Talking Beethoven With 33 VARIATIONS' Zach Grenier
It's a known fact that actors like to talk. Stereotypically, they like to talk about themselves: about their latest endeavors, about their past performances and about their upcoming projects. Zach Grenier is a different kind of actor. He likes to talk about Ludwig Van Beethoven. The fact that he's currently playing the composer in Moisés Kaufman's brilliant play entitled 33 VARIATIONS has him talking about the play, too. It's a very special production and it's brought Jane Fonda back to Broadway after 43 years in film, television and activism. Still it is obvious that Grenier is in love with the art of acting and enjoys discussing his current project and the musical giant he portrays in it.
In 33 VARIATIONS, Grenier embodies Beethoven: the controversial personality whose symphonic work has been beloved by generation upon generation of music aficionados. Kaufman's play focuses on the last four years of the composer's peripatetic life, when he was obsessed with writing variations of a theme composed by a music publisher named Anton Diabelli. Fact and fiction are skillfully woven into the Kaufman's text as a terminally ill musicologist (Fonda) researches Beethoven's compulsion. The production leaves the audiences pondering Beethoven's genius as well as the correlations it has to its contemporary characters. As a result, it is one of the most satisfying new plays that Broadway has seen in a long while, and Grenier is proud of his association with it.
Settling down at a table in the Hotel Edison's "Polish Tearoom," Grenier proved to be genial company. An actor whose film credits include appearances in Fincher's FIGHT CLUB and ZODIAC, as well as Ang Lee's RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, Grenier has also appeared television's DEADWOOD, 24, Neil Simon's LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR and was a series regular on C-16: FBI and TOUCHING EVIL. His theater credits include the title role in UNCLE VANYA for the Yale Rep and two outings as TARTUFFE, one for the Yale Rep and another at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. Off-Broadway, he's been seen in David Rabe's A QUESTION OF MERCY, David Hare's STUFF HAPPENS and has received Drama Desk and Drama League Awards. Recently, he appeared on Broadway with Frank Langella in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theater. By any account, it's a prestigious career.
The son of an electrical engineer, Grenier comes from a family that had great connections to the performing arts. His grandfather was an art director for Biograph Pictures at Fox Studios in the early part of the last century. All of Grenier's uncles on his father's side went into the technical side of television, but his father was the sole hold-out. The actor's grandmother, a coloratura soprano was billed as "The Singing Housewife of the Bronx" when she performed at Town Hall, but her grandson originally chose performing in a rather circuitous manner. He was interested in acting since eighth grade when his English teacher, George Faison, cast him as Henry V in a student production. "But when I went to college, I wanted to do something important and meaningful," Grenier says with his beautifully resonant voice, "I wanted to explore the human experience and do something that would benefit humanity. So I chose to study anthropology." The actor was in a total of five college productions at the University of Michigan that year and not giving full priority to his academic load when it was suggested to him that he switch to an acting school. " I looked at a career in the arts as a sort of civil service." He enrolled in an acting program on the East coast. It was there that he met his wife Lynn. "She and I have been together and fascinated by this art form ever since."
Grenier's mother's family were immigrants. "They had a very difficult life. They fled World War I and raised their children on the music of Chopin. My brother is a musicologist with a radio show on WEMU.Org. He Plays mostly jazz, but he's a classical musicologist as well. I can't wait for him to see the show."
When asked how he became involved in 33 VARIATIONS, Grenier explains, "We were living in California when I was asked to come down to the La Jolla Playhouse to play the role. At the time I wasn't sure if I wanted to commit to the project because my wife and I were thinking of moving back to New York. But I read the script and decided that I couldn't pass up the chance to play this man. I only knew Beethoven through his music. As I researched, I connected with his passion for nature and, of course, his desire to do something for humanity. That's where he found his music. I have a hearing loss that makes it difficult to make out conversations when I'm in a noisy urban environment. So did Ludwig. He loved going to the country where the environment was quieter."
It's commonly understood that Ludwig Van Beethoven lost his hearing in the latter part of his life. "His deafness developed over twenty-five years," comments Grenier. The composer finally became completely deaf. "What fascinated me was how someone could create music in that state."
Grenier continues, "There are a lot of musicologists who ponder if he would have been able to produce his later work if he hadn't gone deaf. It's important to understand that he was composing things that had never been heard before. Today it all sounds familiar, but at the time it was profoundly innovative. For example, at the beginning of the Ninth Symphony, there is a whirl of discordant notes. They gather together as if there was a magnet pulling them toward a certain moment in time and BOOM! The symphony bursts into life. In the variations, you can hear the inspiration for so many composers that came after him. There's even some boogie-woogie in there." Grenier also relates the accounts he's read of Beethoven conducting the premier of his famous Fifth Symphony with his back to the audience. He wasn't aware of the thunderous standing ovation he received at the end of the composition until the soprano moved from her place and turned the man around so he could see what an overwhelming reception the music was receiving from the crowd.
