All I could ask myself after watching the glorious performances of Edward Gero and Sasha Olinick as the tortured Salieri and the fart-filled Amadeus was, “What took so long for someone to cast them in a production of Amadeus? Well, I seized the opportunity to ask them myself, and also asked them to talk about these two challenging roles in the critically acclaimed Round House production.
Joel: What is Amadeus about from the point of view of Salieri and Mozart?
Edward: The play is about the struggle to understand and accept one’s own limitations. There will always be people better than you and always people you are better than. The temptation to compare one’s own gifts and accomplishments against others in your chosen field, and in this case, a genius is a slippery slope. The story of the Salieri/Mozart/God struggle is a cautionary tale warning us of the danger of going down that road.
Sasha: From Mozart’s point of view, Amadeus is about both the tragedy of his life (specifically the last ten years) and the triumph of his music. Breaking away from the service of the Archbishop in Salzburg and coming to the court of Emperor Joseph the Second in Vienna was a bold and exciting move for him that held enormous possibility. Once in Vienna, he quickly secures a royal commission and marries a beautiful woman who shares his playful spirit – things are looking great.
But it isn’t long before his own arrogance, the jealousy of others, and the public’s inability to recognize his brilliance set in motion a long downward spiral that ends in his premature death – on this level it’s a story of self-destruction, conspiracy and betrayal… and the failure of great promise. On the other hand, it’s also the story of an unparalleled artist’s perseverance. As everything falls apart, his marriage, his finances, his health and eventually his mind, he is still inspired to compose some of the most sublime music ever written – and even his final moments of life are devoted to trying to complete a masterpiece.
Why did you want to play the role of Salieri?
Edward: Salieri is a great role and a great challenge. It’s the kind of role that comes along after a certain age. It is a language play that draws on my training and experience with the classical canon and also draws on my musical training and love of classical music.
How much of your own personality and experiences did you bring to your performances?
Edward: I was able to draw on a lot of my own experiences as an Italian Catholic and a lover of music. When I was young I spent some time in the seminary, thinking I would be a priest. So the personal conversations with God that Salieri has in the play are not foreign to me at all. And I think we all recognize our own jealousies among colleagues or family members: the person who was promoted over you and so on. The wrinkle in that rather familial scenario is that Salieri cannot blame being outdone by a competitor with a lack of talent.
What advice did Director Mark Ramont give you early in rehearsals that helped you shape your performances?
Edward: Mark was incredibly supportive throughout the entire rehearsal process. He was encouraging every step of the way. As the process went on he became more specific in his notes that helped me to clarify moments that I didn’t understand or to build and grow some of the choices I was already making. He was terrific to work with.
Sasha: Mark kept asking, “How can I get you to be more arrogant?” He really pushed me to get in Salieri’s face and to be willing to snap at anyone, even the Emperor, if they insulted my music. I don’t think I came into the process with enough of the sense of how jealous and competitive Mozart could be and Mark helped to bring that out. He encouraged me to let the moments of Mozart’s rage be swift, sudden and powerful, like a child pitching a fit.
Another simple but profound piece of advice Mark gave me was to continue to listen to the actors around me on stage. Mozart was an exhibitionist from a very early age, and he is in a sense always performing- this requires that you put out a lot of energy, but it’s very easy to fall into the trap of putting out without also taking in- someone who has a life built around performing has to have a fine tuned ability to assess how his audience is responding and to adjust accordingly. It’s a basic tenet of acting that you need to allow yourself to be effected by others as much as you attempt to effect them-it’s often stated as the adage that “acting is simply acting and reacting”, or “acting is listening and responding”- however you care to think of it, it was particularly important for me to be reminded of this, in this role.
For those people who only know the Academy Award-winning film version of Amadeus – enlighten them about what is similar and different with this stage version.
Edward: I have to admit I never saw the film. As a young actor in New York, I auditioned for the role of Mozart. Some guy named Tom Hulce got it. I never looked back. I suppose I will take a look at it now that this production is up and running.
Sasha: Although the movie and the play tell essentially the same the story, there are significant differences – the most obvious difference is that the play doesn’t offer the audience any room to escape. The film, as wonderful as it is, is forced to rely on the conceit that Salieri is retelling this story to a priest after attempting to commit suicide- so we are watching a confession – while the play forces you to participate in the confession. If you want to distant yourself while watching the movie, you can, but in the play, you are in the room with Salieri and he asks you point blank, “Come on now, wouldn’t you have done the same thing?” I suppose you can still evade the question, but you actually have to work harder to do so.
Beyond this, I can think of three big differences between the movie and the play that stand out to me as an actor playing Mozart.
The first is the treatment of the relationship between Mozart and his father Leopold (and by extension the animosity between Leopold and Constanze). In the movie Leopold visits Mozart and Constanze in Vienna and you witness first hand the horrible tensions that lie just below the surface. In the play I think we still get a sense of what complicated and delicate balance existed between father and son, but I like the fact that Leopold is never a flesh and blood character. He exists instead as a looming presence (in life and death) in Mozart’s psyche, a symbol of both protection and disapproval, that Mozart struggles to embrace and free himself from. Ironically, I think the relationship – or at least the argument that Shaeffer makes about how the relationship played out in the composition of Mozart’s music – is more compelling if the audience never sees Leopold.
