Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s life (1840-1893) has been written about extensively and was featured in two films, one made in Soviet Russia originally entitled Chaykovskiy and the second a Ken Russell film, The Music Lovers starring Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson. Neither of these works dealt adequately with Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality. They especially avoided how the composer confronted the pain and anguish of living with what he most probably deemed a “curse.” Rejection and punishment were the “way of the world” in the religious country of his birth at a time when the culture and society were unforgiving to individuals who lived lifestyles outside of the mainstream.
Apparently, Russia after the fall of communism is still having difficulty with one of its greatest composer’s sexual proclivities. The latest biopic of Tchaikovsky, partly funded by the government and created by a Russian screenwriter and Russian film director, downplays the composer’s being gay. This is because of the recent passage of a law in June 2013 banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. This homophobic political atmosphere in Russia has forced filmmakers to obviate the rich and powerful story of how and why Tchaikovsky’s alienation and emotional despair impacted his unparalleled music creation giving him refuge and self-affirmation.
There is no such ban in the U.S. Though other freedoms are under assault, the striving for sexual equality has marched forward and prompted Andrew Wyeth Neal to write an interesting and exhaustive work exploring Tchaikovsky as no other work had yet attempted, either on film or on stage. In Tchaikovsky, his monumental compendium of play writing, dance and music, Neal chronicles his take on the pivotal influences and events in Tchaikovsky’s life, a number of them controversial. Weaving in Tchaikovsky’s music from various concertos, ballets, operas, symphonies, piano and orchestral works, including the 1812 Overture in Act 2, Neal creates a poignant, haunting tapestry with the help of an excellent and talented cast of musicians, actors and dancers. Together they bring into relief incidents and conversations based upon letters and various sources, broken down into manageable and memorable sections corresponding to the three stages of the composer’s life (early years, middle years, last days).
Using flashback and flashforward, Neal permeates the time wall to move quickly to the various periods and elucidate Tchaikovsky’s love relationships, failed marriage, familial ties, financial sponsorships, colleague disputes, and their impact on his musical career. Neal shows how each may have inspired Tchaikovsky’s music from that period. In many of the scenes, Neal intertwines the strong emotional components in the man’s life, revealing the depth of trauma, trial and struggle inherent in his experiences of soul anguish, grieving for those he loved and lost, feeling abandonment, suffering depression and caving in to despair. All of these powerful elements are echoed in the musical and dance numbers creating a portrait of an individual somewhere between the incredibly human and utterly sublime.
What Neal offers us strikes a deeper chord and allows us to feel a strong appreciation for the individual beyond what the biographers and musicologists might have us embrace about Tchaikovsky and his brilliance. Neal’s amazing work moves out onto a rarer plain to reveal the composer’s failed attempts to cope with his depression, the anathema of his “sin,” his yearning for love and the devastation his gay relationships bring because he cannot accept his own sexuality. That last subject remains controversial amongst biographers. So does his death, about which Neal constructs a novel explanation and revelatory scenes. In the context of this portrait of Tchaikovsky, Neal’s suggestion about what Tchaikovsky might have done is not unreasonable and perhaps more likely than what many assume (that he died of cholera).
The production at its core cannot be typed to genre except to say that it is an innovative play. Though it ran long, I can understand how Neal would be loath to excise parts of it because each appears to be fitting and necessary. However, some of the scenes should be made more concise and some could even be consolidated. Most likely this will occur as the production evolves. The cast was extremely talented in portraying these historical luminaries with their musical gifts, bringing off the difficult numbers with skill.
This kind of musical production necessitates a highly skilled cast like this one if it is to be performed well. If granted enhanced production values from deep-pocketed resources, this work can and should evolve. Tchaikovsky’s music and life struggles are the kinds with which we can all empathize and from which we can learn. Neal has hit a bullseye.
Tchaikovsky was performed August 29 – September 1 at the Chernuchin Theatre with the following cast: Tom Burka, Tristan Cano, David Morrissey, Killian Lock, Jonathan Weirich, Erin Mairead O’Kane, Alisa Ermolaev, Brandon DeSpain, David Bodenschatz, Ashley Thaxton, Tyler Coughlin, Glenn Richards, Paul David Miller, Victor Fernandes, John Trujillo, Isabel Mares, Jack Cesarano, Mike Cesarano, Andrew Wyeth Neal. With dancers: Pasqualino Beltempo, John Segundo, Quimen Sanchez, Nina Deacon, Dona Wiley, Natalia Sheptalova.