Finn-atic! A William Finn-atic!
I first encountered the music of William Finn when Falsettos came to Broadway in 1992 and “The Baseball Song”, “My Father’s a Homo” and “Falsettoland” were performed on the Tony Awards. I was not aware that these characters had been around for over a decade, nor was I aware of In Trousers, which introduced the character of Marvin. I had also not heard of March of the Falsettos or Falsettoland, the two one-act musicals, written a decade apart, that comprised the first and second acts of Falsettos. I simply thought Falsettos was a new musical coming to Broadway, and the Tony Awards committee’s inclusion of it in the “New Musical” category did nothing to dispel this perception.
What did it matter? Watching that Tony Awards telecast, I was introduced to the wonderful, angst-ridden, kinetic, crazed and deeply emotional world of William Finn. For me (nineteen-years-old at the time), it was like being introduced to Stephen Sondheim on crack: poetic and raw, and certainly more provocative and less cerebral. The elation from watching the Tony telecast of course led me to explore this William Finn guy, and this journey straightened out my understanding of Falsettos, its history, and its structure. It had been around for a while.
The first William Finn song I would encounter in my journey was “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” You have to consider, up until this point, most of my musical theatre experience was in the realm of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman and others of the “classic” musical theatre style. Sure, I had encountered Sondheim and appreciated his work, but it wasn’t until time and experience made the connection richer and relatable that I truly began to love his work. No, with William Finn I was immersed into a world I understood, a world where self-doubt, neurosis, fear, and selfishness were made funny and human. These were people I truly knew and they were my own misgivings about life personified. “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” opens March of the Falsettos with a frantic, staccato, nervous twitch, introducing the four men in the story, as well as all the mental garbage they are carrying around. This was quite unlike anything I had encountered thus far, Company aside. This was my thought processes put to music.
This is not to say that my experience with Finn was all disquiet and anxiety. So many of his songs from the Falsettos musicals were complicated, but full of honesty and heart. There is always an emotional ambiguity in his works that made each listen a unique experience. “Father to Son”, for example, features a self-centered man waking up for the first time and realizing that maybe he needs to grow up and be an example for his troubled son. The character of Marvin is reflective, loving of his child, but he’s also petulant, seeing his son Jason as an extension of himself instead of the individual that he has become. “Holding to the Ground” shows a woman coming to the terms that her ex-husband’s, ex-lover is dying. She ponders the life she was supposed to have, is begrudgingly accepting of the one she ended up with, and all the while she struggles with her own convoluted feelings toward a man who may have wrecked her marriage, but helped to lovingly raise her child. This is the brilliance of William Finn. He understands that life is neither clean, easy, nor are our emotions neatly separated into little boxes.
I was so excited, years later, when Finn introduced us to the musical A New Brain, another sojourn into uncertainty and humanity. Plot: a composer finds out that he has a brain tumor and we are privy to all the private moments of his thoughts, his experiences with the medical world, and we also get to see how those closest to him react to the possibility of his death. Finn, a survivor of a brain tumor himself, poured his personal experiences into A New Brain. What is so refreshing is that, instead of wallowing in the misery of this possibly tragic story, he instead found the humor and the hope. Finn never caters to any one generalization of a feeling or emotion. Instead he bypasses the generalization and then plays the scenario for its opposing sentiment. Love can be ugly. Death can be funny. Despair can be hopeful. The web of emotional possibilities that can be spun with Finn as the metaphoric spider is stretched and patterned with intricacy, beauty, and always a touch of brutality. Spider webs are like that, both beautiful and horrific at the same time, and so are the recesses of the minds of Finn’s characters. This is what makes them so tangible, relatable, and unforgettable.
His other musicals demonstrate similar themes and ingredients, but Falsettos and A New Brain will always live in my heart as William Finn at his finest. Lincoln Center has decided to revisit Falsettos this fall and I wait with bated breath for those first anxiety-ridden strains of “Four Rooms in a Room Bitching” to ignite my heart again. I’ve never felt closer to a Broadway musical than I have to Falsettos, and that is thanks to William Finn for realizing musical theatre audiences can deal with imperfection and honesty. We crave it, in fact. His words and music hold that mirror up to nature that we so desperately need, demonstrating how theatre captures us.