How does being a star in a Broadway show compare with a career as a touring concert pianist?
“It was great. I loved it,” said pianist Diane Walsh about her stint as the pianist in “33 Variations,” which closed in 2010 after 113 performances. The show also starred Jane Fonda. “I’d never had a daily job working with colleagues.”
Walsh will give a recital on Sunday at Hubbard Hall as part of the Music from Salem series. It’s the first time in almost seven years that she has performed in the Capital Region. MFS’s artistic director Lila Brown asked her if she could give the recital to open the group’s fall season initiative, which is similiar to something she used to do every January, Walsh said.
Mind on broadway
The concert is one of a handful she is doing this season along with coaching chamber music and teaching a piano literature course at Mannes College of Music, where she’s been on staff since 1982, but her thoughts are still with the Broadway show.
Pianist Diane Walsh
WHERE: Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main St., Cambridge
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: Donation
MORE INFO: 677-2495; www.hubbardhall.org
“It was very, very exciting,” she said. “I really miss it.”
She was involved with the production when it was still in a workshop stage. Five years ago, another pianist, who didn’t play Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations,” a particularly fiendish group of 33 variations that pianists rarely perform because of their difficulty, called Walsh to tell her that Tectonic Theater Company was looking for a pianist who could play the piece.
“He knew I played the piece and in fact, I recorded it soon after,” she said.
When she Googled the company, she discovered it had been founded by noted playwright and director Moisés Kaufman, whose shows included “Gross Indecency,” “The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “I Am My Own Wife,” for which he’d received a Tony Award nomination. Walsh said she was impressed with his credentials and decided to offer to audition.
“I played on an awful upright piano in a shabby rehearsal space near Times Square,” she said.
But she got the job and soon was playing in a one-week workshop of an earlier version of the play in Washington. A year later, she did another workshop of the developed version in Washington and at the La Jolla Playhouse and then, finally, the play was brought to Broadway at the Eugene O’Neil Theater.
“I was very privileged. I was right in the middle of things as part of the development,” she said.
Walsh was put on a specially built platform just below stage level on the left side, where she was always visible to the audience. The piano lid was up and when she played, she had a spotlight. The plot involved the possible reasons why Beethoven wrote these variations based on a theme that Viennese music publisher Antonio Diabelli had provided, integrated with Fonda’s character, who was suffering from ALS, and who had a difficult relationship with her daughter. In the second act, Beethoven also appears.
Although Beethoven’s music is in the public domain, Walsh was given a credit as music editor and was named as the play’s music director. Sometimes she had to play only bars of the music while other times she performed the entire variation, so she worked out a cheat sheet of cues for each act that included almost two bars of the music along with a line of dialogue.
“I pasted these on two pieces of cardboard, so I wouldn’t get lost,” she said laughing. “The music I played from memory.”
The big tour-de-force came in the second act when Beethoven was talking through the 32nd variation, a fugue, as if he were composing it on the spot.
“It was a great three-minute duet and very exciting,” Walsh said. “It stopped the show every night and got applause.”
Rather than be acknowledged as most pit musicians are after a performance when the conductor comes out on stage and waves a hand at them, she was the first on stage every night.
“I got the first bow of the night and played the theme and then Jane entered and got applause,” she said. “Then, at the end after the cast took their bow, they’d turn and I’d come out of the wings and take the last bow. I felt as far from being a pit musician every night as one could feel.”
What she also loved about being in the production was that she could watch how the actors did little things each night to keep their performances fresh, something she never had to consider because Beethoven’s music never got stale.
“I never got sick of it,” she said. “But thank God, it was Beethoven.”
She also loved that she had a dresser who did her laundry and had her costume dry-cleaned twice a week, that she had her own dressing room and that her makeup was always there.
“It was wonderful having this luxury of someone taking care of me,” she said.
When the show closed in 2010, she went with it to the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles along with Fonda for almost 90 more performances. Although the Broadway company was asked to do the show in London and Sydney, Fonda declined, as did Walsh. The show meanwhile continues to play around the world with other pianists.
“Instead of coming back to New York City — I’d taken a sabbatical from Mannes to do the show — my husband and I kept going west and went around the world for the next eight months,” she said laughing.
“We visited Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Turkey, visited my sister in Vienna for a month, Germany, Italy, France and England.”
Although they discovered there were several other appealing places to live besides New York City, she said she’s back in the saddle now. So, for this recital, she chose a program of pieces written by Bach, Schumann and Schubert when they were young and just starting out.
They include Bach’s Aria Variata, which is very like Corelli; Schumann’s “Papillons, Op. 2” which is highly programmatic, charming and fresh; Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, which is “alarmingly mature, stark, tragic and very beautiful.”
Those pieces will surround George Rochberg’s Partita Variations, who was finding another voice from the atonal, serial voice that he’d always written in. His work, which is new to Walsh, quotes from the other composers along with Chopin, Brahms, and electronic music. The work, which is 30 minutes, is not a pastiche but has integrity, she said.
But Walsh is reconsidering her options now that she has been on Broadway.
“It’s opened doors to other ways to perform,” she said. “I know a lot of live actors and directors now. Who knows?”