“We are America. We are the new world. Now you are safe.”
So sing two young, hopeful, American music students to their teacher. It is 1935. Arnold Schoenberg has escaped the horror of Nazi Germany. The great innovator and self-proclaimed torch-bearer of German music now finds himself a refugee amongst the palm trees of California, playing tennis and teaching music composition at UCLA. “Once upon a time,” he muses, “the future was me. Now…it is annihilation.” How will the exiled artist move forward?
Arnold has accepted an invitation to meet wunderkind MGM producer Irving Thalberg with a view to writing music for the burgeoning film industry. “Find new audiences; find new friends,” Thalberg counsels. This young Mephistopheles offers the modernist the mass audience he has been denied: “We can tell every man's story,” says the glamorous, ambitious spokesman for the new, universal Art of cinema.
Troubled and tempted all at once, Arnold returns to his students. “I could play to a million people. And yet…who am I?”
Before he can look forward he must look back. Unable to resist the thought-experiment, he engages with his own, innate musical playfulness : “What if?” he asks. What would the story of his life be, told in the new language of music and movies? “Play!” he tells his students.
“We will do it together,” they sing.
So, aided by his loyal students, he begins an imaginary odyssey through his past.
Childhood is a silent movie, till music arrives with the monthly magazines from which Arnold teaches himself. There follows the soft focus of friendship and musical discovery with the young composer Zemlinsky; then the moonlit, silver screen fantasy of love and courtship of Zemlinsky's sister, Mathilde.
Marriage and infidelity follow; Arnold is plunged into the film noir of jealousy, a private-eye Bogart on the trail of his own misery.
As he finds his musical individuality, so the critics savage him and his colleagues laud him; he defies them with the élan of the movie musical, dancing through the pain.
Love suffers: “I have pared everything down to the essentials,” he says of his music. “You have pared me down to nothing,” sings the long-suffering Mathilde. As she dies, he pleads: “Don't leave me alone with Arnold Schoenberg.” With her death, the world descends into the Great War.
From the ruin of Europe, Arnold begins again, armed with a new discovery: “Twelve tones only related to each other.” But in Arnold's fantasy a new, horrific farce is unleashed: through the distorted lens of the Marx Brothers and animated cartoons, the atrocities of Europe's anti-Semitism take over.
With the homemade-movie-happiness of a new wife, Gertrud, Arnold takes flight to Paris, and re- converts to Judaism, then, armed with a pair of Wild West revolvers – “a bullet for each tone” – Arnold-as-cowboy heads for Southern California and sanctuary. The Past finally catches up with the Present. Schoenberg in Hollywood. Schoenberg as superhero.
Now he has looked back, how will he go forward, and how to answer Thalberg's provocative offer?
As all conventions eventually break down, so Arnold indeed finds himself “alone with Arnold Schoenberg,” but responds now with a Vision that unifies all the paradoxes of his life and work. He gives thanks, free, fearless, and ready for action.