The first play I ever saw at Playwrights Horizons, in 1972, was about a groom who decided, the morning of his wedding, to elope with his best man. Neither his parents, the minister, the bride's parents or even the bride objected, so he scooped up his friend and rode off into the sunset. It seemed less drama than wish fulfillment.
Much the same was true of "March of the Falsettos," which Playwrights produced in 1980. In this musical, a man named Marvin left his wife and son for a man named Whizzer. Things ended happily since his wife fell in love with a psychiatrist.
The breezy, optimistic tone of William Finn and James Lapine's portrait of gay life took on an unexpected naivete barely a year later when the word "AIDS" began to creep into the public consciousness.
When Finn and Lapine resumed the saga of Marvin in their 1990 "Falsettoland," the aloof tone of the earlier show was no longer appropriate. Reality gave the sequel more depth than its predecessor, though part of the charm of both shows is that the characters' blithely nonchalant approach to life.
The first show displayed Finn's verbal and musical dexterity. If you avoid conventional rhythmic structures, of course, it's not hard to have rhymes like "Books abound to show we read. The dog's been flea'd." The music had complexity, which led some to see Finn as an incipient Sondheim, though much less abrasive, more congenial. Even the fights that constituted "March's" plot seemed contrived.
By 1990, it was no longer suitable to use these characters as a peg for the author's cleverness. What they undergo this time is more serious. So is the material. And the funny stuff is funnier.
Michael Rupert, Stephen Bogardus and Chip Zien - as Marvin, Whizzer and the shrink - repeat their original roles with all the brio they had and then some. Rupert and Bogardus sing a rousing duet in act two. Jonathan Kaplan is wonderful as the son. Heather Mac Rae and Carolee Carmello are superb as the lesbians next door.
At the final preview, Barbara Walsh, who plays the wife, had the flu but did the first act, though nothing about her sparkling performance led you to think she was ill. James Lapine announced that her understudy, Maureen Moore, would do the second act, without rehearsal. Nothing about her wise and funny performance would have led you to think she had not been playing the role all along. The change galvanized the audience and made you understand Lapine's remark "This is why I prefer theater to film."
Put two off-Broadway cult musicals - "The March of the Falsettos" and "Falsettoland" - together on Broadway, and what do you get? One presumable Broadway cult musical called "Falsettos," which opened last night at the John Golden Theater.
The idea of these two shows in one package initially struck me as no bargain - indeed it reminded me of W.C. Fields lottery: "First Prize, One Week in Philadelphia; Second Prize, Two Weeks in Philadelphia" - but let me be the first to admit that the preview audience I saw it with on Monday night not only loved it and thought it funny, but also quite clearly found it very moving.
Moreover, many critics have admired these two musicals with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Finn and the show's director, James Lapine; and while this doesn't necessarily make my more negative opinion wrong, it is, like the audience reaction, a fact worth mentioning.
But I am not a poll-taker nor an audience meter, and I must say that to me these two musicals on the homosexual lifestyle, the extended New York family and the tragedy of AIDS, while fine and thought-provocative in scope, are sentimental in a thematic execution which oversugars even the lively wit - and also musically feeble.
In the first half we meet Marvin (Michael Rupert), who has just left his wife, Trina (Barbara Walsh), and his young son Jason (Jonathan Kaplan) to live with his lover Whizzer (Stephen Bogardus). His psychiatrist, Mendel (Chip Zien), meanwhile, is attracted to Trina, and by the end of this first chamber musical, Marvin has split with Whizzer, Mendel is with Trina, and Marvin is reconciling with Jason.
Although in the musical this Act 1 takes place in 1979 and Act 2 is set in 1981, in terms of composition 10 years actually separated the two halves - and interestingly (and for Finn's future most rewardingly) seen as a pair the second seems in every way artistically superior. Don't - however tempted - leave after the first act.
Now it is 1981 - and as one of the songs put it: "Something Bad Is Happening." We have moved in two years from the end of the Age of Sexual Reason to the beginning of the Age of Sexual Fear.