In the film, I don’t remember the moments of warmth between Salieri and Mozart, but in the play I can feel audiences respond with horror as Mozart, in a needy state, is seduced by Salieri’s outstretched hand, and that’s very exciting. The absence of Leopold I think also makes Mozart’s need to look for a father figure in Salieri more believable and Ed plays the false overtures of friendship so convincingly that I think it’s possible to first believe that the composers, under different circumstances, might have been true comrades, and second to recognize just how devastating Salieri’s final betrayal is to Mozart.
Finally, the climatic scene between Salieri and Mozart is completely different in the film than it is in our staged version. I can’t say I like the film version or the one we’ve chosen to use better- they are so completely different – I do think the moment in the film where the dying Mozart dictates part of the Requiem to Salieri is beautiful – but I also believe that the stage version has a much more operatic feel to it, and I won’t give any of it away except to say, I think it offers the kind of dramatic moment that can only be achieved in live theater.
There were a lot – or maybe –‘too many words’ for both of you to learn when preparing for your roles. If you could remove some of these many words from the show – what scene/scenes would you ‘tighten up”?
Edward: At first I thought there we too many words. But I think the play is pretty taut as it is. Oddly, it seems underwritten in some cases where transitions move very rapidly. But on the whole, I wouldn’t lose a thing. There have been several rewrites of the last scene. We use the original Broadway version. The latest version is another 5 minutes of text in the final scene with Mozart and the Requiem. Salieri is begging for Mozart’s forgiveness instead of trying to break him. It’s a completely different scene. We did cut one line in the last section of the play at the funeral of Mozart. There was a line about the fact that Mozart’s nightmare of a messenger coming to demand the Requiem was not a fantasy at all. It actually happened. It’s a nice piece of history, but it seemed unnecessary, especially as the play wants to wrap up.
Edward, you have performed many Shakespearean roles. Which Shakespearean characters remind you of Salieri?
Edward: Oh I think there is a lot of Iago in Salieri, the jealous Machiavel, Leontes, the self-inflicted jealous husband, some of Bolingbroke’s quiet observer and political operative, some MacHeath, the swaggering hero, a little Tartuffe, the bumbling seducer and maybe with the older Salieri a little of Emery Battis, my old friend and colleague from the Shakespeare Theater.
Obviously Mozart and Salieri’s music plays an important role in Amadeus. Which composition in the show is your favorite and give you ‘chills’ every time you hear it and why?
Edward: The Kyrie from the Mass in C Minor “Grosse Messe” is just glorious. It is a brilliant lead up to Salieri’s recognition of Mozart’s true genius and in a religious context. It’s a perfect setup for Salieri’s final conversation with God at the end of the act. It’s a glorious piece of music, conducted by Leonard Bernstein and sung by Frederica von Stade. Brilliant.
You are both working with some of the best actors in town and anywhere on the stage – Floyd King, Scott McCormick, Toby Mulford, KenYatta Rogers, Jefferson Russell, JJ Kaczynski, Laura Harris, Caroline Mahoney, Steve Carpenter, and Sabrina Mandell. You must be having a blast working together! Have you worked with these actors before?
Edward: With the exception of Floyd King and Steven Carpenter, I haven’t worked with these actors before. I want to say what a terrific company it is. Everyone is working their hardest to make the show successful. Although I am on stage the entire evening, the company s running around like mad people to make entrances. There is no cross over so folks have to run under the stage at breakneck speed to make some of their entrances. I like to come in a bit early so I can spend some social time with the gang. Otherwise I only see them onstage and I would miss the esprit-de-corps of greenroom life.
Sasha: One of the many joys of being part of the DC theater community is that you are almost always on stage with at least one actor you’ve worked with in some capacity.
The second show I did after moving to Washington was called The Russian National Postal Service. It ran at Studio Theatre and starred Floyd King. Scott McCormick and I each played a famous or (infamous) character from Russian History who appears as figments of Floyd’s imagination. Scott was Stalin, I was Chapayev – who is a beloved folk hero from the second world war who became the star of one of Stalin’s favorite propaganda films.
I have worked with Jefferson Russell before at Imagination Stage and though I’ve never been on stage with JJ Kaczynski, he did some incredible projections for The Book Club Play, another show I did at Round House a few years back. KenYatta Rogers is a good friend and colleague. Although we haven’t performed together, he was responsible for hiring me to teach acting at Montgomery College after I moved to DC and since then we have co-facilitated acting workshops, ran a summer Shakespeare camp at the Bullis Academy last summer, and I did some text coaching and assistant directing for a beautiful production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that he directed on the Rockville campus of Montgomery College. Even though we don’t have all that much direct interaction in the play, it’s been a real pleasure to finally have a chance to be on stage with him. This is my first time working with Laura, Toby, Sabrina, Stephen, Caroline, and, of course, Ed.
