‘It is a challenge’

THE LAST TIME Jane Fonda took to the stage on Broadway John F Kennedy was in the White House, Bob Dylan had just released his second album, and the first James Bond film, Dr No, was in American cinemas.

By (The Guardian)

Published: Sat 14 Feb 2009, 9:43 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:25 PM

That was in June 1963, when she finished a run of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. More than 45 years later she made her Broadway comeback in 33 Variations, a play that explores the exceptional creativity of artists late in life.

Critics itching to find out whether Fonda, 71, has hung on to her thespian magic will have to remain patient through a month of previews before the official opening night on March 9. Fonda, chronicling her return to Broadway in a blog, predicted that she would find last night’s performance as surreal as it was in 1963 at the age of 25.

She says she is approaching the coming four-and-a-half months of shows as an adventure. “That’s how I choose to think of it. I could be real scared. I mean, eight shows a week after 45 years! But I am choosing to think of it as a challenge.” Her relationship with Broadway began in 1960 in There Was a Little Girl. Later that year she played in Invitation to a March, written and directed by Arthur Laurents, who is currently directing a Broadway revival of West Side Story that opens next month.

In 1963 she was given the lead role in the comedy The Fun Couple, which proved such a flop it closed after one day. After four Broadway shows in quick succession she followed in her father Henry’s footsteps into the movies, with big hits in Cat Ballou in 1965 and the quintessential 60s sex movie, Barbarella, three years later. She went on to take two best actress Oscars (Klute in 1971 and Coming Home in 1978), as well as embarking on a highly-publicised engagement with radical politics as a prominent anti-Vietnam war campaigner.

Shortly after she announced her return to the stage a slightly older friend of hers told Fonda that at their age they were supposed to be retired, not looking for new adventures. “I don’t agree,” she replied, pointing out that she was writing a new book, provisionally called The Third Act: Entering Prime Time.

It was her passionate belief in the potential of later life that drew her to 33 Variations. Fonda was researching a chapter for her book on Beethoven. Just when she was delving into the exceptional flurry of creativity towards the end of the composer’s life, the script of Moises Kaufman’s play arrived on her desk.

It too looks at Beethoven’s late period, specifically his rush to compose 33 variations on a Waltz by Diabelli at a time when he was becoming progressively deaf.

Fonda plays Katherine Brandt, a musicologist who travels to the composer’s birthplace, Bonn in Germany, in an attempt to uncover the truth behind the variations. Brandt herself is in a race against her own physical deterioration - she has a terminal illness that progressively takes hold. “Obsession, passion, these are things I love in life, the fact that people can grow old and become sick and yet their passions remained undimmed,” Fonda writes in her blog.

“Some of the greatest artistic works and achievements have been done by people late in life - Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Beethoven.” So in art, so in life. Fonda now has her chance to show that her passion and her skills are undiminished. The verdict of the critics awaits.

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