Falsettos: Still Holding to the Ground
With the recently-confirmed Lincoln Center revival of Falsettos set to bow at the Walter Kerr Theatre this October, and with original director and librettist James Lapine (once again) at the helm of this William Finn masterpiece, it is interesting to look at how the world has changed in the 23 years since its original Broadway production. Is Falsettos as relevant today as it was back in the early 1990s? This story of a gay man named Marvin who leaves his wife and son for a male lover, and then loses him to a spectral illness that is presumably AIDS, was cutting edge and timely musical theatre for 1992, but does that translate for contemporary American audiences where gay marriage is now arguably a societal norm and AIDS, despite its continued threat, has somehow become a marginalized disease that doesn’t inspire quite the same fear? The answer is an astounding yes, but for very different reasons than in 1992.
Let us rewind to 1979 and the Off-Broadway William Finn musical In Trousers where the character of Marvin (Chip Zien) was first introduced to audiences at Playwrights Horizons. Sometimes loveable, often despicable, Marvin is man who is very self-focused. Indeed, In Trousers is written in a way that Marvin is the centerpiece of the story, exploring his relationships with the three most-influential women in his life: his ever-suffering wife (Alison Fraser), His high school sweetheart (Joanna Green), and his favorite teacher Miss Goldberg (Mary Testa) who cast him as Christopher Columbus in a school play. In Trousers is a musical collage with less of a linear plot, skewing more toward an episodic exploration of Marvin’s development and eventual revelation that he appreciates women, but that he is sexually attracted to men. The harried, twitchy angst that became omnipresent in all of Finn’s work, is at its least-cultivated here, overly used, but certainly setting the tone of Marvin’s perceived world where everyone is out to get him. It works in fits and starts, especially in the divine character song for “The Wife” titled “Your Lips and Me” and Marvin’s burst of sexual awakening in “Whizzer Going Down”. In 1985, a revised version of In Trousers would play the Promenade Theatre, featuring additional songs including another ditty for “The Wife” called “I’m Breaking Down” (a song that would eventually be interpolated in the Broadway production of Falsettos). The characters and situations inside of In Trousers begged for deeper development and fortunately William Finn pushed forward and created a more compelling, linear story around Marvin and company.
Jump to 1981 and the Playwrights Horizons presentation of March of the Falsettos, a one-act musical that would eventually become Act One of the Broadway musical Falsettos. This time, Marvin, his wife Trina, and their pubescent son Jason are juggling their family problems under the watchful eye of Mendel the psychiatrist who is helping the family make the adjustment to Marvin’s relationship with his male lover Whizzer. Marvin wants it all: a wife, a son and a lover all under the same roof and he petulantly forces the issue at the emotional expense of all others involved in the situation. Mendel becomes more than the family doctor when he puts the moves on the Trina, eventually winning her from Marvin and marrying her. Jason has his own frustrations, hurt by his parents’ separation and confused by his father’s sexuality. Troubled by the prospect it could be genetic, Jason finds his only solace in spending time with Whizzer, who is the only character who seems to have genuine patience for, and an understanding of, Jason’s conflicts. The musical ends with Marvin having alienated everyone in his life, Whizzer breaking up with him, and everything in his world going to hell. In the final moments of March of the Falsettos, Marvin regroups and sings one of Finn’s gentlest and most-affecting songs “Father to Son” where he resolves to start being a better parent, taking his first real step toward his own maturity. It was an interesting place for the show to end.