What were some of the funniest or strangest things that happened during rehearsals and in the performances?
Edward: I think my favorite misspoken line came when I attempted to quiet the upset Mozart describing the figure of his nightmare. The line should be, “Wolfgang, CALM yourself!” Instead, I said, “Wolfgang, COMPOSE yourself.” I got so tickled at the irony of that I thought I would break onstage. Fortunately, neither Sasha nor the audience picked it up. So I just bit my lip and kept on.
Edward, do you feel that Salieri’s work was underappreciated and has gotten ‘a raw deal’ from musical historians?
Edward: Well I think his work is certainly underplayed, although since the advent of this play he has had a revival. Like in Shakespeare’s day, how much of Christopher Marlowe or Fletcher and Beaumont do we remember? I certainly can understand why he might be underappreciated stacked up against the greatest classical composer of all time.
Sasha, most characters in the theatre who are vulgar, who have terrible gas problems, and who are adulterers – are usually despised by theatre audiences. What makes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart so different? Why do audiences tolerate him and at times adore him?
Sasha: Well come on, aren’t farts and butts funny?? Seriously though, that’s an interesting question and I think there are a lot of different components to the answer. I think we live in a culture that is fascinated with genius and one that therefore makes a lot of allowances for those that we put on that pedestal. I remember watching John McEnroe as a kid and enjoying both the brilliance of his skill on the court and the ridiculousness of his tantrums with the line judges, both were thrilling to witness – and you watched with the hope and expectation of seeing both.
I think part of the success of Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Marc Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” is due to the same thing. On some level we may also appreciate that the genius who can think, play or compose far beyond most people’s ability is capable of doing so in part because they are unencumbered by convention; they allow and push themselves to fully express human experience through their particular medium and they do so without inhibition… if some of this lack of self- censorship carries over into their personal life, so be it… maybe we all are in awe of the sense of freedom they possess, even if and when it produces obnoxious behavior.
Part of Mozart’s charm also lies in his rebelliousness. He enters an elite and stuffy world of sophistication and carelessly upends it. This, of course, leads to his demise- but watching him ruffle the feathers of a dotty Emperor and his sycophantic cabinet is a hell of a lot of fun. I think we all fantasize about being that guy.
I think it’s also important to point out that almost none of Mozart’s antics, as childish and crude as there are, could really be called malicious. He is dismissive, disrespectful and downright rude to Salieri, but I don’t I think he ever intends real or lasting harm. There’s no doubt that he’s a self centered egotist, who enjoys showing off and who speaks without consideration for the feelings of others, but he’s too busy fighting to get the world to appreciate his talent to put much effort into tearing others down. His childishness also manifests itself in a complete obliviousness to the destructive forces around him and within him- for most of the play he has no idea what he’s really up against, and I think that makes him very sympathetic.
I saw Amadeus the afternoon before press night. Edward: you told me you had discovered more in the final moments of the show. Tell me about that.
Edward: It was a quick rehearsal period so much of my concentration was on getting the words out. But, as I began to feel more confident about the language I was able to relax a bit in performance and widen the radar screen, as it were. So in the final moments I was comfortable enough to let myself be affected by the horror of Mozart’s collapse at the end and felt real remorse at having destroyed the human being to quash my own feelings of betrayal by a God who apparently broke his part of the bargain. Maybe, too, I had touched upon the senselessness of the lashing out at Mozart by Salieri. He really is delusional to think that God owed him anything. I love it when the play really gels in that way, peaking right at the opening.
Do you believe that Salieri murders Mozart?
Edward: No. He thinks he does. Maybe even gets the idea that Mozart thinks he does, which is sufficient for him to set up the final act of defiance and despair of suicide to give the rumor credence. But, no, he even says so himself, that he didn’t do it. He calls it a lie himself.
James Kronzer has created a unique ‘setting’ for this production. Tell us about it and how it contributes to the ‘mood’ of this production.
Edward: The new wrinkle to the piece is bringing the play out of Salieri’s house and into this cathedral like space. To commit suicide on the altar is a huge sacrilege and expresses the amount of bitter vitriol that fills the character of Salieri. It’s a great space to play and it allows for all these memories to come to life with a modicum of set changes.
Why do you think Peter Shaffer’s play is still so popular 31 years after it premiered on Broadway and won a slew of Tony Awards?
Edward: Fame, ambition, envy and revenge are powerful and relevant themes in any age. It is certainly no stranger to the seat of politics in Washington. Like Vienna in its time, Washington has its salons and soirees and the sophisticated life to which we, like Salieri, aspire. The desire to make a difference in the world is universal. That is what Salieri hopes for, but is lost along the way. The play will always be relevant as long as there is a human being with a need for approval from the public.
With this interview, Joel takes his exit from DC Theatre Scene. His new reviews and interviews can be found on MD Theatre Guide. His prodigious work here at DC Theatre Scene is greatly appreciated and will always be available in his Archive.