‘Bach at Leipzig’: Classical Music and Comedic Mayhem

William Shakespeare once said, ‘All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ All you musicians out there can probably agree that ‘Life is a polyphonic spree, and all the men and women are merely voices singing.’
Think you’re crazy? Don’t worry. Contemporary playwright Itamar Moses doesn’t think so, and therein lies the charm of his new comedic play, ‘Bach at Leipzig,’ now being performed at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa until Oct. 15.
The year is 1722. The place is the city of Leipzig. Outside the protective confines of its walls, various German factions wage war against one another, and deep inside the city’s palisades, a tragedy has just occurred. Johann Kuhnau, organ master of the powerful and immensely influential ‘Thomaskirche,’ has just died a sudden death, landing face down on the keyboard of the church’s giant pipe organ as it sustains the loud and steady drone of the last few notes pressed by the contour of his face. At the news of his death, organists from all over the countryside gather in Leipzig to vie for the coveted post. History tells us that the position went to none other than the legendary Johann Sebastian Bach, but it never tells us about the guys who tried and failed. That’s where Itamar Moses steps in.
Moses’ hilarious script, rich with wit and sass, has been compared to the works of Tom Stoppard, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. ‘Bach’ introduces the audience to six fictional organists and their humorous plotting, backstabbing and later violent interactions. Each is either named ‘Johann’ or ‘Georg’ and is only identifiable by his middle name, except for Georg Lenck, who is too poor to even afford one.
There is humor to cater to everyone’s tastes. The dialogue is smart and funny whenever the organists disparage one another with euphemisms. Conspiracies grow so absurdly complex that the audience can only remain in awe at the thought of a scheme actually blooming into success. Fans of the ‘Three Stooges’ will laugh out loud when the musicians eventually blow their fuses and go at one another with swords swinging.
Fans of television’s ‘Arrested Development’ will enjoy the play’s self-consciousness, even going to point of breaking the fourth wall at certain points. There’s even a little drug humor for you Cheeches and Chongs out there.
Of course, what’s a comedy based on music without some musical jokes? ‘Bach’ is indeed full of them. Audience members with a rudimentary knowledge of music theory and history will no doubt catch every one of them.
They’re small jokes, but when combined with everything else happening on stage, they accentuate the experience. It should be stated, though, that there is no prior classical music experience required to enjoy this riotous and sidesplitting play.
While it definitely excels in the humor department, ‘Bach’ tends to be a bit deficient in the profound. It’s not that the play lacks deep meaning or thought. It tries too hard to juggle so many topics that it only ends up scratching the surface of what potentially could have been mind-blowing epiphanies. Aesthetics, the role of music in religion, the belief in pre-destination, Calvinism, Lutheranism and music in general are all put on the hot seat, but never really get burned. On top of that, the ending will definitely leave some audience members scratching their heads.
Thankfully, the play does have one coherent idea that is sure to bring a smile to your face. The crown jewel comes during the final act, when the lionhearted Johann Friedrich Fasch writes a letter to his dear Anna telling her to compose a fugue. While he gives a monologue about a fugue’s musical structure, the other actors are seen in the shadows going through the movements of the first act with Freidrich’s monologue as a scene-by-scene commentary. Two and two come together and the audience sees the genius of Moses’ work: His play works out to be very similar in structure to a polyphonic masterpiece with six voices, each character representing a line of music.
On par with the comedy in the play, the costume design and artistic direction are top-notch. The ‘Thomaskirche’ set where all of the action takes place looks beautiful and the actors’ costumes, which harken back to a baroque version of the movie ‘Amadeus,’ never seem to get old throughout the play.
The casting is dead-on, as each actor portrays his character with so much power and vibrancy you can’t help but sympathize with the organists and their predestined fate to lose to Bach, who is never even seen on stage.
Highly recommended for those who are just looking to find good and sophisticated laughs with lots of entertainment value, Moses’ ‘Bach at Leipzig’ pulls most of the right stops and hits most of the right notes. Did I mention that there’s lots of loud organ music?