Jump ahead to 1990, and once-again Playwrights Horizons in onboard for the continuing neurotic adventures of Marvin and his high-stress clan, this time in the form of the riveting and darker Falsettoland. A lot had changed in America since 1981, and the AIDS epidemic had shaped how the world of sexuality (especially homosexually) was viewed and explored. Finn’s writing had also evolved and matured, and in Falsettoland he found a way to continue these characters’ journeys into deeper, more profound territories without losing their comic and kooky edge. Falsettoland takes place one-year after March of the Falsettos and continues with a story built around Jason’s forthcoming Bar Mitzvah. Marvin and Trina are trying to be civil toward each other while they plan the event, but they are (as usual) at odds over every detail. Jason is less-interested in the celebration, and more focused on the girls he will invite to his party. Mendel decides it is his job to raise Jason (everyone else is failing miserably at it) and he advises the preteen on women, religion and baseball, using logic and psychiatric theory. Thrown into the mix are two new characters (Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia the kosher caterer) who are a couple, affectionately referred to as “The Lesbians from Next Door”. They comment on the action, and, especially Dr. Charlotte, are used to usher in one of the show’s darker themes: a mysterious illness that is spreading in the gay community and that will eventually factor into the plot. Marvin reunites with Whizzer, finally coming to terms with his sexuality and working toward a healthier relationship, only to find out that the love of his life is sick with an undiagnosed illness that will kill him. Marvin must dig down and summon his strength to face his greatest challenge yet. Jason doesn’t want to have his Bar Mitzvah until Whizzer gets better, and when it is clear will not happen, the boy opts to cancel the party and hold the celebration in Whizzer’s hospital room. The family rallies around Jason’s wishes and the ceremony is held just in time. Whizzer passes away, leaving behind a family that, for better or worse, has found a way to come together. Family is an elastic thing, no longer defined by convention, but rather as the people who hold each other up.
In 1991, under the Artistic Direction of Mark Lamos, Hartford Stage presented the first major combined production of March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. Graciela Daniele directed the evening under its new title Falsettos. The combination of the two yielded a far more satisfying and substantial piece of theatre. The frantic nature of March of the Falsettos was offset by the gravitas of Falsettoland, and Falsettoland was given greater depth and meaning through the backstory of March of the Falsettos. Together, as Falsettos, this was a beautiful piece of theatre that throbbed like a raw nerve. It was honest, unyielding and, most of all, had a marked influence on how gays and lesbians were to portrayed in the musical theatre. The production was so well-received it seemed almost a certainty that it would transfer to Broadway intact. Sadly, due to a series of complications, it did not. In 1992, however, a combination of the two one-acts arrived on Broadway once again under the title of Falsettos, directed by James Lapine. With a cast that included Michael Rupert (Marvin), Barbara Walsh (from the Hartford Stage production as Trina), Stephen Bogardus (Whizzer), Chip Zien (Mendel), Jonathan Kaplan (Jason), Heather MacRae (Dr. Charlotte) and Carolee Carmello (Cordelia), Falsettos won Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book of a Musical. The production ran for 487 performances at the John Golden Theatre. A solid run, but hardly a stellar one. In 1992, mass audiences may not have been ready for Falsettos and no matter how brilliant the production, it was never going to be a Les Miserables or Cats. It was topical, it was relevant, and most of all, it was dealing with taboo subjects at a time when most of America was just beginning to acquaint itself with talking about homosexuality, AIDS and the definition of family. Falsettos was like a plunge into icy water for many, an eye-opener. This was not escapist musical comedy even though it could be, at times, hilarious. It’s characters were not polished up and made more palatable. These were abrasive, loveable, fallible people, dealing with real-life issues that were then augmented by Finn’s neurotic touch. The fact that it ran for over a year in a Broadway house is somewhat astounding. A terrific musical, but a challenging one to find an audience for.
Here we are 23 years later, awaiting a new production of Falsettos in an America that has evolved in its attitudes about gay characters and the definitions of family. Television has had a lot to do with changing attitudes. It’s an effectve way to influence the masses, and when it finally caught up with theatre and film, it shaped new generations to embrace the stories of LGBT America. We are now in a world that made hits out of Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, The L Word, The Fosters and Ellen. LGBT characters pepper other shows where sexuality is not the key component of the show’s narrative. With mass audiences not only accepting but embracing LGBT characters, a larger audience is most-definitely primed for the return of Falsettos.
How is the world different 23 years after Falsettos’s initial Broadway run? LGBT characters are everywhere and don’t appear to be going away. Same-sex marriage has been upheld by the Supreme Court as the right of anyone who wants to have one. A very loud and ongoing dialogue continues about gay rights and the rights of gay families in regards to the workplace, adoption, and other basic human rights. What was hush-hush in 1992 and spoken aloud by only the courageous few, is now commonplace discussion. Not everyone may agree with the direction the country is going, but it’s no longer a topic that is kept in the closet. This bodes well for a revival of Falsettos, a musical which relies upon honest discussion and a society ready to have that all-important discourse. We’ve never been more ready for a revival of Falsettos than we are right now.