Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

Israela Margalit Plays for a Ménage à Trois

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Israela Margalit photo by Cynthia Citron

Israela Margalit came to playwriting late. A celebrated concert pianist, her career has encompassed performances with 50 major orchestras around the world. She performed under the baton of her first husband, conductor Lorin Maazel. (“He booked me for four concerts; after the fourth one he asked me out to dinner,” she says.) She recorded a program of Brahms’ Works for 4 Hands with her son, pianist Ilann Margalit Maazel. And then she began to write.

Fascinated by the life and career of celebrated pianist Clara Schumann and her relationships with her then-less-celebrated husband, composer Robert Schumann, and their protégé, Johannes Brahms, Margalit was determined to write their story. The result is Trio, currently having its American premiere at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood.

Margalit, who was born in Israel, speaks Hebrew, English, French and German. So she was able to research the trio in Frankfurt and Hamburg and elsewhere. “Wherever I would do a concert I would go into libraries and read everything I could read,” she says. “It’s well documented that the three musicians loved and admired each other,” she adds, “and so the bones of my play are historical. Everything else is my interpretation.”

Clara Schumann was a child prodigy whose concert career was curtailed when she married. She was the daughter of Robert’s piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, and Robert met her when she was just 13. They were married, over the objections of her father, when she came of age, and she bore Robert eight children in 13 years. “It’s been said he kept her pregnant all the time so she’d stay at home,” Margalit notes with a smile, “Which introduces the very contemporary conflict between motherhood and a career. Even though it’s set in the 19th century, it’s a drama everybody can relate to.”

Brahms, who joined their household when he was 21, had “the character for success,” according to Schumann, who himself was described by a contemporary as “an unrecognized genius.”

Israela Margalit (seated) with Bjorn Johnson, Meghan Maureen McDonough and Jeremy Shranko

“There’s a great deal of complexity in their relationships,” Margalit says. “And the music itself is yet another character in the play. It speaks for their three souls and is very evocative.” The music, of course, is rendered by Margalit.

Trio starts when the couple is introduced to Brahms by a celebrated young violinist named Joachim. Brahms at the time was unknown; he was of humble origins with no society connections. But Schumann, who was a music critic as well as a composer, recognized his talent and praised him in print, which paved the way for Brahms’ success.

Margalit’s playwriting success came almost as an accident. On a concert series in Germany she talked with her audiences informally about the history of the music she was playing; soon she was commissioned by German television to prepare a one-hour program on Clara Schumann. The program, Clara, was subsequently rated one of the 10 best programs of the year.

Shortly after that she accompanied her second husband, producer Paul Rauch (“We lived in the same building and we met in the elevator,” she explains), to Russia where he had been asked to produce a television series on Russian history, some 100 episodes to be aired in prime time. Because television actors in Russia felt the need to be directed by experienced theater veterans, the renowned Russian theater director Pyotr Stein was engaged for the series.

As happens in fairy tales, Stein became aware of Margalit’s newly expanded story about the Schumanns which she had worked on over an eight-year period. He read it and loved it, as did the translator he assigned to render it into Russian. Soon the full-blown production premiered on the Moscow stage. When it opened, Stein cautioned Margalit that “Moscow audiences are cold as fish,” and that she shouldn’t be offended if they walked out on the play. “If they stay, it would be amazing,” he said.

Margalit was there for the opening and for the 10-minute standing ovation that followed the performance, and she was swept onstage to acknowledge their approval. That was in 2004. Trio has now had a five-year run, playing to sold-out houses in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and throughout Russia and the Ukraine ever since.

Following that triumph, she began putting together a 100-episode television series on the Russian poet and playwright Alexander Pushkin. She had worked on writing the series for a year when suddenly there was a change in the political climate in Russia.

Meghan Maureen McDonough and Bjorn Johnson

“In Russia, Pushkin is a god,” Margalit explains, “and it became unthinkable that a series about him should be written by a non-Russian.” And so the series never aired and Margalit refused to sell the rights to it. “It broke my heart that it didn’t happen,” she says.

“I had worked all my life as a concert pianist and then I stayed home with my two small kids,” she continues. “Hebrew was my mother tongue but I lived in four languages and I didn’t feel comfortable writing in Hebrew. So during my first marriage, while we were living in Cleveland, I enrolled at Case Western Reserve to study literature, philosophy and political science.” (She had already received her bachelor’s degree at the Music Academy in Tel Aviv at the age of 16.)

Shortly thereafter, while still in Cleveland, she was awarded an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Lake Erie College. “I didn’t realize when I accepted it I would be expected to deliver the commencement address,” she says. “I was panicked,” she admits. “It’s the one time that the whole graduating class and their families are listening carefully to what you have to say.

“It was the most difficult thing I’d ever had to write,” she continues, “but after I’d written it and delivered it successfully, I said to myself, “˜Okay, I can write in English!’”

And so began her second career as a writer. One of her first productions was Beethoven, The Prodigy, The Titan, which aired on the A&E Channel and was later selected for permanent display at the Museum of Broadcasting in New York. Then came The Well-Tempered Bach, The Mozart Mystique and Celebrating Haydn, all hosted by Sir Peter Ustinov, whom she calls “the most urbane man I ever met.” The programs were shown in 30 countries and won many awards including an Emmy nomination for the Bach work.

Bjorn Johnson and Jeremy Shranko with Israela Margalit

Since that flamboyant beginning, Margalit has written three other full-length plays in addition to Trio: Night Blooming Jasmine, 3 O’clock in Brooklyn and Presumed Guilty, all of which have been produced Off-Broadway, and On the Bench, which won Honorary Mention Best Play in the 14th annual New York 15-Minute Play Festival.

“I’m totally self-taught,” she says proudly. “I learned the things I shouldn’t do by watching a million plays.” She mentions Arthur Miller, whose last wife, Inge Morath, was her friend. “Arthur told me that in the first five minutes of any play you should know what the conflict is all about,” she says.

She is excited about the current American premiere of Trio. “We were lucky to find a really good cast,” she says. (The cast includes Bjorn Johnson, Meghan Maureen McDonough, Jeremy Shranko, Peter Colburn and Brian Normoyle, and the production is directed by Rick Sparks.)

After the run gets started, she plans to return to her newest project: turning 3 O’clock in Brooklyn into a musical. “I love to write funny lines,” she says, “and now I’ve taken on the challenge of writing lyrics, too.” She has already written 26 songs, “and they rhyme!” she says happily.

“But it’s difficult to start anything when you’re past 40,” she continues. “There’s so much prejudice to be overcome. Who am I to be writing theater? People want to “˜place’ you but I don’t like to be labeled. I refuse to be a specialist. Maybe,” she says, her face lighting up, “I’ll be the Grandma Moses of the theater!”

***All production photos by Ed Krieger

Trio, presented by Theatre Planners, opens March 12; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; through April 10. Tickets: $12.50-$25. The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; 323.469.9988 or plays411.com/trio.