Jane Fonda Is Academic In '33 Variations'

Actress Jane Fonda is back on stage as a musicologist out to solve a musical mystery in the play 33 Variations. Fonda talks about the role and explains why she's "smitten" with Beethoven.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Jane Fonda is wrapping up a theatre performance this week, here in Los Angeles. She's reprising a role she played on Broadway two years ago, the drama "33 Variations." It's about a modern musicologist, her relationship with her daughter, and also with Beethoven.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to the play and later sat down with the actress.

SUSAN STAMBERG: In the Hollywood Hills house where Ronald Reagan once lived, Jane Fonda put aside a lunch plate of sushi so we could chat without chewing. I went first.

I left the theater having seen you, got in a cab, the taxi driver said to me, how are you? And I said I'm terrific. I just saw Jane Fonda in a play at the Ahmanson. And the driver, without dropping a stitch, said, how did she look? And I said terrific. And he said, oh good.

Ms. JANE Fonda (Actor): Oh, that's so nice. Oh, that is so nice. Hmm, that makes me very happy. I was not expecting you to say that.

STAMBERG: What did you think?

Ms. FONDA: Well, you know, I'm very controversial, so one never knows what's going to come out of somebody's mouth.

STAMBERG: Cabbie could have said: Oh, her - Hanoi Jane, she protested the Vietnam War; or, Oh, Barbarella - her early sexpot role; or, oh, the "Feel the Burn" fitness lady; or Ted Turner's ex; or, or Jane Fonda has had many lives. Right now, in Moises Kaufman's play, she strides onstage as a stunning, aging academic who will not let a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease, or her daughter's concern about it, stop her from solving a musical mystery.

(Soundbite of play, "33 Variations")

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) For me, it begins in Vienna in 1819.

Ms. SAMANTHA MATHIS (Actor): (as Clara Brandt) Mom.

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) For me, it begins with the music publisher by the name of Anton Diabelli.

Ms. MATHIS: (as Clara Brandt) Mom?

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) This music publisher has just written up a small waltz that will change everything.

Ms. MATHIS: (as Clara Brandt) Mom.

STAMBERG: Fonda takes the stage in this opening scene; a fairly dry professorial exegesis that was a challenge for the actress. She looked over the script on an airplane, trying to decide how to perform it.

Ms. FONDA: It was one of those nice coach flights where there was nobody there, so you had three seats in a row. And so I could kind of lie down. So I had the whole three seats to myself and I got a little tipsy, and I started doing my lines out loud. And I got real emotional and I thought, man, I got it. And when I went in for the first rehearsal and I delivered these speeches with such passion and emotion

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FONDA: and Moises said, she's an academic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FONDA: And so I had to take all of that out.

STAMBERG: Playing emotions comes easy. Henry, her famous actor father used to say: Fondas can cry at a good steak. Harder, however, to play a brainy professor on this obscure intellectual quest.

Ms. FONDA: Why did Beethoven, late in his life, when he was dying and going deaf, and also he was working on the "9th Symphony" and "Great Mass," did he take three years of his life to write 33 variations on what was considered a very mediocre waltz?

(Soundbite of a piano waltz)

STAMBERG: The waltz was composed in the mid-1800s by Viennese musical publisher Anton Diabelli. He sent it to Beethoven, who was not impressed - a cobbler's patch, the master called it. But Beethoven spent his last years writing 33 variations on it. Why? That's the Fonda character's question. Fonda herself once owned a Beethoven T-shirt and has a 1968 photo to prove it.

Ms. FONDA: You know, I'm sort of smitten with Beethoven. Do you realize that when he was deaf, he would saw the legs off the piano and lie naked on it and play upside down, so he could feel the vibrations in his body? I went to Bonn. I went to the archives. I stood in the - I stood in the room where Beethoven was born and wept. I mean it was profound experience.

STAMBERG: It's a painful experience, watching the character she plays disintegrate in the drama. The musicologist is terminally ill with a wasting disease. Her body atrophies. By the end, she is unable to walk, wears a neck brace to hold up her head, and can't speak properly. Painful, seeing a heroine succumb this way. And especially painful because of the person who plays her, Jane Fonda, 73 now, the star who taught us about the need to exercise and stay fit.

But on stage and like Beethoven, dying and racing against time to finish a project, Fonda finds a kind of enlightenment.

Ms. FONDA: One of my favorite scenes is the scene where I'm hallucinating on morphine.

(Soundbite of play, "33 Variations")

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) Oh, no. I - oh, I was hoping I wouldn't hallucinate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) It doesnt look good in a scholar.

And Beethoven comes to me.

(Soundbite of play, "33 Variations")

Mr. ZACH GRENIER (Actor): (as Beethoven) Could have been worse.

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) How?

Mr. GRENIER: (as Beethoven) Could have been Tchaikovsky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Zach Grenier plays Beethoven. He tells the ailing, now apprehensive academic, that after he lost his hearing, he also lost all hope.

(Soundbite of play, "33 Variations")

Mr. GRENIER: (as Beethoven) And lo and behold, I was able to create music that never would have been possible had I been in the world of the hearing. The think I feared most had happened, and yet it allowed me to be with my music in the most intimate ways.

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) I suspected that. I did. I did. I wrote a paper. I made that point.

Mr. GRENIER: (as Beethoven) You were right.

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) I knew it.

Mr. GRENIER: (as Beethoven) You were right. It is time, it is time to stop struggling.

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) I've been so jealous.

Mr. GRENIER: (as Beethoven) Of whom?

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) Of everyone who will continue.

Mr. GRENIER: (as Beethoven) I was so jealous of everyone who could hear.

Ms. FONDA: (as Katherine Brandt) All the time.

Mr. GRENIER: (as Beethoven) All the time.

STAMBERG: Jane Fonda, ever thoughtful, ever probing, finds several life lessons in "33 Variations."

Ms. FONDA: In the course of the play, what I learn - and it's why I view it as a Zen play - is that if you take the time - which often old age and disease forces you to do - you slow down and take the time - you begin to see things differently. Things that might on the surface look mediocre, but that, in fact, when you pierce them and delve down into them, are beautiful.

(Soundbite of piano music)

STAMBERG: "33 Variations," starring Jane Fonda continues at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through this Sunday.

In California, Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

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