PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 33 Variations — Ludwig's Last Jam

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 33 Variations — Ludwig's Last Jam
"Do I hear a waltz?" you might rightly ask after the marches and minuets parade by as evidence in 33 Variations, Moises Kaufman's play about the compulsive, creative doodling that occupied Beethoven for four of his final years when Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli invited all of the world's great composers to submit for publication their variations of a decidedly nondescript waltz which he had written.
Jane Fonda takes her opening night bow; Moises Kaufman, Samantha Mathis with Colin Hanks; and Rose McGowan
Jane Fonda takes her opening night bow; Moises Kaufman, Samantha Mathis with Colin Hanks; and Rose McGowan Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The maestro resisted the red flag of competition at first, scoffing that the waltz was "a cobbler's patch." Then the temptation to grandstand set in, and the rest — if not precisely history — is the musical mystery tour that began March 9 at the Eugene O'Neill. Beethoven's 33, like his Ninth, came at the tail end of his life, and WHY he would devote so much of it to such inconsequence is the question before the house.

Two second-generation stars from the silver screen — Hank's daughter and Hanks' son — Jane Fonda, 71, and Colin Hanks, 31 — have been recruited to unravel this riddle which has been nagging at classical-music buffs lo these 186 years since Beethoven was able to pry himself loose for his obsession and finish the darn thing.

It is Fonda's first Broadway outing in 46 years and Hanks' first ever — although you'd not suspect it from the cool, clear-eyed poise they bring effortlessly to their parts.

She plays a smart, spiky musicologist on a mission to find out what the composer was thinking to waste his precious time on so ordinary a waltz, and she has a life-deadline as real as Beethoven's was (sans the deafness): she has started showing signs of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — "Lou Gehrig's disease," to the layman — a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells.

Hanks is, maybe not unexpectedly, Charm Concentrate as the male nurse who keeps Fonda's eye on the prize — and, conveniently if earnestly, romances her estranged daughter (Samantha Mathis) when the three relocate to Bonn to pore over the Beethoven archives, tended over a starchy Teutonic curator (Susan Kellermann). Contemporary times dip and swoop with Beethoven's times throughout, allowing the maestro (Zach Grenier) equal airtime to throw his genius around with his pretentious personal-handler (Erik Steele) and his sponsor-publisher, Diabelli (Don Amendolia, provoking warm thoughts of the late Akim Tamiroff). Kaufman, who also directed, stages these swift switches in centuries like a smooth, sweeping waltz.

Throughout the play, variations are introduced into the dramatic mix by a pianist on the sidelines (Diane Walsh), and, in one especially remarkable sequence, she plays a variation while Grenier as Beethoven talks his way through its rocky creation.

A tumultuous ovation welcomed Fonda back to theatre at the top of the evening and swelled again, all hands standing, at the curtain call. Homecomings don't come any better, and the actress appeared to be welling up a bit over the hearty response.

An hour later, at the after-party held at the darkly elegant and cavernous new nightspot on Lower Ninth Avenue called Buddakan, she was back in control mode.

Looking quite smashing in chaotic glare of TV cameras and paparazzi pop, she had a fast "No" to the opening-night nerves question and, indeed, evidenced none as she plowed through the evening as if she hadn't spent almost a half-century off-stage.

[flipbook] "I feel very confident about the show," she admitted. "Every day it's a lot of fun. I'm enjoying it a lot. It's the play — that's what does it. It wasn't this character as much as it was the whole ensemble piece — the way her story is interwoven with Beethoven.

"I never dreamed that I would becoming back to Broadway. I received this play, and what it said — what it's about — is something I was dealing with in a book I'm writing about aging. It's a very interesting play. The membranes that separate life and death and past and present are foreign to this play. I didn't realize it when I first read it."

Fonda 'fessed up to a certain amount of personal pride at making it to the top of the Broadway mountain after all these years — and, when a reporter suggested that her dad — Henry, a lifelong supporter and practitioner of theatre — was probably proud too, she smiled wistfully. "His widow was there tonight, and we talked about that."

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Hanks' Broadway bow puts him one up on his famous father, Tom, but not his stepmom (Rita Wilson). "She was in Chicago, right across the street from where I am now." His big debut didn't rattle him: "It feels like every play opening — a bit nervous but overall pretty good because you know you've worked on it a while. I've had an absolute blast doing this play. It has been a treat right from the beginning." It also helps that he's playing a character he likes. "He's a light-hearted guy who brings a little joy into the proceedings and is also responsible for helping bridge the relationship between Jane's character and Samantha's character."

It's not a comedic role per se, but he plays it with what can be called the Hanks light touch, prompting one scribe to wonder aloud how Hanks could go to town on a real comedy. "Well . . ." the actor replied, getting the ellipsis in with a simple inflection.

Mathis seems to be drawing Broadway debuters for her leading men — Chris O'Donnell in The Man Who Had All the Luck is the other recent example — "and I have been lucky both times!" she exclaimed. "Colin has been an absolute doll. We have a lot of fun together. I think the love story between the two of us is the human part of the play that people connect to — that and the mother-daughter conflict."

Enacting this conflict is a unique thrill for Mathis. "You know," she said, "there are moments where I'm in a scene and I'm looking at her and I'm going, 'Oh, my God! I'm on Broadway with Jane Fonda right now! I really am!' She's such a team-player and has been such a hard worker in this process. There has never been an iota of feeling that she's any less than a full part of the company, absolutely a mensch in that regard, and so you forget sometimes. Then, when we are all sitting around telling stories about our lives and how that affects the play, generally shooting the [bleep], her stories are, like, 'Well, I remember when Katharine Hepburn told me to . . . ,' you suddenly think, 'Oh, yeah, right, you're Jane Fonda.' I'm honored to play with her."

