I'm Breaking Down: The Top Ten Songs by William Finn

By Ben Rimalower
November 16, 2013

Playbill.com correspondent Ben Rimalower offers a list of his top ten songs by Tony-winning composer William Finn.

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I can still remember the first time I heard a William Finn song. It was actually two songs: Falsettos' "My Father's A Homo" and "The Baseball Game" on the 1992 Tony Awards.

My father's a homo. My mother's not thrilled at all.
Father homo — what about chromosomes?
Do they carry? Will they carry? Who's the homo now?

It was like my life was on that stage. And then:

We're watching Jewish boys,
who cannot play baseball play baseball.
We're watching Jewish boys,
who almost read Latin, up battin' — and battin' bad
.

It was like the lives of everyone I knew were on that stage, too. And not only were our lives so vividly reflected in this piece of theatre, but in a musical — a hilarious, heartbreaking, manically melodic show unlike anything I'd ever heard or seen. I immediately bought the complete cast recording and memorized every word and note, fully expecting to enter into a lifetime of loving new musicals by William Finn.

Musical theatre, though, is a tough beat. It's difficult to succeed commercially, to build a career, and it's difficult to succeed artistically. It can't be said enough: Musicals are hard to do, and they are almost impossible to do well. So, over the years, there have only been a few shows by Finn, and the only one to succeed financially on Broadway has been The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a show I thoroughly enjoyed but which I find inconsequential as a piece of musical theatre. It's a hilarious and moving play with enjoyable music and lyrics that enhance, but don't really impact the experience — and much of the best music and lyrics in Spelling Bee are motifs that pop up as appealing commentary without ever developing into full songs. Actually, even in the rest of Finn's shows, some of his best work falls into this category.

So excluding all my favorite fragments, here are my top ten William Finn songs from his Tony-winning Falsettos (or the two one-act musicals, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, of which Falsettos is comprised), In Trousers (the 1979 Off-Broadway musical which is basically a prequel to Falsettos), A New Brain (the 1998 Off-Broadway musical) and a couple of evenings of stray songs, notably Elegies (the 2003 Off-Broadway song cycle).

Click through to read my selections.

10. "Four Jews In A Room Bitching" (from Falsettos/March of the Falsettos

"Four Jews In A Room Bitching" is the opening number of Falsettos and March of the Falsettos and was originally the title of an earlier version of March of the Falsettos. It is the quintessential William Finn song. The striking lyrics repeat the unforgettable title phrase on a melodic hook that calls to mind children's television and commercial jingles and music that plays in our 20th-century pop culture-infused subconscious. Finn is uniquely able to channel this style musically, and his lyrics spring so organically from the tune that it's like the characters' souls are singing. Often with Finn, the soul that sings is crazy, or at least quirky and neurotic, and in this case, hyper-self aware and extremely entertaining. The room of the title refers literally both to a psychotherapist's office and to the theatre in which it is performed, but it also suggests a metaphysical room in which the characters simultaneously live their lives and sing about it to the audience. It's a bold and effective way to establish the highly theatrical style of the show.

9. "Anytime" (from Elegies/cut from A New Brain)

"Anytime" represents a more mature, evolved voice from William Finn, revealing, in song, a character more widely relatable. The message of the lyric — that the singer is gone, but still watching over loved ones, always there "anytime" — is a beautiful take on what we all wish to hear from the people we care about after they die. The music is warm and rich and builds with the words. It's impressive that, in addition to acutely character-specific songs, Finn can give us something so versatile and universal as "Anytime."

8. "How Marvin Eats His Breakfast" (from In Trousers)

This bombastic production number from In Trousers is great example of the blazing presentational style Finn used with joyful abandon in much of his early career. It feels like not only are the lunatics running the asylum, but they're putting on a talent-show night at the sanitarium. This vaudevillian spirit is present in the text and even more so in the style, demonstrated by the way each verse gets increasingly more frantic, like we can see the strain on the troupe performing the number. We see their effort in actually singing and dancing the song, as well in the process around Marvin's breakfast, which is metaphorically represented by the music and lyrics and movement. It's a multi-dimensional kind of musical theatre that we don't see enough of.

