Three Pianos (New York Theatre Workshop) is an event so remarkably individual that it seems to demand a myth to explain its origins. Imagine, say, that Spike Jones and the great German Lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau met at a fraternity beer blast, fell in love, and magically conceived three male children, all musically gifted. Reared by a post-Freudian musicologist in a Lower East Side thrift shop, one day the boys stumbled on a volume of Franz Schubert’s songs, played through them while sending out for pizza, and the rest is history.
In other words, I can’t explain Three Pianos even by mythmaking. It’s as improbable as it is delightful, a loose-jointed, totally off-the-cuff, booze-and-music party—the audience gets to share the booze—in which every casual moment seems both astutely chosen and precisely executed. Its three perpetrators, Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy, are all inventive, resourceful theater musicians, each with a distinctive stage presence, though you couldn’t strictly call them actors or singers per se. Malloy, a born clown, has the strongest voice and most forceful piano style; Burkhardt’s special gift is the quality, essential for Schubert, that Germans untranslatably call Innigkeit (literally, “inner-ness”). Duffy, with his actorish good looks and flamboyant style, is the troupe’s most incisive performer and resident wit. I suspect that Rachel Chavkin, their director, essentially functioned as a mixture of editor, athletic coach, and sergeant-at-arms. The result is so molded to these three personalities that understudies are unimaginable; the thought of training them inspires visions almost as bleak as those evoked by Schubert’s Winterreise.
Winterreise (“Winter Journey,” 1827), the 24-song cycle that is one of the last giant achievements of the great Viennese composer’s painfully short life, serves as the spine of Three Pianos. The extreme liberties the trio takes with it would be outrageous if they didn’t show, clearly, how thoroughly steeped they are in the cycle’s musical substance. The knowledge and commitment they display keep you going with them no matter what outrages they commit; at the end, Schubert and the Winterreise emerge untattered, even enhanced by the show’s festive mix of rowdiness and reverence.
Schubert (1797–1828) did not invent the German Lied, but in the course of his astonishingly prolific output (over 600 songs), he created and perfected most of the things a resourceful composer can do with a text. He set over 90 poets, from great masters like Goethe, Schiller, and Heine to downright nonentities, including those in his own circle of young bohemians. One of the latter, Mayrhofer, said at Schubert’s funeral, “Many of our own poems became clear to us only through his music.” (Stephen Sondheim, who thinks music only distorts poetry, should take note.)
Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827), a Berlin-based poet-scholar, ranks midway down the list. He may not even have been aware that Schubert had seized on the opportunities provided by two of his poem-cycles, Winterreise and its predecessor, Die Schöne Müllerin (“The Miller’s Fair Daughter”), with results that would perpetuate Müller’s modest fame for the next two centuries. Müller’s life was nearly as short as Schubert’s own, but the somber moods Winterreise conveys when read seem trivial and transitory.
Müller strung his poems on the tenuous premise of a rejected lover who turns his back on his ex-sweetheart’s small town and, starting at midnight, wanders through a barren winter landscape that offers only the briefest shifts into brightness, hitting its nadir when he approaches what he thinks is an inn, which turns out to be a cemetery. In the cycle’s last poem, “Der Leiermann,” the wanderer sees, and by implication sees himself in, the miserable figure of a beggar grinding a hurdy-gurdy, standing barefoot in an icy field just outside a small town, endlessly cranking out his one pathetic tune, unrewarded by even a penny from the few passers-by. “Mysterious old man,” the poet asks, “Shall I follow you? Will your machine crank out my songs?”
Left to its bare words, this image of a lovelorn poet’s despair seems exactly the sort of mawkish overstatement that made Romantic poetry a joke. What Schubert does with it, however, is the opposite of facile. Poverty-stricken, and already debilitated from the syphilis that was his probable cause of death, he found something both deeper and more immediately personal in Müller’s glib image. The song’s piano accompaniment, an eerie nine-note moto perpetuo over a suspended drone in the bass, gives almost supernatural stature to the crank-box instrument it’s meant to describe; entering repeatedly to answer each of the singer’s phrases, it seems to drag the song onward, an image simultaneously of ongoing life and impending, omnipresent death. And ending a work of Winterreise‘s length with a phrase that evokes perpetual motion, seemingly unresolved, puts Schubert a good century ahead of his time.
Three Pianos reveals some, not all, of Schubert’s underlying richness, while traversing its own wandering path. It starts, in dialogue punctuated by piano foolery, as a contemporary analogue to the cycle’s premise, with Burkhardt and Duffy attempting to rescue Malloy from a major case of rejected-lover blues. Serious drinking and icebox raids get involved, as does a running debate on the nature and function of song from Homeric epic to Tom Waits. Somehow Winterreise becomes the focus, and while the three uprights onstage get wheeled into an endless variety of patterns, the three guys work through the cycle in an equally endless variety of musical approaches.
They sing, in German or in the kind of bar-by-bar literal translation opera coaches use; they sing solo, duet, three-part harmony, or batting phrases back and forth like vaudevillians. Some numbers are trashed, some handled reverentially, some analyzed, and a few skipped altogether. Around its midpoint, the evening semi-morphs from a raffish contemporary Schubertiad into a half-spoof version of the real thing, with the trio zipping in and out of the roles of a dead-earnest Schubert and all the pals who gathered around him at the piano. The life Schubert infused into his songs is the show’s substance; the human value of song is its theme. Yet its approach is clownish, informal, disaffected—the opposite of self-involved Romantic pomposity. And Schubert survives unscathed, mainly because, instead of trying, condescendingly, to make classical music fun, Three Pianos makes fun classical music.