“Three Pianos”: A Work of Genius About a Work of Genius

I saw "Three Pianos" tonight at New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village (NYC).  This is a two-hour-plus meditation/dramatization of an impromptu performance of Franz Schubert's song cycle, "Winterreise" (Winter Journey), written, arranged and performed by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy, under the direction of Rachel Chavkin.  Set design is by Andreea Mincic, lighting design by Austin R. Smith, sound design by Matt Hubbs and Dave Malloy, costume design by Jessica Pabst, video design by Dave Malloy, and stage management by Jessie Vacchiano and Rebecca S. Fleming.  Wine donated by Terra Fossil Wines.

I don't usually repeat all the production credits in my blogs about theater, but in this case the combination of all these elements was so innovative and exciting that I thought it imperative to do so.  And that last line above, "wine donated," is a tip-off that this is a most unusual production.  The three creators of this show describe its origin as follows in the program book: "At a wine-soaked Valentine's Day party in Judson Church, Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy discovered a water-damaged score of Franz Schubert's song cycle Winterreise in the choir loft.  Impromptu, the trio plays through the music with a motley group of friends and musicians."  This happened in February 2009.  Soon the three men decided to create a show in which they imaginatively channel the experience of a Schubertiad, those informal evenings of music in private homes that were the scene of most performances of Schubert's music during his brief lifetime.  They have imagined such an event late in the composer's life when a group of his friends (all male – music historicans have generally come around to the view that Schubert was probably gay, since the circle of musicians and poets with whom he hung out and with some of whom he shared living quarters include some of a definite reputation….) gather in his own shabby digs for a run-through of Winterreise, his latest completed song cycle.  And, of course, such events were occasions for wine and other delights as well as music.  So at this performance, wine is freely dispensed to the audience and cups are refreshed from time to time. 

This is not a straight-forward performance of the hour-plus song cycle by any means.  These performers are not trained classical singers, although all three exhibit decent keyboard skills.  But they can "put over" a song without the professional lieder singer histrionics.  Some of the songs are skipped, some are spoken through, but the arc of the cycle is sustained as the combination of lyrics and musics are explored for their poetic insights and reflections in the life experience of Schubert and his circle.  In the course of the evening, we get a brief history of music leading to the early 19th century lieder, an exploration of Schubert's times, and some interesting speculations about the meanings reflected in the music, including one extraordinary deconstruction of the different messages simultaneously sent by piano accompaniment, vocal line, and lyrics in one song in particular.

I found the event entertaining, informative, inspiring, amusing…. in short, a most exciting theatrical experience, and, indeed, as my heading for this blog post indicates, a work of genius about a work of genius.  Highly recommended, and don't delay because it's a limited run….

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