All I’m asking for is perfection,” goes a line from the title song of the new revue “Make Me a Song,” handily encapsulating the work ethic and personality of composer-lyricist William Finn. The songwriter is notably irascible, but this songfest should leave him tickled. In a word, it’s Finntastic.
Finn has always worn his heart — and his music — on his sleeve. His songs come mostly in two varieties: idiosyncratic and often raucous comedy numbers on one hand, and soaring ballads that pull at the heartstrings on the other. Both types are in evidence here, with the serious songs giving the evening an emotional pull that might surprise some audiences. Amidst bounteous laughter, Finn’s singers bring you to tears with “Unlikely Lovers” and “Anytime (I Am There),” two of the most affecting songs to come from recent musical theater.
Finn burst into prominence in 1981 with “March of the Falsettos,” which jolted the field; the reigning composers — Sondheim, Herman, Kander, Strouse — couldn’t have, and wouldn’t have, written such a song as “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.”
Finn is best known for his Marvin musicals, which reached Broadway in 1992 in abridged form as “Falsettos” (winning him two Tonys), and his 1998 musical “A New Brain.” Both are liberally present in “Make Me a Song,” including a 20-minute encapsulization of “Falsettos.”
The composer’s biggest commercial success by far came with his least personal project, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which recently announced it will hang up its dictionary in January after a Broadway run of almost three years. The latter is not represented in the current revue, either through legal proscriptions or simply because most of the “Spelling Bee” songs wouldn’t fit into this view of the world as seen through the eyes of Finn.
“Make Me a Song” is a transfer from Theaterworks in Hartford, where it was conceived and staged by associate artistic director Rob Ruggiero. Unlike most such productions from small-town regionals, this one comes to New York virtually intact. (Show was originally announced for an April 19 opening at the Zipper, with the original company; in the interim, one singer and the musical director have been replaced.)
Ruggiero provides a fast and efficient staging on the sparest of sets. The physical production consists of a baby grand on a coastered green platform and an overhead neon visage of Finn; this plus chairs, stools, hand props and non-remarkable costumes.
The retention of most of the cast is a wise decision; while only one has major New York credits, each performer fits into the proceedings and contributes much.
Adam Heller is familiar to Finn fans; he played the role of Mendel the psychiatrist in the excellent first combined production of “March of Falsettos”/ “Falsettoland” in 1991, and went on to play the role in the national company of “Falsettos.” He serves as the comic center of the piece and the Finn stand-in as well, scoring highly with “When the Earth Stopped Turning,” “Stupid Things I Won’t Do” and Finn’s song about screwing Republicans, which is excoriatingly funny (except, one expects, to Republicans).
D.B. Bonds is the younger singing man, bringing a nice voice and the requisite feeling to “I’d Rather Be Sailing” and “I Went Fishing With My Dad.” Sandy Binion stands out with “All Fall Down” and “That’s Enough for Me,” two songs from the little-known but fascinating “Romance and Hard Times.” Most welcome new talent of the group is Sally Wilfert, who has just the right touch for the comic yet poignant saga of “Passover” and does stunningly well with the 11 o’clock number, “Anytime (I Am There).”
“Make the harmonic simple and pure, keep the rhythms strong,” instructs Finn. “I want a song that I can swing, a song with hope and joy, and spring.” Equal parts hope, joy, spring and laughter is what we get in this uproarious and moving soundscape of the world as seen by William Finn.