7. "When the Earth Stopped Turning" (from Elegies)

Like "Anytime," "When The Earth Stopped Turning" is another sophisticated and broadly relatable power ballad of sorts. It can even be considered a bookend to "Anytime," as it's written from the perspective of the person who has lost someone, although still focused on the message of the deceased — in this case, a life's wisdom — which in other hands might have been saccharine, but which soars in Finn's bittersweet morsel, laced with humor, just a tiny bit profane and quite profound.

The world is good, she said.
Enjoy its shit, she said,
‘Cause this is it, she said,
So make a parade of every moment.

6. "And They're Off" (from A New Brain)

You could fault "And They're Off" for being typical in the style of contemporary musical theatre, where the characters relates a story that occurred offstage without any actual events taking place in the moment. Nonetheless, the story related in "And They're Off" is action-packed and deeply compelling. Again, Finn's wit and humor balance the sentiment and the words are set to music that snaps and crackles and pops with feeling.

5. "Set Those Sails" (from In Trousers)

William Finn's 1979 musical, In Trousers, is an abstract, almost non-linear piece of theatre. Some of the songs have an acid-trip quality in their fantastical imagery and psychological daring. The aesthetic of "Set Those Sails" is Broadway by way of Pink Floyd (or Jefferson Airplane), especially in Mary Testa's psychedelic wailing on the original cast album. It's hard not to be hypnotized by this groovy tune and evocative lyrics that leave your mouth — and mind — watering for more. Feed your head.

4. "Love Me For What I Am" (from In Trousers)

Another gem from In Trousers is the character Trina's big ballad from the end of the show, "Love Me For What I Am." The pleading vulnerability and sweetheart folkiness are irresistible, especially in Alison Fraser's golden-honey performance on the original cast album.

3. "Change" (from A New Brain)

The character of Lisa, the homeless woman, in A New Brain offers Finn and book-writer James Lapine a theatrical device. The idea is that homeless people are filter-less and can say crazy things. Then, the device pays off when that allows them to say the crazy things we're all thinking. The change Lisa sings about initially is "pennies or nickels or dimes," but ultimately she asks for change as in societal evolution. If the message sounds clichéd, what makes it work is that there's no platitude, she just wants what we all want. In fact, she actually admits sotto vocce, "I don't ask for hugs, just need money to buy more drugs." It's not a sermon; it's a complaint, and it's hilarious.

2. "I'm Breaking Down" (from Falsettos/March of the Falsettos)

In the first act of Falsettos, the character Trina, whose husband has left her for a man, and who, in the proceedings thus far, has played second fiddle to her son and her husband and his lover (and even to her husband's therapist), comes downstage to take the spotlight alone and stops the show cold with a song that offers as much entertainment value as the greatest old-school show business barnstormers, and yet also functions as a painfully real monologue on Trina's plight. The key is the outrageous comedy of a person rationally observing herself in the midst of a nervous breakdown. That Trina can sing about it in such a grand style is the epitome of Falsettos' meta-theatricality.

 
 

1. "What Would I Do?" (from Falsettos/Falsettoland)

Just as the this list began with Falsettos' opening number, fittingly it should close with the musical's closing. The central motif of "What Would I Do?" is beautifully both specific and universal. It manages to say something concrete on a topic as well trodden as the grief of losing a lover. "What would I do if I had not met you?" It's moving that such a painful moment in this person's life is filled not just with suffering, but also with gratitude. Then, the bridge section grounds the song in the moment of AIDS and gay life at that time, "All your life you wanted men and when you got it up to have them, who knew it could end your life?" It's so succinct, it's dry, and yet it's poetry.

(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)