The thirty-three variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli becomes a significant part of the conversation with Zach Grenier. The actual music is performed live in the theater by skilled pianist Diane Walsh. "She told me it took her thirty years to perfect her performance of the variations," says the actor. The music is a vital part of the play and Walsh is extraordinarily effective at the keyboard.
"Moisés has a terminally ill musicologist meeting the dying Beethoven in her imagination. Beethoven wrote the Diabelli Variations near the end of his life. Originally, he was asked to write only one variation. He decided to write seven. He eventually wrote thirty-three. He became obsessed. I think it was a call from his youth. Variation form can be described as a kind of ‘frozen improvisation'. Like Mozart, Beethoven made his living as a young man improvising in the parlors of the wealthy. I think he was returning to those youthful days, when he could still hear the oo's and ahh's of his patrons as he ran wild on the piano."
All of this may make 33 VARIATIONS seem like a pedantic play aimed at an audience of the musical elite. It's not. Grenier explains, "This is not an exhaustive examination of Beethoven's music. You hear the magnificent music and get the essence of who Beethoven is but it's not a biography of Beethoven. It's Katherine Brandt's (Jane Fonda's character's) story." Actually, the play is an entertaining examination of fictional and historical characters which seems to be attracting more than its share of high school music groups. On matinee days, it's not uncommon for the cast to see several charter buses waiting outside the theater after the performance. There's good reason for that. The play is an excellent way to expose young minds to the life and music of one of the Three B's [Bach, Beethoven and Brahms]. According to Grenier, the younger audiences respond well to the play and respond strongly to the young contemporary character played by Samantha Mathis and Colin Hanks (son of Tom). They are also vociferous in their appreciation at the end of the performance. For those who are considering a group outing to this play, it should be noted that it does feature a bit of nudity.
The entire cast of 33 VARIATIONS has Grenier's admiration. Their characters' stories run parallel throughout the evening, and they finally meet near the end. It must be a bit daunting, playing a scene with Jane Fonda eight times a week, isn't it? "It's an absolute privilege to act with her. She's clear and honest. An actor looks for the truth and she finds it in spades. I've always been a huge fan of hers. I applaud anyone who cares enough about humanity to actually do something and she's done more than her share."
Colin Hanks also receives the approbation of Grenier. "He's taken that role (the male nurse, Mike)," says the actor, "and made it sing." Hanks plays many of his scenes with Samantha Mathis, of whom Grenier has high praise. "Samantha (as the musicologist's daughter, Clara) is a wonderful actress with a disarming personality. Erik Steel (as Anton Schindler) is a great scene partner because he's intelligent, talented and a blast to work with. Dom Amendolia (as Anton Diabelli) is a gifted, experienced actor with a beautiful sense of theater." When it comes to Susan Kellerman, Grenier says she, "rocks the house (as Gertie, the keeper of Beethoven's sketches). She's a sage comedienne, but she also has a strong understanding of the drama. Thwn, of course, there's Diane Walsh on the piano. She is superb. Our duet in the 2nd act is something I look forward to every night."
The actor contends that 33 VARIATIONS has a profound effect on its audiences. "I've had a chance to meet people, not only at the stage door, but also doing the BC/EFA donations drive, as we've been going out into the audiences. I find people's hearts are open after seeing the play. They have that certain look in their eyes. I remember performing in David Rabe's A QUESTION OF MERCY back in 1997 at the New York Theatre Workshop. A friend told me that after the final curtain, he was taken with how polite people were to each other as they exited the theatre. It's much like that with 33 VARIATIONS. Several people have told me their story of a relative who died of ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease, the disease that Jane Fonda's character is dying of) and how they were moved by the play. People with hearing impairment tell me how they identify with Beethoven's struggle."
As has been noted in various books and articles, Broadway has changed down through the years. Grenier doesn't fully agree with that notion. "I don't necessarily believe that the heart and soul of Broadway has changed. Like everywhere in this world, things have become more consolidated. It's much harder for an independent producer with a wonderful piece of work to get it up on Broadway. There's this corporate presence. But they do. I've seen a number of Broadway shows recently and I say it's still there. I just saw Harriet Walker and Janet McTeer in MARY STUART. It's there. Human beings in front of other human beings, sending them someplace they can't get to any other way. Ticket prices are a worry these tough days, but the houses aren't going dark. They'll figure out something."
Anton Diabello may have written a simple waltz tune that inspired Ludwig Van Beethoven to write what arguably may have turned out to be his most ambitious work but Moisés Kaufman has taken the story and turned it into a complex yet accessible play that is affecting audiences night after night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater. It's a piece that showcases the marvelous talents of its cast and informs while it entertains. Zach Grenier feels it's "a must-see for music lovers," but it's also one of the most important events in the 2008-9 theater season.
For tickets to 33 VARIATIONS call (212) 239-6200
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