JACKI LYDEN, host:

An often overlooked piano work of Beethoven's has a starring role in a new play in Washington, D.C. It's called "33 Variations." The characters include Beethoven himself and a 21st-century musicologist obsessed with the composer's "Diabelli Variations."

As NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr reports, it's an obsession shared by the playwright.

JEFFREY FREYMANN-WEYR: Four years ago, Moises Kaufman had heard about of the "Diabelli Variations" but had never listened to the piece. He went into a Tower Records store in Manhattan late one night looking for a recording. Along with the advice about which to buy, the clerk told him the story he would eventually dramatize in his play "33 Variations."

Mr. MOISES KAUFMAN (Playwright): There was music publisher by the name of Anton Diabelli. And Diabelli was a great music publisher but a rather mediocre composer. He had an idea and his idea was that he was going to write a waltz. And he was going to send it to the 50 best composers in Vienna.

(Soundbite of play, "33 Variations")

Mr. DON AMENDOLIA (Actor): (As Anton Diabelli) And I wish to invite each of you to compose one variation on it. Once I receive your variations, I will publish them all in one handsome volume to be entitled by the (Foreign language spoken).

Ms. MARY BETH PEIL (Actor): (As Katherine Brandt) Of editions by (unintelligible) of the fatherland.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Everyone else accepted the invitation, but not Beethoven.

Mr. KAUFMAN: Beethoven took one look at the waltz and said, this is a piece of garbage. This is insignificant, trite and banal, and I'm not going to have anything to do with this project. And then, Beethoven changed his mind, and is said to write not one variation but became obsessed with it, ended up being 33 variations and take the best part of three years.

FREYMANN-WEYR: The theme itself, the waltz written by Diabelli, sounds like this:

(Soundbite of Diabelli's waltz)

FREYMANN-WEYR: Diabelli's theme has been criticized for its predictability, lack of imagination and repetition. It's split into two 16-bar phrases, each of which repeats exactly.

(Soundbite of Diabelli's waltz)

FREYMANN-WEYR: The whole thing takes 45 seconds or so, but the variations which Beethoven wrote can last 45 minutes or longer. In Kaufman's play, we see Beethoven attempting to bring every possibility from the waltz. A live pianist, also on stage, plays the music that's going through the composer's head. A third character, modern-day musicologist Katherine Brandt is studying Beethoven's sketchbooks at the Bonn archives. She's terminally ill and desperate to solve the riddle of his fascination.

(Soundbite of play, "33 Variations")

Ms. PEIL: (As Katherine Brandt) Still has the (unintelligible). There are nine variations yet to come, but the bulk of the work - done. How does one begin to let go?

Mr. KAUFMAN: It's really a question about inspiration, why do we choose what we choose as a point of departure for our work, but more importantly, what is it that Beethoven sees in this 32 bars of nothing? It so obsesses him. So it's a play about obsession. It's like - I would say it would be like if Philip Glass found a song by Britney Spears and decided to spend the next four years of his life studying and making variations on it.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Kaufman, who also directs the play, has had previous successes with productions based on historical texts. A play about Oscar Wilde used court transcripts and newspaper accounts. The "Laramie Project" about the death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, told the story with words from interviews of townspeople.

Kaufman recognized that in the new play, the music itself would need to be one of the central characters. He auditioned several pianists and chose Diane Walsh.

Ms. DIANE WALSH (Pianist): I could see in his eyes that he was really obsessed with the piece the way I am. I have really kind of been looking at it for many years, and learning it and setting it aside and that was the year that I finally decided to go public with it and that turned out to be the year that Moises decided to write a play about it.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Diane Walsh has recently recorded the complete "Diabelli Variations." In the play, some of the variations are complete; others are briefly quoted and interwoven with dialogue and action, linking the 19th and 21st centuries.

Diane Walsh says it's a different kind of challenge.

Ms. WALSH: I have to time how I play it. Sometimes, I have to choose a slightly different tempo to make sure that it's the same length as the monologue that it's underneath. So I have to make that kind of adjustment. Every performance is unique.

FREYMANN-WEYR: She says there is one particularly tricky interaction, as Beethoven is composing the next to last variation of the set.

Ms. WALSH: The "Fugue," which is a duet between Beethoven and me, where he is talking through the "Fugue" and describing how he wrote it and describing things that are happening in the music and a split second before they actually happen in the music.

(Soundbite of play, "33 Variations")

Mr. GRAEME MALCOLM (Actor): (As Ludwig von Beethoven) Now, in different keys, quicker, C minor, E flat major, F minor, C minor. (Unintelligible).

FREYMANN-WEYR: During the play "33 Variations," introduces Beethoven's original sketches of the piece that are projected on stage. Director and playwright Moises Kaufman had a chance to do what his fictional musicologist does, go to the Bonn archives to actually see them in person.

Mr. KAUFMAN: I was fascinated by looking at Beethoven's sketches, in his handwriting, the fact that he first wrote in pencil and then went over in ink only over these segments that he wanted to preserve. So anything that you see in pencil in a Beethoven sketchbook was something that he composed and discarded. So there's this incredible diary of his compositional process.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Kaufman consulted with several of the world's most respected Beethoven scholars in the four years he was researching and workshoping the play. He says that he's obsessed with Beethoven's process because mistakes and dead ends can often shed the most light.

Mr. KAUFMAN: The important thing in an archeological dig is not only the objects that are found, but looking at the dig itself and seeing where every shovel came on to the earth. You know, that all of the mark are part of the thing that was rescued.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Moises Kaufman's play "33 Variations" is currently having its premiere run at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "Diabelli's Variations")

LYDEN: And for this evening, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

I'm Jacki Lyden.

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