Moises Kaufman, Musicologist?

By Robert Hilferty

Originally published on Advocate.com March 03 2009 1:00 AM ET

When you think Moises
Kaufman, you think
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

or
The Laramie Project --

intense pieces about gay martyrs. Not Beethoven. But his latest
play,
33 Variations

, concerns an ailing musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane
Fonda), obsessed with deaf Ludwig's obsession: a banal waltz he
tirelessly transformed into a musical monument known as "The
Diabelli Variations." Opening March 9 on Broadway, Kaufman's
play is more than a music lesson.

Advocate.com caught up
with Kaufman before one of the show's previews.

Advocate.com: Why Beethoven?Moises Kaufman:

What's interesting is how and why he became obsessed with this
mediocre trifle, even while he had bigger projects on the
burner. It's the question of inspiration, and why is it that we
get attracted to things that we don't understand. At the core
of the play is obsession and desire. It never occurred to me
until now, but there's a way that queer people understand this
better than anybody else.

I'm nothing without obsession and desire. Beethoven was
obsessed with his handsome, ungrateful nephew. Do you think
that maybe….

No.

33 VARIATIONS JANE FONDA SUSAN KELLERMAN X390 (JOAN MARCUS) | ADVOCATE.COM

Never mind. By the way, do you have a musical
background?

I played a little piano while growing up in Venezuela.

How much research did you do for the play?

William Kinderman, the leading expert on "The Diabelli
Variations," was my mentor through all of this. I also
hobnobbed with other Beethoven scholars, and made the journey
that Katherine makes in the play. I went to Bonn, Germany
[Beethoven's hometown], and spent time with Dr. Gertrude
Ladenburger in the archives looking at his sketches.

Those sketches are legendary, graphic pictures of
perfectionism run amuck. What did you find?

I'm in love with those sketches. I've spent hours and hours
with them. Just the pictorial quality of them is beautiful.

You even have projections of them on the set throughout the
evening -- certainly a first for Broadway!

Well, they capture the emotions of Beethoven as he was
composing: Sometimes they're turbulent, sometimes very clean.
You can see what passages he labored over and what passages
came easily. It shows his compositional process. They are
another character in the play.

33 VARIATIONS SAMANTHA MATHIS COLIN HANKS X390 (JOAN MARCUS) | ADVOCATE.COM

Did you have any epiphanies about the variations, how they
came about?

Well, I'm not a musicologist, but a musicologist of "The
Diabelli Variations." An expert. The hypothesis that
Katherine comes up with at the end of the play -- that
Beethoven's variations are a way of slowing down time -- is an
original musicological hypothesis.

Your very own?

Yes. Kinderman says it's valid. By the way, you don't have to
know music to enjoy this play.

You probably turn people on to music, press their curiosity
button.

The recording by Diane Walsh, who plays snippets of the piece
during the show, is selling like crazy each night.

How was working with Jane Fonda?

Fabulous. She's fantastic and a genius. She's incredibly kind
and incredibly generous.

33 VARIATIONS COLIN HANKS (JOAN MARCUS) | ADVOCATE.COM

Did she know much about Beethoven before taking on this
role?

No. But she's now writing a book about the process of aging and
she's focusing on Beethoven.

Which reminds me: Both Ludwig and Katherine are in various
states of decay while pursuing their obsessions -- your
parallel seems deliberate.

I wanted to explore what happens to you when you're left with
very little, and how that focuses or un-focuses you.

What do you want people to come away with?

To see that the nature of desire and the nature of obsession
are very mysterious. But perhaps more important, the
possibility of glimpsing into another human being's
obsession may prove to be the source of great truth.

Were you obsessed writing this play?

I spent five years of my life doing it. What do you think?

I bet you're writing a screenplay now.

As we speak.