Grenier, sporting an unruly gray mop of a wig, is the plaster-of-Paris Beethoven we know and love, and playing him was more than a tad intimidating — "especially in one of the great cultural centers of the world. There are people who have very strong opinions about him and who have lived with him a lot longer than I have." His research did not include the cinematic Beethovens of Richard Burton, Gary Oldman and Ed Harris. "I sorta shied away from other artists portraying him because I just wanted to just find him for myself. I spent an enormous amount of time contemplating the man himself. I did the play out at La Jolla with Moises, and it was much more of an experimental process at that time. We had an extraordinary dramaturg, Mark Bly, who provided us with a large amount of books, and I did a lot of reading out there — more here — but ultimately I went to my own heart with him.

"One thing I gleaned that is very, very big: you need to simplify things to play them. I found he had absolute compassion and love for people and for what it is to be alive, what it is to go to the countryside, what it is to lose one's hearing and not be able to express himself socially. When the play starts, he's already withdrawing from society because of his hearing. He was a man who was always sending letters of apology, and writing music as a peace offering to people for his bombastic behavior. He was that sort of fellow. When he was losing his hearing, it became more serious."

The understudy for Beethoven and his pear-shaped patron, Diabelli, is cabaret artist Michael Winther, who has to don fat suits to do the roles. (So far, he has only had to do it once.) "It's a good job in these hard economic times," Winther reasoned.

Kaufman got the idea for his play from an esoteric Tower Records salesman and has stayed in touch with the guy — though, in the opening-night commotion, he couldn't for the life of him remember the name. "For some reason, he went right out of my head," the playwright sheepishly admitted. "Thing is, you go to a store one night, and then at the end of the night you have an idea for a new play. I went home and started writing. That was four years ago. I turned into a musicologist on this piece of music!"

First-nighters included Rosie O'Donnell, "Charmed" Rose McGowan ("Samantha Mathis is a friend of mine, and to be in the same air space as Jane Fonda is a complete honor"), film writer-director Richard LaGravenese, publisher Joe Armstrong, "Kings" performers Becky Ann and Dylan Baker, Valerie Harper (who still likes to be identified as "a Michael Kidd dancer" and will participate in the "Dancers Over 40" salute to Kidd on April 6), Richard Kind ("I'll be doing another 'Curb' ["Curb Your Enthusiasm"], and I have a Coen Brothers movie coming out in October called 'A Serious Man'"), Kim Cattrall, Entertainment Weekly's Mark Harris, director Christopher Ashley, Spring Awakening's Gideon Glick with John Cameron Mitchell (who's "trying to direct a film and raise money for it"), Joshua Jackson and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Fonda attended the Broadway opening of Eve Ensler's one-woman show, The Good Body, in 2004, and Ensler was the first celeb to hit the red carpet for Fonda, followed quickly by Joan Didion. Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd dragged her Mary Stuart (Janet McTeer, script in tow) straight from the rehearsals to the opening.

Other previews of coming Broadway attractions: Exit the King's Geoffrey Rush, God of Carnage's Marcia Gay Harden and Accent on Youth's David Hyde Pierce. Has the latter been upgraded since his Curtains Tony to Gable roles? "Well, hardly," Pierce gulped back (although he just finished his first week rehearsing the Samson Raphaelson play of 1934 that Clark Gable filmed in 1959 as "But Not for Me.")

Twice-Tonyed Tony Kushner said he was "working night and day" on a new play which will world-premiere May 9-June 28 as part of the three-play Kushner celebration starting April 18 at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. The opus is called — take a breath — The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. Kathleen Chalfant, twice-Tonyed Stephen Spinella and Linda Emond — Kushner regulars, all — star. "We're rehearsing in New York the first two weeks because our director, Michael Greif, is opening Next to Normal on Broadway, and he has to be here to do previews at night. We rehearse our play in the morning.

"This year's Jane Fonda" also showed up: Stephanie J. Block, fresh from rehearsing the Fonda part in the musical 9 to 5 arriving April 30 at the Marquis. "All three of the original stars were at our opening in L.A.," Block recalled. "They all loved it and gave their blessings. They all wanted to make sure that certain quirks and certain lines from the movie were in there, and, when they saw it, they went, 'Ahhhh, great.'"

Last to arrive and creating the most red-carpet ruckus was one of the original "9 to 5" triumvirate, its title-tune composer and now its Broadway songwriter — Dolly Parton. She came at the press corps with such open-hearted good humor they all seemed to melt away in front of her like Margaret Hamilton. What a world, indeed!

"It's amazing Jane and I are both on Broadway," La Parton said after the show. "We wouldn't, either one, be here if it weren't for her. '9 to 5' was all her idea, her vision.

"I thought she was great in this play. She's magnetic. She never ceases to amaze me, and the show was very insightful to me. I loved it because it was about music — not like the show we're doing, of course — but it was very informative. I loved it. I didn't know what to expect. I had no idea what it was about. I just went to support her."

And that's how two composers on Broadway came together — Dolly and Ludwig.

The cast of <I>33 Variations</I> at curtain call.
The cast of 33 Variations at curtain call.
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