Most of us probably know “Amadeus” as the award-winning film starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. But it began as a play, written in 1979 by the gifted, knighted, late British playwright Peter Shaffer, who had a hit show in London, won a Tony for the 1981 Broadway production, and took home an Oscar for adapting it to the screen in 1984.
Starting Sept. 4, 2019, you can see Shaffer’s play about the upstart Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the eminent Antonio Salieri — court composer to Emperor Joseph II in late-18th century Vienna — at North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT).
“Amadeus” was inspired by a short “poetic drama” written by Alexander Pushkin in 1830, based on rumors that Salieri, who died in 1825, had been responsible for Mozart’s death. As evidenced by recent scholarship, the real Salieri was probably not the murderously envious, minimally talented villain portrayed in Shaffer’s play.
But “Amadeus” is a rich mix of eloquent language, devilish treachery and heavenly music that lovers of theater (and music) won’t want to miss.
Director Richard Baird has a long history with NCRT, most recently as director of “A Walk in the Woods.” A specialist in Shakespearean theater, he is also co-founder/artistic director of New Fortune Theatre, committed to producing “great plays, rarely done.”
He’s a busy man. In August, Baird directed “Experiment With an Air Pump” at La Jolla Playhouse, and immediately after “Amadeus” opens, he’s off to do “Measure for Measure” in Santa Barbara.
But he’s extremely happy with “Amadeus,” he said.
“It’s a big play, and the script is almost like a musical score,” he said. “We have a great cast, all consummate professionals — they show up prepared on Day 1, saying ‘How can I help tell the story better?’ ”
The two leads are both based in Los Angeles. Tony Amendola (Salieri), best known as Bra’tac, the wise warrior/mentor on “Stargate SG1,” is a founding member of Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale.
Rafael Goldstein (Mozart) is a resident artist at A Noise Within Repertory Theatre in Pasadena and does voices for cartoons and video games.
“I needed someone with a classical background to play Salieri, which is one of those giant, epic roles,” Baird said. “Tony is an absolutely flawless actor, I’d seen him in lots of shows at the Old Globe, and he speaks Italian, which Salieri does in the play. I didn’t know Rafael, but when he came in to audition, I said: ‘That’s it!’ ”
Baird said he has worked with Kathryn Tkel, who plays Mozart’s wife, Constanza, but this is her first appearance at NCRT. Louis Lotorto (Emperor Joseph II) has been in three Neil Simon plays here and seven productions of “Amadeus” around the country. He’s played Mozart four times, but this is his first turn as Emperor.
“It’s been a real delight every day to come to rehearsal and watch these talented people work,” Baird said. “I keep knocking on wood, saying ‘This is too good to be true.’ ”
There are only 10 actors in the cast, about half the usual number; NCRT is a 194-seat theater with a small stage. And the music is recorded. “I saw the show at the National Theatre in London with a full orchestra, and it was actually distracting,” Baird noted. “It was like: Hey, is there a play going on? Are they gonna start talking again?”
But the music will be great, and in NCRT’s intimate space, “Amadeus” will feel intimate, with the 87-year-old Salieri looking back at his younger days and talking directly to the audience.
“The play’s almost three hours long, but it really moves,” Baird said. “If I weren’t going to be in Santa Barbara, I’d come see it again and again.”
• IF YOU GO: To kick off its 38th Season, North Coast Repertory Theatre presents “Amadeus,” Sept. 4-Oct. 6, 2019 at 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Tickets: $49-$60. (858) 481-1055. northcoastrep.org
Amadeus: What’s in a name?
Amadeus was not in fact Mozart’s real name. It’s a Latin translation of the fourth of his given names: Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus. During his lifetime, Mozart used various forms of the name Amadeus, which means ‘love of God’ or ‘loved by God.’ In the play, Salieri’s greatest misery is that God could have favored someone as arrogant and immature as Mozart with the genius he himself had so longed for.