Composer-lyricist William Finn’s “Falsettos” is about life and death, self-loathing and self-acceptance, loss and compromise. And it’s fun. The musical offers laughs and tears, at least five terrific songs and seven terrific performances in one terrific production. It should do, as we say, boffo biz.
At the outset, in 1979, Marvin (Michael Rupert) reveals that he’s left his wife Trina (Barbara Walsh) and preteen son Jason (Sivan Cotel) for another man; however, he wants “a tight-knit family,” with everyone eating meals together and getting along.
To an extent, it works, with Jason genuinely fond of the lover, Whizzer (Stephen Bogardus); but, as Walsh’s show-stopping turn, “I’m Breaking Down,” indicates, Marvin’s plan is not entirely a winner. And things really break down when Trina takes up with Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel (Chip Zien).
The second act begins in ’81, with Marvin and Whizzer apart and Trina married to Mendel (who admits he’s bored listening to his clients whine: “Half my patients (are) yuppie pagans/modeled on the Ronald Reagans”).
The act also adds two characters (Heather MacRae and Carolee Carmello), who lightly refer to themselves as “the lesbians from next door”– a successful internist who’s frustrated by the new, unnamed disease that is killing gay men, and her lover, a caterer experimenting with nouvelle bar mitzvah cuisine.
The plot, or what there is of it, isn’t the tuner’s strong point, and a central metaphor, of singing in falsetto, is unclear. (Finn has stated elsewhere that falsetto is outside the normal range of the voice, as these people are outside the normal range of lives.)
The characters are idealistic enough to try to make sense of life, smart enough to know that it’s impossible, and witty enough to comment on their messy lives with eloquent accuracy.
On Broadway, the show got a rep as “the AIDS musical,” but it’s not about AIDS any more than it’s about being Jewish and/or gay.
The relationships are summed up by Trina: “Lifeis never what you planned … Holding to the ground as the ground keeps shifting … Trying to stay sane as the rules keep changing.”
It’s about giving up on preconceptions, and coming to terms with family and love (two terms that are sometimes mutually exclusive, but occasionally converge).
“Falsettos” is entirely sung, with jangly, bouncy music that keeps changing tempos, styles and melodies, often midsong, to reflect the various viewpoints.
Early on, right around the time shrink Mendel becomes increasingly infatuated with Trina as she relates the social diseases Marvin has given her, it seems clear this is not the musical for the “Sunset Boulevard” crowd.
The characters’ brittle neuroticism might be hard to take if it weren’t for the wit and energy Finn injects into the piece. But ultimately what makes the musical succeed is the amount of heart Finn has given his characters. Despite their articulate angst and the pain they inflict on themselves and each other, all are likable and, by the end, all learn to deal with affection they’ve been resisting.
Director James Lapine keeps the show tight and energetic, the four-man band is great, and the technical contributions are smart but spare. At a time of lavish production values in musicals, “Falsettos” helps put things in perspective, keeping the emphasis on writing and performing.
The production points up one disadvantage of being an L.A. theatergoer, as the city had to wait two years to see this show. (The first act, “March of the Falsettos,” played at the same theater in ’82, but it was first paired with the second act, 1990’s “Falsettoland,” on Broadway in ’92).
But one advantage of being an L.A. theatergoer is that Gordon Davidson and his gang have rounded up the original cast.
“Falsettos” also was seen in New York with an alternate group of actors, who performed effectively; but this septet reminds of that mysterious factor when the right casting takes a work to a new level. It’s impossible to imagine a better cast, with each actor doing memorable work.
Maybe the “Sunset Boulevard” crowd would like it after all.