Falsettos begins with four Jews in a room bitching. In fact, that’s the name of the opening number, and it was also once a possible title for March of the Falsettos, the 1981 one-act musical that now occupies the first half of Falsettos.
The second half is the 1990 Off-Broadway musical Falsettoland. When the twain met on Broadway two years later, the result made a two-time Tony winner of composer-lyricist William Finn, and that is what is rating a 2016 reprise at the Walter Kerr Theatre, opening October 27.
The quintessential Finn song, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” is delivered by a quirky quartet of contemporary males, kvetching, baring angst and bouncing off the walls of a psychiatrist’s office. First and foremost, in the room where it happens, is Marvin, the neurotic everynerd invented for In Trousers, the first of Finn’s Marvin Trilogy. Spinning dizzily around Marvin here are his ten-year-old son, his two-faced psychiatrist and the man for whom he left his wife. All four join hands for a hymn on the varieties of masculinity, with the adults affecting falsettos to match the boy’s voice.
Finn can still recall the moment that “Who is man enough to march to ‘March of the Falsettos’?” came to him.
“I was walking through Central Park to a voice lesson, and it popped into my head,” says Finn. “As soon as I got there, I sat down at the piano and got it.”
An earlier jaunt through Central Park to visit an East Side pal ushered the curtain-raiser into his brain: “First I thought of ‘four Jews in a room bitching,’ then the melody came to that. I just kept on repeating it over and over until I got it on paper.”
Finn admits that his music is word-led, but only up to a certain point. “I have to write the first line first. Then, I write the music and dummy in the words—but my dummies are good, so, when I go back and write the whole thing, it’s not hard. But, without that opening line, I cannot write the song.”
Falsettoland and March of the Falsettos were co-written almost a decade apart by Finn and his director, James Lapine, and coupling them on a single bill doubled their strength.
The two shows span only three years—from 1979 to 1981—but they’re as different as day and night, as comedy and tragedy. In between came the AIDS crisis, which devastated and disfigured the gay landscape of Marvin’s world so, with Falsettos, you enter laughing and exit crying. As Frank Rich said in the New York Times of this inspired fusion, Falsettos “gains exponentially in power by being seen only 15 minutes, instead of nine years, [apart].”
“James is a remarkable person,” says Finn, “so much fun, so focused, so fertile. He has so many ideas. When I get stuck—and I often get stuck—he goes, ‘What about this?’ ‘What about this?’ ‘What about this?’ ‘What about this?’ I’m in awe of him!”
Unless you count A New Brain, which got an Encores! restaging last summer, this is Finn’s first major revival, and it is outfitted mostly with old Finn friends. Christian Borle—coming directly from portraying William Shakespeare to play the needy, nebbish Marvin—got his first big part in New York from Finn (the song cycle Elegies), as did Betsy Wolfe who started on the road in his 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Andrew Rannells, cast here as the home-wrecker Whizzer, was working on Finn’s Little Miss Sunshine when he suddenly heeded a higher calling (The Book of Mormon). Completing the cast are Stephanie J. Block, Brandon Uranowitz, Tracie Thoms and Anthony Rosenthal.
A frequent and easy worrier, Finn frets about how Falsettos will play in 2016. “It’s a different world we live in now, so I wonder how it’s going to be received. I don’t even know if the show evinces the horribleness of the times because it’s talking about family and a lot of other things—in a world that is being devoured by AIDS.”
Aside from rubbing up against those tragic times, he says Falsettos is the least autobiographical of all his works. “There are aspects, of course, but the events of the show aren’t the events of my own life. At the time, I couldn’t write about anything else. I couldn’t not write about it. It was so much a part of all of our lives.”
Of course, Finn filters these turbulent years through his own idiosyncratic sensibility, leaning more often than not on the ethnic, especially during the story’s lighter moments. As the song “Watching Jason (Play Baseball)” proclaims: We’re watching Jewish boys, Who cannot play baseball. For Finn, “Unfortunately, I did [play baseball]. I was in the very Little League—a sad little baseball player. When we did the show in L.A., I asked Sandy Koufax to the opening, and he was offended—not at all pleased.”
Then there is the fallout from Marvin’s self-centeredness and sexual straddling. With the left-behind wife lamenting “I’m Breaking Down” and an offspring belting “My Father’s a Homo,” it’s easy to trace a line straight to Fun Home, which, it’s rumored, Finn was asked to write. “The right people wrote it,” he is quick to say, “and the show is wonderful. I just felt that I’d already written it with Falsettos.”