Music Highlights Message in Gablestage's 'Old Wicked Songs'

GableStage presents the Miami premiere of


GableStage presents the Miami premiere of "Old Wicked Songs," a Pulitzer-nominated play that tells the story of Stephen Hoffman (Teddy Warren), an American piano prodigy who travels to Vienna to study under the forced tutelage of an old and eccentric vocal professor, (Keith Baker). (Photo by Magnus Stark)

Aaron Krause, Theater Writer

In his 60 years of acting, actor and musician Keith Baker has never experienced a play such as “Old Wicked Songs.” More specifically, Baker says he’s never seen a play that uses music the way this piece does to illuminate its story.

“The way that (playwright Jon) Marans has integrated the music into the story is endlessly fascinating,” Baker says. Further, “the music is extremely beautiful,” Baker adds.

Marans praises the music as well.

“I think you will fall in love with this music by (composer) Robert Schumann,” the playwright says. “There’s a sort of haunting combination of sadness and joy that permeates his music, that pulls you in.”

The 1996 Pulitzer Prize nominated play is at GableStage in Coral Gables from Jan. 13 to Feb. 4, with a preview performance on Jan. 12. Streaming options are also available.

The play is timely, GableStage Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport says.

“It often happens that even when choosing a play a year or more in advance, the production aligns with the zeitgeist of the moment,” she says. “Marans’ excellent play is a fascinating exploration of art, guilt, compassion, and identity – and whether it is better to hide that identity or celebrate it.”

Keith Baker plays Professor Josef Mashkan and Teddy Warren is a 25-year-old American piano prodigy Stephen Hoffman. (Photo of Magnus Stark)


Keith Baker plays Professor Josef Mashkan and Teddy Warren is a 25-year-old American piano prodigy Stephen Hoffman. (Photo of Magnus Stark)

GableStage has the perfect venue to mount a production of the play in its intimate space, Baker says.

“This is a play where you want the audience to see every glance, (and experience) every mood, every bit of humor,” he says.

“Audiences can expect lots of drama, conflict, music and humor,” adds Marans.

Baker makes up half of “Old Wicked Songs’” two-person cast. Specifically, he portrays an elderly, European vocal professor named Josef Mashkan, while Teddy Warren plays young, talented American pianist Stephen Hoffman. Meanwhile, playwright Marans directs GableStage’s production.

“Old Wicked Songs” takes place in 1986 in Vienna, Austria. It weaves glorious music with a journey of self-discovery that the two men undertake. In particular, Hoffman has arrived in Austria hoping to regain his shattered confidence. Lately, he’s suffered from an emotional paralysis that has left him unable to play piano – an instrument he’s mastered since childhood.

Much to Hoffman’s surprise, he discovers that the teacher who is to help him is not a piano instructor, but a vocal teacher, Mashkan.

The older man tells Hoffman that he cannot expect to passionately and sensitively play the piano until he learns to sing.

By studying Schumann’s exquisite “Dichterliebe,” a cycle of songs that the composer adapted from the love poems of German poet Heinrich Heine, Hoffman slowly rediscovers his love of music. In addition, Hoffman discovers his Jewish past. Further, he learns that Mashkan is not the person the young man thought he was. And the two men come to learn that they have more in common than they thought.

Bakers says the music brings the characters together, helping them understand each other more, Baker says.

“It’s very melodic and very accessible and just truly beautiful,” Baker says.

Its composer, Schumann, was one of the great romantic composers of the 19th century and “Dichterliebe,”  is his best known-song cycle.

Teddy Warren and Keith Baker in GableStage's “Old Wicked Songs.” (Photo of Magnus Stark)


Teddy Warren and Keith Baker in GableStage's “Old Wicked Songs.” (Photo of Magnus Stark)

Speaking of music, “Dichterliebe,” which means “the Poet’s Love” is woven throughout the play. In fact, “the play is written like a song,” Warren says.

But you don’t have to be familiar with “Dichterliebe,” or even know anything about music, to appreciate “Old Wicked Songs,” according to the cast members and the play’s author.

“At heart, this play is about the love of music and how music can transcend differences between others,” says Marans.

Also, at its core, “this play is about the way music influences the two men and the deepest secrets of their lives,” Baker says.

Speaking of secrets, “this play is a mystery play in that these two men have so many secrets and they are slowly revealed throughout the show,” Warren says.

