In 1819, a composer named Anton Diabelli asked Ludwig van Beethoven if he would write a variation based on one of Diabelli’s waltzes. It was a long shot: The great Beethoven had no reason to waste his time on such a little, inconsequential piece of music. But he spent three years working on it, obsessing over it, and ended up with not one but 33 variations.
Why he felt compelled to do so, no one knows for sure. But the whole while, he was losing his hearing, the most important possession of any musician.
Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations” intertwines the story of Beethoven’s composing the variations with the present-day trials of a musicologist who is writing about the variations and has been diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“She struggles to understand what Beethoven’s obsession was while she’s battling her own illness,” explained Eleni Papaleonardos, who’s directing Available Light Theatre’s production of the play. “It’s a lovely piece about where you find inspiration.”
Papaleonardos, who studied with Kaufman at Naropa University in Colorado, admires the play for the way it turns live music — a pianist performing the variations — into an integral character, as well as for the way the show was created. Rather than typing the script on a computer, he and his theater company developed it in a live, collaborative setting.
“It’s a gorgeous way to create theater,” Papaleonardos said.