Three Pianos

Franz Schubert's Winterreise gets deconstructed with a six-pack of beer.

TUNE UP Malloy, Duffy and Burkhardt, from left, make Schubert theirs.

TUNE UP Malloy, Duffy and Burkhardt, from left, make Schubert theirs. Photograph: Ryan Jensen

At minimum, the recipe for a good party includes a hearty stock of friends and acquaintances, stirred with liquor and topped with tunes. But what if your hosts' idea of a party playlist is two-dozen somber, chilly songs by Franz Schubert? That's the unlikely starting point for Three Pianos, which took home an Obie for its run last March at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, and which bows at New York Theatre Workshop starting Tuesday. The notion sprang from an actual fete on Valentine's Day 2009, when three theater-makers and composers—Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy—collided around the grand piano at Judson Memorial Church during a spontaneous postgig revel attended by cast and audience members.

The story goes that Malloy (the composer of last year's rock Beowulf), snooping around in a choir loft, unearthed a water-damaged score of the complete Schubert song cycles, one of which was the composer's toweringly bleak 1827 Winterreise. This happened to be a favorite piece of both Duffy (whose Hoi Polloi company mounted the choral-theatrical exploration The less we talk in 2009) and Burkhardt (a composer-performer with the Wisconsin-based Nonsense Company).

"Little by little it became clear that, Oh, we're actually going to get through all 24 songs in the cycle," Duffy recalls of that magic February night. "It started out as, 'Let's just play a couple of songs from Winterreise.' And then we'd send someone out for a beer run." Chimes in Burkhardt: "But then it was, 'Oh, this next one—we have to do the next one.'" Somehow, this chance cocktail of Schubert, booze and musicological curiosity proved strangely thrilling—and, to this trio, inherently theatrical.

"It was so much more fun than the usual night of going to a show, then going to a bar with your friends," Malloy recalls. "It had this amazing music at the heart of it, and it was like, Why can't every night be like that—and, just maybe, why can't every show be like that?" Malloy also knows from performing at bars that there's nothing like a slightly lubricated audience. "There's a Brecht quote I like on this: 'Theater without beer is a museum.'" (At Three Pianos, audiences will be plied with free wine.)

In subsequent living-room rehearsals, the piece took shape as a series of musical rearrangements, historical research and spirited arguments. But what really unlocked the piece, Duffy explains, was an inspired bit of improvisation. "One day, the proposal was to reenact a Schubertiad, as if we were Schubert and his friends," says Duffy, referring to the salons at which the composer and his Romantic poet pals gathered to jam, dance and imbibe. Burkhardt helpfully pipes in: "You're leaving out the important part, which is that the improvisation was to take place in German."

That rigorously silly exercise gave the piece its frame and its tone of reverent irreverence, and the resulting blend combines lecture, performance and assorted metatheatrical antics. Of the March production, TONY's Helen Shaw marveled that this "music-theater supergroup...lasso[es] Schubert's sacred cow and serve[s] it up as barbecue."

Still, with its prevalent minor key and relentlessly bleak, anomic text by the poet Wilhelm Mller, Winterreise seems a stubbornly odd choice to build a party around. The trio employs some diversionary tactics, including a few lively stylistic makeovers—one song is done as a two-step rag, another as a prog-rock sprawl—to vary the evening's mood.

But, Malloy assures us, "We definitely revel in the sadness a bit. It all goes back to that night at Judson Church. We were playing through this very sad, depressing stuff, but we were having such a good time, because it's also beautiful, smart, amazing music."

Three Pianos' appeal may ultimately be in how well it crystallizes the winter blues. "It's a paradox, and no one really knows why this is, but sad people don't like listening to happy music," Burkhardt notes. "You'd think that if you could fix your emotions by listening to happy tunes, you would just do it, but there are a lot of studies that show that when you're sad, the thing that you want is something that fits that, and expresses those feelings. It can be really exhilarating: 'Oh, I'm in a terrible mood, and Schubert just nailed it!'"

Three Pianos is playing at New York Theatre Workshop through Jan 9.

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