"Dad's first love was theatre," Fonda says. "He did Mister Roberts and didn't miss a performance in four years. At a time when it was unusual for Hollywood stars to keep coming back to theatre, my dad did. He is very much with me now. I'm happy to be in this community. I was too young before. I didn't realize what it was. Having been so many other places and circling back now, it seems like the first time."

The company of <I>33 Variations</I>
The company of 33 Variations