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focused on U. of I. musicologists as he developed play
Mitchell, Arts Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
Kaufman, left, consulted with musicologists Katherine
Syer and William Kinderman on his new play, “33
Variations.” Ultimately, Kaufman developed
a composite character based on the husband-and-wife
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
She studies Wagner and opera. He studies mostly Mozart and Beethoven.
Together, husband-and-wife musicologists Katherine Syer and William
Kinderman have themselves been the subject of much prodding and research
– by internationally acclaimed playwright and director Moisés
Although they weren’t aware of the extent of their involvement
at first, Syer and Kinderman – both professors of musicology
in the School of Music at
the University of Illinois – ultimately served as character
studies for Kaufman as he developed and wrote his new play, “33
Kaufman, whose credits include one of this country’s most frequently
performed plays, “The Laramie Project,” first contacted
Kinderman about four years ago when he began researching the theme
for his play on Beethoven and the creative process.
“The play chronicles the efforts of a modern-day musicologist
as she tries to understand the creation of a late Beethoven piece titled
‘The Diabelli Variations,’ ” Kaufman said. “This
piece has baffled musicologists for decades as it was inspired by a
less than stellar waltz composed by the less than stellar music publisher
“The fact that Beethoven gets smitten by Diabelli’s trivial
and insignificant waltz piqued my curiosity. Why would a man at the
height of his creative powers choose to start a new work based on such an unimpressive
In seeking an answer, he did what he always does while developing
a new work: He quickly zeroed in on the subject’s most knowledgeable
source. That happened to be Kinderman.
The U. of I. musicologist had, in fact, written the book on “The
Diabelli Variations.” An accomplished pianist as well, he also
recorded a CD featuring the music.
Of the book, Kaufman said: “It’s such an exquisite and insightful
text on the variations, but also on Beethoven’s compositional
process. Then I read his (book) ‘Beethoven,’ which is
also superb. And that led me to him.”
When the anonymous letter seeking information arrived at the Kinderman-Syer
residence in Champaign – along with a package including copies
of “The Laramie Project” and Kaufman’s play “Gross
Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” – Syer said
the couple already was familiar with the playwright.
“I owned a copy of the film (‘The Laramie Project’),”
Without hesitation, Kinderman obliged when Kaufman asked if he could
come to Illinois to learn more about Beethoven and “The Diabelli
But what Kaufman didn’t know at the time was that he was about
to get more than he bargained for. He didn’t realize Kinderman
also was married to a musicologist, who has more than passing knowledge
of Beethoven. Among her professional pursuits, Syer’s scholarship
includes a recently published article about Beethoven’s “Eroica”
During the playwright’s first visit – one of many to follow
– to Champaign-Urbana, “he worked around the clock with
Bill for a few days,” Syer said. “We soon became connected
on an intimate sphere. He fell in love with Anna, our daughter, then
just a little over a year old.”
The work continued and the relationship between Kaufman and the U.
of I. musicologists continued to evolve over time as well. In between
visits, the experts fielded all manner of e-mail questions from Kaufman –
ranging from technical to more personal inquiries about who they are,
as people and musicologists.
“I’ve shared a lot with Moisés,” Syer said.
“He knows a few things about me that Bill doesn’t fully
know. And he’s asked me questions about Bill, hoping for fuller
answers than Bill would typically reveal himself.”
“He’s also asked me a lot of questions to try to get the
take on Beethoven,” Kinderman said. “It’s notoriously
difficult to put a character like Beethoven on the stage effectively
“He (Kaufman) is fascinated by a dimension of Beethoven I’ve
emphasize … he constantly made puns and jokes in a very wry way.
And he’s very interested in picking up on that.”
But, as it turns out, that’s not all Kaufman picked up on. Over
time, Kinderman and Syer had so inspired the writer that he based one
of the play’s integral characters on a composite of both of
them. He even named the character Katherine.
However, Kaufman exercised typical creative license with his character
“For instance,” Syer said, “the character Katherine
graduated from Berkeley with a doctoral degree in musicology, and that’s
Going into the project, Kaufman said he didn’t approach it with
a stereotypical musicologist in mind because he didn’t know
As a result, Syer and Kinderman “have been so important to the
development of this piece. They’ve really guided me – a
playwright – through the complicated paths of the music and
Though he did consult a few other Beethoven experts, Kaufman said “Bill’s
books and recordings of the variations have been the major source
of inspiration and research for me.”
“Katherine’s keen intellect and theatrical savvy have been
the other half of the equation. She understands music and theatricality.
She lectures around the world on staging ideas and procedures. So that, too,
has been invaluable to me as I keep thinking about this play.”
Kaufman and the New York City-based Tectonic Theater, for which he
serves as artistic director, are scheduled to premiere the play at
the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., next season. It’s likely
that it also will be staged in New York and Chicago.
In the meantime, Kaufman, and several members of the play’s
crew – including dramaturg Mark Bly – are in residence at
the U. of I. until the end of March to fine-tune the play through a
“workshopping” process. While on campus, they’ll
present two workshop performances open to interested students and faculty
“This should be a great opportunity for some of our students who
are part of the production team,” Syer said.
The residency also will coincide with the international conference “Genetic
Criticism in an Interdisciplinary Context: Literature, Visual Arts,
Theater, Music,” which takes place at the U. of I. March 30-31.
“In this context,” Kinderman said, “ ‘genetic
criticism’ concerns the study of not just the end product,
but the creative evolution of cultural works as revealed through
sketches, drafts and other sources.”
Kaufman and Kinderman will be featured during a session on performance,
and Syer will chair another on musical sketches and editions. Also
participating in the conference – sponsored by the U. of I.-Centre
National de la Recherche Scientifique collaborative research project
and the colleges of Fine and Applied
Arts and Liberal
Arts and Sciences – will be other scholars from the
United States, Australia, Belgium and France.