Marvin is back with Whizzer, Trina is married to Mendel (although she still holds a lingering torch for her lost love), Jason is getting prepared for his bar mitzvah, and everyone is pretty happy, not least the Lesbians Next Door, Charlotte and Cordelia (Heather MacRae and Carolee Carmello).
Then Whizzer falls prey to AIDS - and the extended family has to extend itself beyond expectation. Jason elects to hold his bar mitzvah in Whizzer's hospital room, Whizzer makes a brave end of it, and Marvin decides that, despite everything, the love of his life was worth the outcome.
It's all good stuff, but it's sticky with sentiment. Don't believe me? Say Marvin's Whizzer was just another woman and were to die prematurely of cancer. Would the reality of the situation then seem so novel or immediate? Would it still be removed from the realms of the midday soaps? And would you still believe the bar mitzvah bit?
Of course, it is the function of art to transform cliche into an intenser reality - but artistically "Falsettos" clatters like a set of false teeth in a politically correct ventriloquist's dummy.
The music - particularly in the wandering first act - seems an extravagant amount of recitative running up and down the block in search of an aria, and even when the songs are their Sondheim-like best they are essentially revue songs, carrying a burden of jokes or sentiments rather than real ideas or feelings.
But the modest production - Douglas Stein's spartan settings consist of nothing but various chairs, doorways, beds and assorted furniture-objects - lends itself to Lapine's swift and sharp staging, and serves as a setting for some lovely performances.
Every single person on stage - even young Kaplan as the smart-assed, messed-over little kid - is absolutely splendid, with Rupert, Bogardus and Zien offering performances as good as any you'll find on Broadway. And all do indeed work as a family unit.
Nevertheless, I find all that charming heartbreak and pompously pompy-pom music supremely resistible. But perhaps you won't, and should give "Falsettos" a chance to prove less than false. Or should that be more?
Last night's opening of William Finn's exhilarating and heartbreaking musical "Falsettos" at the John Golden Theater marked the official end of the Broadway season, and what more perfect end to this season could there be? In a theater year marked by signs of an American musical renaissance on Broadway and an explosion of American playwriting off Broadway, "Falsettos" is a show in which the boundary separating Off Broadway and Broadway is obliterated, a show in which the most stylish avatars of the new American musical embrace the same thorny urban landscape of embattled men and women to be found in so many new American plays.
The evening also brings this highly charged season to a close with the charged emotions of an eagerly awaited reunion. "Falsettos" is the seamless merging of two one-act musicals, "March of the Falsettos" and "Falsettoland," that were produced individually in 1981 and 1990. All three original leading men -- Michael Rupert, Stephen Bogardus and Chip Zien -- are back, as is the original director, James Lapine (who is also co-author of the book). A lot has happened to them since they and "Falsettos" first came together. A lot has happened to the audience. Like any reunion worth attending, this one tempers its feelings of joy with those of deep loss. The wave of euphoria "Falsettos" evokes is inseparable from the wave of tears that rises audibly through the house once Mr. Finn raises the ghosts of those Falsettoland loved ones no longer here to join the party.
Those who have never encountered this work in any form will have the enviable experience of meeting its achingly articulate characters and laughing for the first time at the idiosyncratic linguistic twists of songs about "Four Jews in a Room Bitching," the perils of psychotherapy and the familial predicament of watching "Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball." Newcomers can also be confident that Mr. Lapine reassembles and refreshes his original intimate staging. Douglas Stein's spare and sparkling Pop Art production design remains intact, and so does the scale of the "teeny tiny band" playing the clever orchestrations of Michael Starobin. What old "Falsettos" hands will discover is that Mr. Finn has done some smart, delicate tinkering with "March of the Falsettos" and that "Falsettoland" gains exponentially in power by being seen only 15 minutes, instead of 9 years, after the first installment.
