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Role Over Beethoven Zach Grenier holds his own as the irascible genius of “33 Variations.”
A few months of rehearsal is standard for a Broadway play; occasionally an actor gets some extra time to work on a role in a show’s out-of-town tryout, as Zach Grenier did with Moises Kaufman’s musicological mystery/drama 33 Variations. Before opening the show on Broadway a few weeks ago, Grenier played the role of Ludwig Van Beethoven in the play’s La Jolla run last year.

In approaching the challenge of enacting a musical genius, though, Grenier got schooled in what long-term rehearsal looks like. Among the highlights of this vibrant supporting performance, in a play that time-jumps between the present-day research of ailing musicologist Catherine Brandt (played by Jane Fonda) and Beethoven’s time, is an exquisite duet for actor and pianist: Standing centerstage, Grenier’s rapt Beethoven conjures the thorny, crystalline Fugue from the Diabelli Variations like a sorcerer lingering over a rich and complicated spell, while at stage right the consummate pianist Diane Walsh plays the Fugue as if at the composer’s command.

“At one point we asked Diane how long it took her to learn the Fugue,” says Grenier, a personable actor’s actor probably best known for memorable recurring roles on 24 and Deadwood, and more recently on New York stages in A Man for All Seasons and Stuff Happens. “She said she started working on it at Juilliard but didn’t feel she could play it publicly until recently. So in her case, you have 30 years of experience behind that one piece.”

Grenier, duly humbled in the face of such rigor, shouldn’t sell himself short. “I have 30 years of experience acting, so I guess we’re an OK match. She is certainly my acting partner in that scene.”

That transfixing duet is a crucial moment in other ways, Grenier points out.

“I think it really reveals who Beethoven is in that moment,” Grenier says. “Up until then, you get a pretty broad description of him; the play really is Catherine Brandt’s story, and you discover him primarily her muse, if you will, in a parallel story. Everyone has a few ideas about who Beethoven is—general impressions about his hearing problem, his music, and in the first act of the play you don’t get to know much more than you already know.”

But as his health and his mind deteriorate along with his fortunes in the second act, his vision gets clearer, in a sense, and the character’s true self emerges, Grenier explains.

“He’s dying and suffering an enormous amount of pain,” Grenier says. “As we approach your own end, we become very honest and may appear mad to others. What Beethoven would say about his work was that he could not die because he had too much work to do for God—there were too many things in his mind that he had to put out, it was his responsibility to get out before he died.”

During the process of preparing for 33 Variations, Grenier had a vivid reminder of how dying can both sharpen and scramble the mind.

“My father died during this process, of dementia, and I certainly took that experience for the play,” Grenier recounts. “He was out of his mind, but I knew who the man was and was very close to him. I know that sometimes I’m sort of channeling my father in this thing.”

It got more personal than that, Grenier says. Kaufman’s play turns on the question of why Beethoven chose to write 33 variations of a simple, tuneful waltz by his less-talented contemporary Diabelli: Was the elder composer trying to mock or show up the original’s defects, or did he genuinely see in it a multifaceted gem to be cut in seemingly infinite ways?

“I want to propose my own theory of why Beethoven wrote the e variations,” Grenier says. “I’ve been thinking about it for a year. The play has its arguments about why: Did he love or did he not love the waltz, did he embrace it or not? If someone wants to mock something, that’s sort of a sad impulse; I think the play ultimately says he loves it.”

But Grenier goes further, tracing this love to an impulse he can relate to intimately.

“When he was a young man and he first came to Vienna, one of the ways he would make his money is that he was an extraordinary improviser, and he was improvising things that no one had ever heard before. Everyone was wondering  what would come out of this man’s fingers next; he’d take the first couple of bars and go for an hour and a half.

“But near the end, when he was completely deaf and his guts were exploding and couldn’t sleep through the night, he had given up performing, and I think the variation form is essentially improvisation written down,” Grenier says. “I’m an older fella now, and I think about my exploits when I was younger, my unbounded energy. I think the reason Beethoven kept returing to these variations and couldn’t stop was that they were a return to his youth. It was very therapeutic for him to work on them.”

Indeed, one could make the case that a composer spinning out variations from source material is not unlike an actor taking on a role: They’re essentially creative acts.

“That gets to the question of, What really is acting—is it an interpretive art or a creative art?” Grenier says. “When you listen to Horowitz play Chopin—I’m sorry, there is no comparison. And if you see some great acting by Olivier or by Sean Penn—are these interpretations? Nah, they’re creations. There are actors and musicians who interpret and they’ll put you to sleep. I’ve ‘interpreted’ a lot in television.”

That’s one reason Grenier and his wife pulled up stakes and moved back to New York from the West Coast last year.

“I arrived at a point where I was interpreting instead of creating, and I had this longing to really be closer to the flame of my own creativity,” Grenier says. “I felt it was a good artistic move to come back.”

New York audiences have been the richer for it.

Click here for more information about 33 Variations.