Don't look now, but the flailingly self-critical William Finn has fallen up again. His latest success, he insists in an affable rant, is the direct result of somebody not being able to take no no no for an answer. This "somebody" conceived and directed Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn, his own songbook revue now playing at New World Stages.
"Rob Ruggiero kept saying, 'I want to do a thing of your songs,'" begins finicky Finn. "I said, 'Please don't.' He said, 'I'm doing it.' I said, 'Rob. Do. Not. Do. It. Do not do it. I have no interest in seeing a bunch of my songs done.' And he said, 'Well, I'm doing it.'"
Finally, Finn relented: "I said, 'I'll let you do it, but I don't want you to, and I want you to know it's being done under protest. Just figure out what you want to do because I'll have nothing to do with it. To me, it suggests the end of a career. I hope this isn't the end of me.'"
Ruggiero resolutely soldiered on — blissfully alone — and phoned Finn after the first two previews. Both, he said, "got screaming, yelling standing-ovations." Finn didn't flinch. "Don't they stand for everything at Hartford?" he asked, unimpressed. Replied Ruggiero: "They never stand here. You should come see this. I don't know what we have here."
So Finn trekked up to Hartford's TheaterWorks to see for himself — and knocked himself out. "I didn't know the person next to me, but I kept saying, 'Do you know how good this is?' I was totally shocked I liked it. Rob said, 'In a few days, we're having our opening. Will you come to it?' I said, 'You're an idiot to take that chance. I loved it this time. I doubt if I'll love it again.' But I saw it again and did like it. I don't know what's wrong."
Far from being the end of Finn, Make Me a Song deepens our appreciation of his peculiar, particular passions and his unique humor, here shaped and underscored by the blessed light of hindsight. Mood swings from sunny to somber are punctuated by an intermission.
In Act II is a ten-song Falsettos suite, consisting of songs from March of the Falsettos and its sequel, Falsettoland, and their 1992 Broadway melding, Falsettos, for which Finn won Tonys for book and score. A cast of four (Sandy Binion, D. B. Bonds, Adam Heller and Sally Wilfert), with Darren R. Cohen on piano, skips and sprints through ditties from In Trousers (the Falsettos prequel), Elegies: A Song Cycle, A New Brain, Romance in Hard Times and his Broadway delight, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (which will end its successful run at Circle in the Square on Jan. 20, 2008).
There is also a song called "Hitchhiking Across America" from a show he abandoned ("It's a song about hitchhiking and making connections, and I realized I wrote the whole show in that one song and had nothing else to say"). And there are two songs from a show that never got beyond workshop, his musicalization of The Royal Family.
Also included is "Song of Innocence and Experience," a little something he wrote last year for the dedication of three theatres on the campus of his alma mater, Williams College.
"It was really about teachers and students" — something he knows something about. His course at New York University is not actually called "Make Me a Song 101," but he has taught the tunesmith trade there for six years. "It's a weekly master class in songwriting. By the end of the year, they're unimaginably better than they were at the beginning."
Last year Finn's students got to strut their stuff at the Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theatre Lab in an evening called, correctly, Songs by Ridiculously Talented Composers and Lyricists You Probably Don't Know But Should. How did this come about?
Well, all roads lead to Rob Ruggiero, who staged very successful versions of Falsettos and Elegies: A Song Cycle there and got Finn acquainted with Barrington's artistic director, Julianne Boyd — enough to get her to let him use Barrington as the launching pad for Spelling Bee.
Everyone won on that one, notes Finn. "After the success of Spelling Bee, Julie Boyd said to me, 'What can I do for you?' And I said, 'You should start producing these new shows. Let's do debuts for songwriters who really have not had shows.' People think there is no good stuff coming out. There is great stuff coming out. They're just not getting produced, so I decided to talk Julie into producing the work of these students."
The irony is that, while Finn was creating a showcase for his students, Ruggiero was creating one for him. "Despite my misgivings, it has my blessing," Finn finally has to admit, having swallowed a large order of humble pie. "What I found in the show when I saw it for the first time was that I thought, 'This is a real authentic voice, and there aren't that many.' The voice came through so clearly. I thought, 'I would love to meet this guy. He sounds interesting and funny, and I think I would like to write a show with him. . . .'" Write on, Bill.