Seen in this form, "Falsettos" also emerges as far more complex than its simple story might suggest. In telling the adventures of Marvin (Mr. Rupert), a man of 1979 who leaves his wife and son for a male lover, Whizzer (Mr. Bogardus), Mr. Finn is not merely writing about the humorous and sad dislocations produced by an age of liberated sexual choices and shifting social rules. When 1981 arrives in Act II -- and with it, a virus "so bad that words have lost their meaning" -- Mr. Finn is not merely charting the deadly progress of a plague. The unified "Falsettos" is as much about Marvin's abandoned wife, Trina (Barbara Walsh), and young son, Jason (Jonathan Kaplan), as it is about Marvin, Whizzer and Mendel (Mr. Zien), the psychiatrist who goes from being Marvin's doctor to Trina's new husband. Most important, it is about all its people together, a warring modern family divided in sexuality but finally inseparable in love and death.
"I want a tight-knit family," sings a childish, self-absorbed Marvin early on as he tries to juggle lover, wife, son and shrink. Two acts later that ambition has been achieved and enriched as all the reconfigured couples are joined by still another couple, an endearing pair of "spiky lesbians" (Heather Mac Rae and Carolee Carmello), to celebrate Jason's bar mitzvah. But the battle to achieve that tight-knit extended family is not easy. It cannot be won until Mr. Finn's male characters answer the jokey question they ask rhetorically in song in Act I: "Who is man enough to march to 'March of the Falsettos'?"
That question demands that these boys, whatever their age or sexuality, figure out what masculinity is. How they clumsily try to do so -- in and out of bed, marriage and psychotherapy -- is the source of the show's humor in Act I. The answer they discover is what gets them through the tragedy of Act II. As Mr. Finn sees it, the man who is man enough to march forward is the man who is man enough to love men, women and children unselfishly, standing face to face, no matter what. If Jason's bar mitzvah is one of the most moving you've ever seen, it is in part because it takes place in an AIDS patient's hospital room, in part because Marvin in tandem with his smart son has at last grown up to be a man.
This progress is beautifully delineated by Mr. Rupert, whose nearly 25 years of honorable service as a juvenile in Broadway musicals reaches its long deserved, highly affecting payoff in Marvin, a character whose leap past eternal boyishness into mature, consuming passion inspires the most full-throttle singing and acting of this performer's career. Marvin's story also gains some new gravity in "Falsettos" thanks to the recasting of his son and estranged wife. Jonathan Kaplan, a very young Woody Allen with a big singing voice, is a sublime Jason. Barbara Walsh, as Trina, repeats the strong performance she gave in Graciela Daniele's fine Hartford Stage Company production of "Falsettos" last fall. Because of Mr. Finn's revisions, she has a spine denied her distinguished, ditsier Off Broadway predecessors in the part, Alison Fraser and Faith Prince. In addition to her new show-stopper ("I'm Breaking Down," adapted from "In Trousers," an earlier Finn musical about Marvin and company), Ms. Walsh socks over a rewritten "Trina's Song" in which she indicts the "happy frightened silly men who rule the world" more fervently than before.
Mr. Zien, the most perpetually addled of therapists, and Mr. Bogardus, a pretty boy who ages fast, are both better than ever as respectively the wittiest and the most heroic of those men. When Mr. Zien offers a citation from the Torah to support his contention that "Everyone Hates His Parents," he ignites one of Mr. Finn's most riotous verbal riffs, just as Mr. Bogardus's forceful, never entirely knowable Whizzer conversely extends the spectrum of "Falsettos" to defiance and political rage in the chilling, unsentimental "You Gotta Die Sometime."
At this late date, it may be superfluous to praise Mr. Finn's talent as a composer, but one of the virtues of "Falsettos" is that you take in his whole, wide range in one sitting and appreciate the dramatic uses to which he puts his music, not just the eclecticism of tunes that range from show-biz razzmatazz ("Love Is Blind") to lullabye ("Father to Son") to lush ballads ("Unlikely Lovers"). Neither an opera nor a conventional musical, Mr. Finn's score is full of fine details: a musical signature from Act I will turn up fractured in Act II just as a life cracks up; the notes underlying "spreading" in an internist's lyric about "something bad spreading, spreading, spreading round" themselves spread the terror of a still nameless virus that defies the meaning of words.
