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Week of 6 December 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 14

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CFA production of Amadeus will tell classic tragicomedy of stage and film

By Brian Fitzgerald

Upon hearing the title Amadeus, do you think Hollywood? Tom Hulce’s giggling portrayal of Mozart and F. Murray Abraham’s Oscar-winning performance as the composer’s rival Salieri helped garner eight Academy Awards for the 1984 movie, which became an instant classic.

Ascend Communications founder Rob Ryan, who directs a high-tech business start-up “boot camp” at his Montana ranch, speaks to aspiring entrepreneurs in the SMG Auditorium on December 2. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
  Ascend Communications founder Rob Ryan, who directs a high-tech business start-up “boot camp” at his Montana ranch, speaks to aspiring entrepreneurs in the SMG Auditorium on December 2. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

It seems, however, that not many people are aware that Amadeus was a Tony Award–winning play before being immortalized in celluloid.
“I’m amazed at the number of people who haven’t seen the stage version that the film was based on,” says Jim Petosa, director the CFA school of theatre arts production, which will be performed on the BU Theatre Mainstage from December 11 to 15. The play in some ways resembles the screen version. After all, Peter Shaffer had adapted the movie script from his 1979 play. But although there are some similarities between the two, Petosa points out that “as is often the case when plays transfer to film, it’s a very different animal.”

Like the movie, the stage version of Amadeus pits the established Austrian court composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) against the crass young genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). Amadeus explores the mysteries of genius and man’s relationship with God. Salieri, living a virtuous life, at first believes that God is rewarding him with fame and a life of musical excellence, “until he meets Mozart,” says Petosa. The name Amadeus means “beloved of God,” and Salieri is soon convinced that Mozart is God’s chosen composer. Brutally confronted with the limitations of his own talent and believing that God has abandoned him, he embarks on a desperate course to destroy his rival. “What causes Salieri’s breakdown,” says Petosa, “is the question, ‘Why would God grant this conceited moron such extraordinary gifts, except to mock me?’ So he pledges to do nothing but destroy God’s voice on earth.”

“Spiteful, sniggering, conceited, infantile Mozart,” says Salieri in the play, which portrays Mozart as even more childish and vulgar than the movie does. “The story -- the thematic ideas -- are basically the same in the play and the film,” says Petosa, who became director of CFA’s school of theatre arts last July. “The main difference is the nature of the storytelling. The conceit that Shaffer developed for the screen was Salieri telling his story to a priest, a confessor, so we get the story as a flashback. In the stage play, he is speaking directly to his audience. He calls the audience members ‘the ghosts of the future.’ And it becomes a much more immediate exchange between that character and us, who watch the events of his life unfold. So, like all pieces of good theater, it breaks the boundary between what’s happening onstage and the people in the audience.” The result is that there is a more personal feel to Amadeus in the theater -- the audience gets to know Salieri more intimately than in the screen adaptation.

The notion that Salieri may have killed his rival first surfaced not long after his death, in an 1831 play by Aleksandr Pushkin entitled Mozart and Salieri. The tragedy was the basis for Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1897 opera of the same name. Nonetheless, historians and modern physicians have concluded that Mozart died from a sudden attack of rheumatic fever, which caused heart failure. “There is certainly nothing in history that would lead us to believe that the events in the play are true,” says Petosa. “In all honesty, there is probably no case that can be made for Salieri having been directly involved with the murder of Mozart, but writers often take ideas from history to spin stories that appeal to a contemporary sensibility.”

Since 1994, Petosa has been the artistic director of the Olney Theatre Centre outside of Washington, D.C. The Olney is a regional theater company that incorporates two additional companies, for which he also serves as artistic director: the National Players, a touring company, and the Potomac Theatre Project, which presents new works focusing on political issues. His recent OTC directing credits include The Laramie Project, She Loves Me, and The Madwoman of Chaillot.

Petosa was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for outstanding direction of a play for Collected Stories and in 1996 won it for outstanding direction of a musical for Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well …. His drama Look! We Have Come Through! which depicts the relationship between D. H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, received a nomination for the Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new play in 1998.

Petosa is confident that he can draw a large audience to Amadeus -- those who loved the movie and who might be intrigued by the play. Although viewers of the film may remember a visually stunning presentation with lavish settings and costumes, the set at the BU Theatre is “gorgeous,” says Petosa, but “the play doesn’t have the level of opulence that the film had. It’s much more ephemeral and minimalistic in its theatrical style.” But make no mistake, the stage version is still a tour de force -- and ideal for a college production.

“The combination of the intelligence of the text, mixed with the emotional power of the human journey, makes it a really vibrant play to teach from,” says Petosa. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for young actors.”

See Calendar for performance times and ticket information.


6 December 2002
Boston University
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