Whenever actor Janet Scott goes to a play, she experiences more than actors and words.
“Plays, when I go to plays, sound like symphonies to me, with all the different voices,” says Scott, who was influenced as a child by the Cleveland Orchestra under maestro George Szell.
This weekend, Scott leads a production that employs the musical and imagined voice of one of music’s most iconic composers, Ludwig van Beethoven, in AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of 33 Variations by Moisés Kaufman. Scott plays a musicologist, Katherine Brandt, racing to complete research on Beethoven’s set of variations on a waltz by publisher Anton Diabelli as her health deteriorates with the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In the play, Brandt’s story is paralleled with Beethoven himself, racing to compose the variations and other music as his hearing fades.
“I had never read a play that was quite like it, that transcended time and space and had such a theatrical relationship with music,” director Bo List says.
The key player he wanted to engage, List saudm was University of Kentucky musicologist Tedrin Blair Lindsay, who serves as the show’s music director and plays portions of the Diabelli Variations through the show.
“I’ve always wanted to learn the Diabelli Variations. It’s a favorite work of mine, though I have never really had an opportunity to perform it,” says Lindsay, who is also a contributing music and theater critic for the Herald-Leader. “I had never had a reason to learn them until now, which really makes the project all the more interesting because I’m a theater animal anyway.”
There are similarities to possibly the best-known classical music play, Peter Shaffer’s stage portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Amadeus, Lindsay says. Both took popular conceptions of their subjects and then built on them — Mozart as a gifted buffoon and Beethoven as the artist tortured by forces beyond his control.
“Kaufman took this idea of Beethoven as this railing genius, horrified about going deaf and this aggressive colossus, and put it on stage,” Lindsay says. “Was he quite so volatile as all that? Possibly. It’s hard to tell.”
The man who plays Beethoven, Robert Parks Johnson, says he was struck by how utterly human Beethoven was.
“It’s just amazing to me that these people that 200, 300, 400 years later we revere ... they were broke, he was broke, always begging for money,” Johnson says. “People wouldn’t pay him, they’d take his music, steal his music, and all the way through his life, around 1797, this ringing in his ears started, and everything he ate made him sick.
“He became terrified that all the music that was in him wouldn’t come out before he went deaf.”
On top of all of that, Beethoven was being raised by a father determined he would be the next Mozart. But in his research, Johnson says, there was a distinct difference between the geniuses of Mozart and Beethoven — Mozart seemed to compose with ease while it was great work to Beethoven, lending to the notion that one can become a genius as opposed to being born one.
“I guess I never realized how revolutionary he was,” Johnson says of his character.
Lindsay points out that Beethoven fundamentally altered music with innovations such as expanding the symphony form from 20 minutes to 45, adding a choir to his final masterpiece, The Ninth Symphony; he also shortened the sonata and redesigned the piano, making it much more powerful and expressive.
“The piano we have today is because of Beethoven,” Lindsay says.
In the play, the drive of the artist is shown in tandem with that of the academic. And Scott says she appreciates that the character is a woman, originally played on Broadway in 2009 by Jane Fonda.
“It’s the intellectual ferocity, where she will go down fighting with her mind to finish her intellectual work,” Scott says. “It’s important to have this character in front of the audience where there’s no limit to what she can do and what she will do to use her mind.
“I think that’s what Kaufman is writing about: you see this searing intellectual capacity in a body that’s wasting away.”
If You Go
What: AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of Moisés Kaufman’s play.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 12, 13, 18, 19, 20; 2 p.m. Feb. 14, 21
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $25 general public; $20 students, senior adults, military
Added event: The Tedrin Variations, 8 p.m. Feb. 15 and 17. An evening with 33 Variations music director Tedrin Blair Lindsay playing and discussing theme and variations through several musical styles. $20 adults; $15 students, senior adults, military; $10 AthensWest season subscribers.