Broadway Musical Time Machine: Looking Back at Falsettos
Falsettos debuted on Broadway in 1992 when the world was a very different place in how it received gay relationships, recognized marriage, and reacted to the disease AIDS. We jump ahead 24 years and find a revival of Falsettos once again playing on Broadway but in a very changed world. Set in the early 1980s, will a story of a Jewish family and the challenges it faced hold-up with a contemporary audience? The United States, for sure, has evolved stretched and changes, as has the definition of family, so is Falsettos just going to seem antiquated after almost two-and-a-half decades? Hardly.
When Falsettos hit Broadway is 1992, parts of it had already been around for over a decade. The character of Marvin and his quest to understand his sexual identity started with the Off-Broadway musical In Trousers. Composer-lyricist William Finn, spun his story forward with the one-act musical March of the Falsettos, taking Marvin on a journey that included his wife, his son, his male lover, and his psychiatrist (who eventually marries Marvin’s wife). It was cutting edge stuff, a musical examining a man who wanted all of these things and who made a concerted effort to make it work (even if it was at the sacrifice of other peoples’ needs). Jump ahead a decade (but one-year in Marvin’s world) and Finn decides to take the story a step further, adding a lesbian couple to the story and choosing to explore the early days of the mystery illness that would eventually reveal itself as AIDS. Marvin’s lover Whizzer has contracted the virus and now the family must address losing one of its own, each reacting and synthesizing on their own terms. This second installment was called Falsettoland.
The Broadway production of Falsettos was a combination of March of the Falsettos (serving as Act One) and Falsettoland (Act Two). The jointure of March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland was an experiment that had happened the previous year when Hartford Stage combined the two one-acts together to critical acclaim. The combination of the two musicals proved to strengthen each, March of the Falsettos giving Falsettoland the back story that helps us identify with the characters and feel compassion for their struggles. Conversely, Falsettoland deepens these people by pulling them out of their petty (often ridiculous) insecurities and waking them up to their reality. That production had hoped to come to Broadway, but for various reasons, was not able to make the jump.
Enter: Barry and Fran Weissler who would produce the Broadway venture that would also marry the two pieces into one, complete evening of thought provoking entertainment. Directed with economy and great energy by James Lapine, who also helped to shape the book, Falsettos played the intimate John Golden theatre, the perfect venue for audiences to get up close and personal with these very complicated, very human characters. This little musical about taboo topics and imperfect characters became a critical hit, winning Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score. With a cast featuring Michael Rupert, Barbara Walsh, Stephen Bogardus, Chip Zien, Jonathan Kaplan, Heather MacRae, and Carolee Carmello, the musical knocked down many barriers.
Here we are 24-years later and the world has changed. Or has it? Yes, the voices in gay rights have become louder, and the achievements of the gay rights movement continue to push us forward. However, we still see bigots and hear their ugly cries. We’ve made some strides where AIDS is concerned, but there are still countless people battling the killer virus everyday. If we have become somewhat complacent or accepting of a world with AIDS and bigotry, they haven’t been eradicated, so there is a necessity for musicals like Falsettos, where raw, exposed nerves are expertly prodded with humor and vicious honesty. This current Broadway revival will perhaps wake us up again, snap us out of our complacent trance, and remind us that there is so much more to be done. At they very least, we get to spend and evening with Marvin and friends again, and that alone should make for one hell of a night.