The Old Wicked Songs currently filling Off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre, has words by Jon Marans (1957-) and music by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) -- an odd coupling but an excellent one, despite the 101 years that separate them. In tandem, their Old Wicked Songs gave the Rent tunes a good run for the Pulitzer Prize last year.
Rarely has a straight dramatic piece arrived as musically immersed as this one. Its very title derives from the first line of the final song, "Die alten bosen Lieder," in Dichterliebe (The Poet's Love), the famed 16-song cycle that Schumann set to Heinrich Heine's poems of remembered loves and losses.
It's this classic opus, brimming with equal measures of joy and sorrow (the twin emotions of the play), that a crafty old Austrian professor employs to put a derailed young American pianist back on the right musical track.
At 25 Stephen Hoffman (Justin Kirk) is a prodigy past his prime, burned out after a brilliant beginning and dispatched to Vienna for professional help eventually not to the famous teacher he was promised but to that teacher's sometime associate, Prof. Josef Mashkin (Hal Robinson), a cranky bigot of 60.
More bad news follows: For one used to the glamour of a budding solo career, Hoffman is humbled-to-the-point-of-humiliation to find himself rerouted into vocal accompaniment, and Mashkin's method of getting him there is through singing Dichterliebe -- a Teutonic take on the Betty Ford Clinic's tactic for finding one's self through swabbing toilets and other ego-crushing endeavors.
This technique of singing the blues away a pianist lifting his voice in song to cure his professional sterility is valid and much-practiced, according to Marans. "It happens a lot in the universities and conservatories," he says. "A piano player is only interested in his sound rather than in thinking about the other people who have to sing. He needs to know how the singer feels as well."
Something like that sent the author himself to Vienna to study music in 1978. "I went there to learn singing because I wanted to be a lyricist. As a lyricist, I wanted to know how the singer felt." And, no, he quickly postscripts, the character of Mashkan is not based on a specific teacher rather, "a compilation of quite a few men. I had some great teachers." One of the represented occurred stateside: Lehman Engel, who ran a lyricist workshop at BMI that Marans attended. Another was indeed a prof. in Vienna who trained him with Dichterliebe, a piece of music which, contends the playwright, "reached me emotionally more than any of the other song cycles we worked on."
Another Dichterliebe devotee is Robinson, who, though not a pianist, learned to play the piece for his own enjoyment 30 years ago and actually performed it professionally. "The way the music and the drama go together I think it's the genius of this piece, actually," opts the actor. "The first time I read this play, I understood it. The Dichterliebe resonated in me. I heard the whole thing in my head because I knew the music so well. This play follows the emotional development of the Dichterliebe. I don't know how much of it could have been conscious in Jon's mind and how much of it was a subconscious kind of process that came out of him, but it's perfectly in sync with his story."
Robinson has played the teacher in all three of the play's productions, but his pupils varied with each. Roy Abramsohn originated the student role when Old Wicked Songs lifted off at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre; Michael Stuhlbarg inherited the part when the play came to New York's Playhouse 91, and now Kirk has taken it on for the open-ended run at the Promenade Theatre.
The actors turned out to be the prime movers in making this play happen. Abramsohn found the script in L.A. when Marans was toiling ignominiously in the TV vineyard ("The New Carol Burnett Show") and tossed it to Frank Ferrante to direct in Philadelphia. Robinson, who'd played the foil to Ferrante's Groucho in a Goodspeed revival of Animal Crackers, was contacted for the teacher role, and he in turn signaled Daryl Roth to check it out for a possible New York City production. Roth fell in love with the play on first reading and, with Jeffrey Ash and The Barrow Group for co-producers, brought it to town. Seth Barrish, co-artistic director of the latter, wheeled the Barrow Group into the production ranks because he was hot to direct the piece, coming as he did from a heavy musical background as a professional jazz pianist, clarinetist, composer and arranger.
"I always love it when I am able to channel the musical part of my life into whatever dramatic piece I'm working on," he says, "so it was a delight on many levels." Between productions of Old Wicked Songs here, Barrish staged a Barrow revival of C.P. Taylor's Good and, toward the end of its run, took over the pianist's position in the show when the latter was called to Carnegie Hall.
To find a safe haven for the play prior to its extended engagement, Roth slipped it into a suddenly open slot at the Jewish Rep last fall, offering it to subscribers as a way of just getting the play up on its feet and renting the space. The acclaim it got from critics assured a longer run.
"There are some Jewish issues running through the play," Marans admits, "but I really think this play is about two musicians. I mean, that's what I wrote. It's about a teacher and his student and the friendship that develops."
This friendship is fiercely won the banging of egos is positively Wagnerian but when the student polishes off the last Schumann, the two turn and look at each other as the lights dim men who have journeyed a long and dissonant way.
The night I saw Old Wicked Songs -- and most other nights, I'm told -- a grateful and affected audience sprang to its feet as one, full of cheers and tears.
-- By Harry Haun