The story of the Geffen Playhouse's production of Bryan Davidson's War Music is the kind of fairy tale of L.A. theatre that local playwrights dream about. When the play received its 2002 premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in a co-production by the Echo Theater Company and Playwrights Arena, a number of Geffen staff members happened to attend. It started with education director Debra Pasquerette—a friend of Davidson's—and word began to spread.
Says director Jessica Kubzansky, "As legend has it, more and more people came from the Geffen, and this extraordinary and apparently unprecedented thing happened—which is that they all came back and said they loved it."
Recalls Davidson, "[Geffen producing director] Gil [Cates] said to me when I first met him, 'I can't even get my staff to agree on where to go for lunch. That they agreed on this play was quite extraordinary.'"
Indeed, after Neil Simon, Davidson is only the second local playwright to have a play produced at the Geffen. But the Geffen's enthusiastic embrace of the play is not entirely surprising. War Music is an ambitious, enormously researched piece—an exploration of the way in which historical events, particularly wars, influence artists and the work they create. Davidson says he set out with the question: What good is music in a world ravaged by war?
The play begins with the story behind British composer Frank Bridge's Three Improvisations for the Left Hand, composed for emerging pianist Douglas Fox, who had lost an arm in World War I. The second act explores the accidental death of Austrian composer Anton Webern, who was shot by an American soldier in post–World War II occupied territory. The final movement is set in a Nazi POW camp in Silesia, where French composer Olivier Messiaen, suffering a spiritual and psychological breakdown, composed Quartet for the End of Time to be performed by prisoners.
Davidson jokes that he has been working on this play longer than the World Wars it depicts took to fight. A violinist and lover of music theory, he recalls the genesis of the idea: "I was an undergrad at Loyola Marymount here in L.A., and I heard the Quartet for the End of Time in a live performance. It's got a very odd instrumentation: piano, clarinet, cello, and violin. And I found out that instrumentation was [used] because those were the instruments that were available to Messiaen when he wrote the piece in a Nazi POW camp. So that back story really fascinated me—the fact that somebody could write a piece of music that is so transcendentally beautiful and so full of spiritual hope in an environment that really doesn't lend itself to that sort of expression."
The play is constructed like a musical piece with three movements. Kubzansky directed the original production and worked closely with Davidson on the play's development. She explains that Davidson wrote each act with a style and structure reflecting that of the composer's music.
"Bridge is a much more lyrical composer, and Act One is much more lyrically narrative," says Kubzanksy. "Webern is a man who was sort of throwing up the usual order of things and embracing a kind of chaotic randomness and telling you that there was a kind of order in that. The way that Act Two is written is very much in the style of Webern, in that there are a whole bunch of scenes, and you don't really understand why they all make sense, [but] gradually they come together. With Messiaen, we are on a spiritual journey that takes us to a place of complete magic where we are in a 'forest of lost things,' which is hard to define and clarify what the rules are."
Though she and Davidson were given the opportunity to recast the piece, Kubzansky says they felt the original actors were instrumental in the play's development, and recasting was not considered. The ensemble, all Echo Theatre Company members, features Nancy Bell, Kevin Crowley, Tina Holmes, Jeremy Maxwell, John Prosky, Victor Raider-Wexler, and Christopher Shaw. These seven actors play three to five roles each, and each actor has what Kubzanksy describes as a "role track."
"The way I've come to understand it is that each actor acts like an instrument in an orchestra," says Kubzansky. "There is an actor who I think represents the basso profundo, an actor who I think represents the sobbing violin. All play characters that are in no way similar, and yet if this were an orchestra, those are the notes that their instruments would be asked to play. That's been fascinating: figuring out the instrumentation of each actor, meaning what their role track is."
Davidson has continued to make revisions on the piece—right up through this week, he confesses. Although Kubzanksy says there is now more of a journey and an arc to the piece, she insists that those who experienced the original won't feel that anything is drastically different.
While Davidson and Kubzansky are thrilled by the opportunity to revisit and remount the play in a Geffen incarnation, each is filled with big hopes for the play's future life. "I think it's a very timely piece," says Davidson. "It's about nations at war and what the costs of war are in human terms. I think it's addressing questions that we are struggling with as a society now. I very much would love to see this play have another life beyond this production."
"Me, too," agrees Kubzanksy. "It really is one of those why-you-do-theatre plays."
"War Music" will be presented by and at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue.-Thu. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 & 8:30 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Jan. 14-Feb. 22. $23-46. (310) 208-5454.