Mr. Finn's range is a decade's range, at least as seen from the admittedly limited perspective of mostly white, moderately young and affluent, often Jewish New York. When "March of the Falsettos" first charged confidently forward in the tiny upstairs studio theater of Playwrights Horizons 11 years ago, nothing so bad was happening, and the high spirits of that moment pump through Act I of "Falsettos" as if pouring out of a time capsule. Act II plays out in another key as lovers no longer "come and go" but "live and die fortissimo."
"Falsettos" may now be a Broadway musical, but it cannot and does not pretend for a second that the lovers have stopped dying. It is the heaven-sent gift of Mr. Finn and company that they make you believe that the love, no less fortissimo, somehow lingers on.
The big new musicals on Broadway feature some of the strongest singing and dancing ensembles in memory, a lot of great music and even some compelling stories. But not until the arrival of "Falsettos," which closes out the 1991-92 Tony season, did the glittery roster reveal much heart. That alone would make William Finn and James Lapine's creation a major contender as the season's best new musical, though there are many other qualities to commend the show.
"Falsettos" is the seamless pairing of two one-act musicals written nearly a decade apart and first produced off-Broadway.
In "March of the Falsettos," set in 1979, a man leaves his wife and young son to live with his male lover and eventually ends up alone, as the ex-wife marries his psychiatrist. "Falsettoland," set two years later, expands this quintet to include a doctor, her lesbian lover and, most significantly, a specter soon tobe identified as AIDS.
So "Falsettos" is most decidedly about gay life in modern times and as such, it could have a difficult time finding enough of a Broadway audience to sustain a long run.
But to call "Falsettos" a musical about gay life in modern times is also to shortchange its tremendous appeal as a masterly feat of comic storytelling and as a visionary musical theater work.
"Falsettos" opens with "Four Jews in a Room Bitching," a number that has already become a theater cult classic. The bitchers are Marvin (Michael Rupert); his lover, Whizzer (Stephen Bogardus); Marvin's psychiatrist, Mendel (Chip Zien) and Marvin's son, Jason (Jonathan Kaplan).
The song hilariously captures the shaky situation each character finds himself in and sets the tone for what follows.
One might call Marvin the most unhappy fella. Having taken up with Whizzer, he fantasizes a family that can include all of them. "So I make them interact," he sings, "So I don't go by the book/We all eat as one/Wife, friend and son."
This, of course, is not to be -- not, that is until "Falsettos" reaches its heartbreaking finale, in which a doomed affair sadly concludes, and a boy's rite of passage into manhood is made profoundly, if unexpectedly, complete.
All this unfolds with such good humor and generosity of spirit that one leaves "Falsettos" exhilarated.
The score never lags, mostly due to Finn's clipped but natural musical style. He is sure to be compared with Sondheim and the comparison is apt, particularly on the composing side. Finn's tunes scintillate just a little more than his lyrics.
Lapine and Finn tell their complex story with astonishing economy, something even more apparent in the full evening than it was when the parts were offered separately.
Add to this Lapine's obvious sensitivity to the material and it's hard to imagine a better production.
Lapine (who collaborated with Sondheim on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods") staged the originals and has reassembled most of the original company, all of them terrific.
The newcomers, equally wonderful, are Barbara Walsh, who played the wife, Trina, in a production last summer directed by Graciela Daniele that never made it to New York; Carolee Carmello as Cordelia, the doctor's lover; and Kaplan, who renders Jason's lines with memorable conviction and warmth.
Darkness seems to enfold Douglas Stein's minimal settings --enhanced by Frances Aronson's uncharacteristically subdued lighting--more noticeably than at the Playwrights Horizons originals. This, however, could be more a function of memory than a real consequence of the move to a larger theater, and Ann Hould-Ward's costumes still seem dead on.
That it's taken a decade for a composer and lyricist of Finn's skill to reach Broadway says a great deal about the street (not to mention the guts of the show's current producers). At any rate, it's about time.