The big new musicals on Broadway feature some of the strongest singing and dancing ensembles in memory, a lot of great music and even some compelling stories. But not until the arrival of “Falsettos,” which closes out the 1991-92 Tony season, did the glittery roster reveal much heart. That alone would make William Finn and James Lapine’s creation a major contender as the season’s best new musical, though there are many other qualities to commend the show.
“Falsettos” is the seamless pairing of two one-act musicals written nearly a decade apart and first produced off-Broadway.
In “March of the Falsettos,” set in 1979, a man leaves his wife and young son to live with his male lover and eventually ends up alone, as the ex-wife marries his psychiatrist. “Falsettoland,” set two years later, expands this quintet to include a doctor, her lesbian lover and, most significantly, a specter soon tobe identified as AIDS.
So “Falsettos” is most decidedly about gay life in modern times and as such, it could have a difficult time finding enough of a Broadway audience to sustain a long run.
But to call “Falsettos” a musical about gay life in modern times is also to shortchange its tremendous appeal as a masterly feat of comic storytelling and as a visionary musical theater work.
“Falsettos” opens with “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” a number that has already become a theater cult classic. The bitchers are Marvin (Michael Rupert); his lover, Whizzer (Stephen Bogardus); Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel (Chip Zien) and Marvin’s son, Jason (Jonathan Kaplan).
The song hilariously captures the shaky situation each character finds himself in and sets the tone for what follows.
One might call Marvin the most unhappy fella. Having taken up with Whizzer, he fantasizes a family that can include all of them. “So I make them interact,” he sings, “So I don’t go by the book/We all eat as one/Wife, friend and son.”
This, of course, is not to be — not, that is until “Falsettos” reaches its heartbreaking finale, in which a doomed affair sadly concludes, and a boy’s rite of passage into manhood is made profoundly, if unexpectedly, complete.
All this unfolds with such good humor and generosity of spirit that one leaves “Falsettos” exhilarated.
The score never lags, mostly due to Finn’s clipped but natural musical style. He is sure to be compared with Sondheim and the comparison is apt, particularly on the composing side. Finn’s tunes scintillate just a little more than his lyrics.
Lapine and Finn tell their complex story with astonishing economy, something even more apparent in the full evening than it was when the parts were offered separately.
Add to this Lapine’s obvious sensitivity to the material and it’s hard to imagine a better production.
Lapine (who collaborated with Sondheim on the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods”) staged the originals and has reassembled most of the original company, all of them terrific.
The newcomers, equally wonderful, are Barbara Walsh, who played the wife, Trina, in a production last summer directed by Graciela Daniele that never made it to New York; Carolee Carmello as Cordelia, the doctor’s lover; and Kaplan, who renders Jason’s lines with memorable conviction and warmth.
Darkness seems to enfold Douglas Stein’s minimal settings –enhanced by Frances Aronson’s uncharacteristically subdued lighting–more noticeably than at the Playwrights Horizons originals. This, however, could be more a function of memory than a real consequence of the move to a larger theater, and Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes still seem dead on.
That it’s taken a decade for a composer and lyricist of Finn’s skill to reach Broadway says a great deal about the street (not to mention the guts of the show’s current producers). At any rate, it’s about time.