However, it is no secret that Baker and Warren are accomplished pianists and that both will play piano as well as act in the production.

“We’re very lucky to have two actor-musicians,” Marans says.“They’re incredible,” Marans says about Baker and Warren. “I’m so lucky to have both of them play these roles.”

“It adds a richness, depth and believability to the characters that (are) unique to this production,” Baker adds.

The performers’ subtlety, humor, and musicianship are impressive, the playwright and director adds.

Warren refers to Baker as “a brilliant, Julliard-trained classical musician.” But Warren says he is not classically trained as is his castmate. Rather, Warren is classically trained in the sense that he “stumbled” onto the piano and just kept practicing.

Keith Baker and Teddy Warren in


Keith Baker and Teddy Warren in "Old Wicked Songs." (Photo of Magnus Stark)

More specifically, Warren has been playing piano since age 7 (he is 31). He started playing piano because he thought the instrument would “be a good party trick.”

As a child, he reveals he tried out a number of different musical instruments when his father suggested he try playing piano. At first, the boy wasn’t convinced. Then, his father told him that if he became proficient at the piano, more people would invite him to parties.

“To a 7-year-old, that’s a big deal,” Warren says. Warren continued to play, improved, and never stopped.

Warren says he has “grown substantially” from the chance to work with an actor-musician of Baker’s caliber.

“It’s an absolute pleasure being the dumbest guy in the room,” Warren jokes.

The young man says he requested the play’s music in advance so that he could memorize as much of it as possible. In fact, he says he practiced so much that at one point, his young daughter told him he was not allowed to play the piano any more.

The two exceptional actors, Keith Baker and Teddy Warren, are also highly skilled pianists. (Photo by Magnus Stark)


The two exceptional actors, Keith Baker and Teddy Warren, are also highly skilled pianists. (Photo by Magnus Stark)

“Daddy, no, too loud,” the toddler said, according to her dad.

In addition to practicing his lines and music, Warren also rehearsed speaking in German. Both characters speak the language in “Old Wicked Songs,” although Warren says his character’s German does not have to be as good as the older character’s. He adds that his mother-in-law is German, so she helped him.

But audiences do not need to be familiar with German, the play’s historical background, or musical terms to appreciate the play, the cast members say.

Marans says hat the play is not autobiographical. Rather, he very loosely based it on his experiences as a student in Vienna. Specifically, Marans studied Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” in Vienna in 1978. He went to Austria to learn singing since he wanted to become a lyricist. And, as a lyricist, he wanted to know how singers felt.

He fell in love with Vienna, its architecture, music, and its citizens, who could be “quite funny and charming.”

But Marans also discovered the “darker underbelly” of Vienna. In fact, Austria’s Nazi past was part of the inspiration behind “Old Wicked Songs.” The year in which the play is set, 1986, is the same one during which Kurt Waldheim ran for the chancellorship of Austria despite his Nazi past.

While Hoffman is Jewish, the professor is a Nazi sympathizer. This is just one difference between the two men, who are also different in age and nationality. But music is a healer and uniter in the play…and in life.

Warren says he feels escapism “can be a wonderful thing.” However, it’s also useful to experience a play such as “Old Wicked Songs.” It challenges your thought process, your established beliefs and, in doing so, opens the door to new possibilities for yourself, Warren says. In fact, the young man says that “Old Wicked Songs” is the kind of play that makes him feel “kinder, smarter, and more ready to take on new challenges” after experiencing it.

Baker, who is no stranger to the play, says that Newport is doing a “real service” to the South Florida theater community by mounting a production of “Old Wicked Songs.”

“They’ve just been helpful in every single way in trying to make this production the best as possible,” he says.

“This is a special production,” Newport says. “Not only do we have two exceptional actors who are also highly skilled pianists, but it is a great honor to have our production directed by its playwright, Jon Marans."

GableStage’s “Old Wicked Songs” will run from Jan. 13-Feb. 4 (with a preview performance on Jan. 12) at 1200 Anastasia Ave. in Coral Gables, next to the Biltmore Hotel. Tickets range from $30 to $65. Discounts are available for military, students, teachers, artists, and groups of eight or more. Streaming tickets are $30 per household and will be available beginning on Jan. 19. Subscriptions are also available and offer up to 35 percent savings. To learn more, visit or call (305) 446-1116.

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