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Is "Three Pianos" a Musical Or Music Theatre? With wine and song, three performers push the genre envelope

By JONATHAN MANDELL

It would be wrong to call Three Pianos a jukebox musical, even though it is a stage show created around a series of old songs. After all, you're unlikely to find the tunes on any jukebox, and they were written decades before jukeboxes were invented.

Three Pianos is not a classical music concert either, though the music performed is by Franz Schubert, and it is not a cabaret, though the audience is served wine while the performers drink harder stuff on stage.

“The toughest thing about the piece is to find a phrase to define it,” says Alec Duffy, part of the show's trio of writer/performer/pianists. “I would classify it as a music theatre piece, but not a musical theatre piece, which is different.”

There is something fitting about the difficulty in defining Three Pianos, which is currently running at New York Theatre Workshop. After all, it is built around the 24 songs of Schubert’s Winterreise, and Schubert’s work is equally resistant to classification: There was nothing quite like his song cycles before, and according to Schubert lovers, there has been little to equal them since.

Yet for all this confusion, Three Pianos arguably belongs to an established theatrical tradition---plays about classical music.

The best-known are probably Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations an exploration of Beethoven that was produced on Broadway in 2009, and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which appeared on Broadway in 1980 and 1999 and became a successful film in 1984. But there are plenty of other examples. For instance, Terence McNally's Master Class, which returns to Broadway this spring, revolves around the opera diva Maria Callas, and Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is a drama that features a full orchestra.

Discussing classical music's role in the theatre, Duffy says, “It’s underexposed music that warrants a re-injection into the popular consciousness. Our aim is not to educate but to share our passion.”

That passion brought Duffy together with co-creators Rick Burkhardt and Dave Malloy on Valentine’s Day 2009 for a party at Judson Memorial Church.

The story of that night has the aura of legend. All three artists are connected to separate theatre companies, all three play and compose music, and all three are particular fans of Schubert and  Winterreise,the Wilhelm Muller poems that Schubert finished setting to music in 1828. They discovered this when Malloy stumbled upon a water-damaged score of the music in the church’s choir loft. Delighted, the trio began playing and singing, then sent someone out for beer, then continued long into the night.

Three Pianos is in part an effort to re-create the joy and abandon of that night---and of similar musical parties thrown by Schubert and friends.

The three theatre-makers impersonate Schubert and his friends on stage, but they also play versions of themselves, partying, commiserating, arguing, and explaining the songs with a hip, Penn-and-Teller energy. At one point Dave Malloy, playing Dave Malloy, complains, “Can’t we just listen to the music, and feel without explaining everything?”

In gestation for about a year, the show debuted in February at the Ontological Theater at St. Marks. Originally, the trio drank heavily while they were performing, but they realized this made it hard to recite lines, play piano, and remember lyrics. Now, some of what they drink is "stage alcohol." The audience, however, is served bottle after bottle of wine, courtesy of a local wine company.

Is there really a sharp and impassable distinction between this kind of lubricated music-theatre experience and the more familiar musical theatre?

“We all have a push-pull with the Broadway musical tradition,” Duffy says. “We’re not excited by the musicals that have come out in the past ten years. The question for us is: How do you accurately reflect upon real life, but still have a piece that is an entertainment?”

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Jonathan Mandell covers New York theatre for  The Faster Times and is on Twitter as  New York Theater