In a season that’s notably short on Christmas shows compared to recent years, it’s actually pretty incredible how the three polymath players behind Three Pianos have turned Schubert’s melancholy and heartbroken song cycle Winterreise into a warm and jocular testament to music, music making, and friendship. I’m glad the A.R.T. decided to import this hard to pin down show from New York, that’s not really a play or a concert or a club comedy act, but succeeds at all those things while seamlessly and compellingly weaving together different narratives. Here, the musical, the historical, the modern, and the meta all come together in what’s intended as a Schubertiade where we’re the guests.
But what’s a 19th century Viennese Schubert jam session, where we listen to songs about a recently dumped Romantic wandering through a cold desolate landscape in despair, without wine? Well, the Three Pianos has that covered with free cups served upon entering the theater and programmed wine breaks throughout the show. Nightclub wristbands and awkward mid-show wait service makes the gimmick not as cool as it might’ve been at a smaller venue or one less burdened by alcohol service laws.
But it’s not really the wine that pulls us in. Our three host-musician-actors impart so much affection for Schubert and Winterreise and provide so much back story, as well as a new story of their own, that we can’t help but feel involved. Of course, that’s what the music is supposed to do by itself, without anyone skipping songs they don’t like, doing snarky renditions, drilling in the plot, or proving MST3K like commentary. But all this stuff helps, a lot, to give Schubert’s music meaning and make it accessible and entertaining.
The show is sometimes like a lesson in music appreciation. The lyrics and music are explained and commented on with passion and sentiment, like Benjamin Zander might do before one of his concerts. There’s a brief lecture of the economics of Western music that’s mostly there to explain why Schubert was so damn poor. There’s history and biography to give Winterreise some context. And there’s even a little debate on whether all of this stuff is necessary to enjoy a song.
At other times,, the action is set in a New York apartment, where the modern counterpart of the Winterreise Wanderer is dealing with a breakup, by getting lost, not in a winter wasteland, but in his MacBook while dipping pieces of cheese into mustard. Unlike Schubert’s Romantic figure, he has his friends to help him out and talk about music, breakups, and apartment life.
And at other times the show is a Schubertiade, where Schubert’s buddies like Johann Mayrhofer (a lyricist of Schubert’s) and Moritz von Schwind (who illustrated some of Schubert’s music) drink until dawn. The party is peppered with historical fact, rumor, and anachronisms. Eventually these three threads come together and it’s no longer clear what’s what, when’s when, and who’s who, and it’s in this knot that the show really triumphs.
There’s a set–birches, dead plants, some fake snow, a little model village and graveyard–but none of it serves much of a purpose. All the action is centered around three upright pianos and a liquor cabinet, and that’s enough here. Three Pianos is about the essentials that haven’t changed much since Schubert’s day: music, friends, and booze.
Three Pianos runs at the A.R.T. through January 8th. Tickets start at $25, but generally hover around $50.