Nominee for the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play
Winner of the Edgerton New American Play Award
Winner of the 2008 American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
"You don't have to know Beethoven from Bach to find yourself thoroughly absorbed by the theatricality with which Kaufman has tied a historic event - the legendary mystery surrounding one of Beethoven's compositions - to the drama about a fatally ill Beethoven scholar, her relationship with her daughter and the daughter's burgeoning romance." ~Curtain Up
"It's a compellingly original and thoroughly watchable play for today that deserves to be remembered." ~Talkin' Broadway
WHAT IS ALS?
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), often called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” in the U.S., is among the most feared diseases because it robs people of their ability to move, talk, swallow and breathe. The cause is unknown and there are no treatments that have a major impact on the progression of the disease. It usually starts with weakness in an arm or leg and inexorably spreads, like a cancer, to the other limbs and, eventually, to the muscles that control speaking and breathing. It is uncommon, but far from rare, with about 500 people diagnosed each year in North Carolina. The average lifespan is three years from the beginning of symptoms; and the average age of onset is 55 though it can affect people in their 20s. It is a uniformly fatal illness that cannot be “beaten” by any form of radical treatments.
ALS belongs to a family of diseases known as neurodegenerative diseases, which include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. In each of these, specific types of nerve cells malfunction. In ALS, brain and spinal cord cells called motor neurons are most prominently affected, resulting in weakness. There are no treatments that substantially protect motor neurons from malfunction and death. Up to 10 percent of ALS cases are clearly genetic running strongly in families, but most ALS researchers believe that the other 90 percent of cases occur when multiple genes, perhaps five to 20, are altered in a particular pattern. The rate of ALS gene discovery has increased dramatically in the past five years, with each discovery providing new insights into possible targets for treatment.
Delays in diagnosis (ALS is typically diagnosed a year after symptoms start) and the many differences in the underlying cause have made ALS a difficult disease to treat. Currently, stem-cell injections into the spinal cord, gene therapies and traditional drugs that either stabilize motor neuron function or sustain nerve-muscle connections are under study in ALS patients across the world. Most ALS researchers envision a “cocktail” of partially effective interventions targeting different pathologies in ALS that will stabilize the disease.
James B. Caress, MD
Associate Professor of Neurology
Director, ALS Center
Wake Forest School of Medicine
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), extraordinary composer, was also an ordinary mortal facing health challenges, bills and difficult relationships. Son and grandson of musicians for the electoral court at Bonn, Beethoven began his musical studies as a young child. At 16 he traveled to Vienna to advance his career, but was summoned home in two weeks due to his mother’s grave illness. Following his mother’s death, with his father declining into alcoholism, Beethoven assumed responsibility for his two younger brothers.
In 1792 Beethoven moved permanently to Vienna. While making his reputation as a performer and composer, Beethoven was plagued by a number of health problems, most notably, a gradual loss of hearing accompanied by tinnitus. Beethoven endeavored to keep his humiliating disability secret. In 1801 Beethoven confided to a friend that his difficulty hearing caused him to avoid socializing. In an 1802 document Beethoven described contemplating suicide due to the burden of his deafness, but his art held him back. Ultimately unable to conceal his deafness, Beethoven relied on associates writing down their parts of a conversation. As deafness eventually limited his ability to perform and conduct, Beethoven concentrated on composition, though daily life sometimes interfered. He needed to negotiate with music publishers and cultivate patrons. He pursued romances but never married, changed apartments frequently, and engaged in a bitter battle with his sister-in-law for custody of his nephew following his brother’s death.
33 Variations offers a glimpse of Beethoven’s dominating passion for his art, despite the distractions of everyday life. The play also includes a musicologist, who is similar to Beethoven in her obsession with her work, and, like Beethoven, reminds us that even the greatest artist or scholar has more to learn, and demonstrates the vastness of the human spirit in contrast with the frailty of the human body.
J.K. Curry, Production Dramaturg
Chair, Department of Theatre and Dance
Wake Forest University
Ludwig van Beethoven composed movements using theme and variation technique throughout his entire career. Indeed, the challenge of coming up with novel ways of formally embellishing melodies was one sure measure of a composer’s skill. The art of composing variations on a theme can be traced back at least to the 16th century, and extends to the present day. The state of the art of its time for an independent set of keyboard variations was Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (1741), a compendium based on a theme called “Aria.” That Beethoven knew this work well is evidenced in a number of ways, not least of all by the sarabande-like theme of the final movement of his Piano Sonata in E Major, op. 109, itself a set of variations. Beethoven similarly closed his last Piano Sonata, op. 111 with a set of variations on a theme labeled “Arietta.”
It can safely be said that Beethoven, in composing the Diabelli Variations (1819-1823), along with the aforementioned movements from his Piano Sonatas and other “late” works, broke the mold of theme and variation form. The sheer number of variations he composed on Diabelli’s waltz theme (when only one was requested!) only tells part of the story. In the latter stage of Beethoven’s compositional career, he exploded the form from within by going far beyond the merely decorative. Each variation stands as its own character piece that explores not only the external shape of the theme, but its inner life, penetrating to its barest essence. That he did this both with the precision of an electron microscope (Var. XX), high-spirited humor, virtuosity and deepest profundity, speaks to the work of a master whose imagination took him to worlds never before believed possible.
David B. Levy
Professor of Music
Wake Forest University