The night I saw Falsettos, the audience’s engrossed silence was broken by laughter for sure, but also a lot of clotted sighing and sniffling.
The Broadway revival of William Finn’s 1992 musical, directed by James Lapine (Lapine also directed it in 1992), is transfixing, moving—unbearably so in places—and also very funny.
This is a true and unflinching study of relationships and humanity in all their shades. Its scale may be small—just seven characters, no fancy sets—but its emotion and power are epic, and that is written without exaggeration. When the lights come up all too quickly at the intermission and then at the end, you will—at least those without hearts of stone—be wiping away tears.
Finn’s score (he wrote the music, lyrics, and—with Lapine—the book) furnishes the story of Marvin (Christian Borle), who has left his wife Trina (Stephanie J. Block) for the younger sexpot Whizzer (Girls star Andrew Rannells).
The effects of this family breakdown are visibly raw on Marvin and Trina’s 10-year-old son, Jason (Anthony Rosenthal).
Behind them on a screen backdrop, cut out, and lit impressively, is a New York skyline; sometimes bright and sometimes in glowering shadow. It is the other omnipresent character on stage, alongside a sharply realized metropolitan Jewish sensibility.
On hand is a therapist, Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), who falls for Trina, and she for him; and so the musical intricately charts in song—and the songs are variously gloriously sweeping and ingeniously jagged—the evolution of their relationship to make a new family unit; the relationship of Marvin and Whizzer, from edgy desire to boredom to commitment and later tragedy; and Jason (the excellent Rosenthal conveying an all-too believable mixture of confusion and frustration) orbiting around all of them, with piercing questions about parenting, if his dad is a “homo” will he be one, and the meaning of the “tight-knit family” that Marvin hymns in the first act.
In act two Dr. Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe) join the fray; in the musical and on the TV adverts for the show they are known as “the lesbians next door,” which in its oddly insulting way grates more than charms.
But their characters are more than this dismissive description encapsulates: Thoms and Wolfe play the couple so deftly you really will care very quickly about Charlotte’s day at work, and hope that someone will eventually enjoy eating one of chef Cordelia’s much-slaved over nouvelle cuisine hors d’oeuvres.
Falsettos—the composite of two separate works of Finn’s, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland—treats straight and gay characters equally, both individually and in terms of their relationships.
After the exhilarating “Thrill of First Love,” sung by Marvin and Whizzer (Borle, bewitched and randy; Rannells a delightful riot of sass)—even if this desire comes freighted with a sense of edge and danger—comes Trina’s “I’m Breaking Down.”
For this Block, chopping up ingredients for supper, expresses her fury and emotional brokenness over the end of her marriage. We laugh at her comic mugging, as she sinks besides the counter-top knife in hand, and we weep for her heartbreak and sense of hopelessness.
None of the characters are wholly good, none are wholly bad, all are flawed, and Finn does not handhold us through their contradictions.
In “Making a Home” Mendel (Uranowitz has a seductive, off-kilter charm throughout), Jason, Trina, and Whizzer sing about precisely how making a home is done, and how we use plants, sofas, cushions, and all those nice things scattered here and there to obscure deeper troubles or unsettledness about how we build lives together.
In the first act at least, Marvin has seemed at best a cad, and then just selfish, jealous, and domineering. But then, at the end of the first act, comes his song, “Father To Son,” sung to Jason, which is heartbreaking, as he reassures his son of his love, and that he will be fine as he grows up.
This is a bold promise, because all the adults on stage are childlike, or have a lot of growing up to do, in some ways. In another solo, Trina expresses her nervousness about marriage and men, decrying how the latter wield their power in the world so arrogantly (an especially pertinent song during this election season).
The play proposes we are all “falsettos,” playing and trying on garb, performing, voices heightened, in a city full of falsetto-heightened voices. What might seem a coded gay reference embraces so much more.
David Rockwell’s set is a set of building blocks: mostly square or rectangular, but some triangular; and out of these the actors construct little houses or bleachers for a baseball game, where the adults humorously mull the sad sight of a young Jewish boy playing baseball.
And those building blocks—always being constructed, always being deconstructed, always ready to be arranged and rearranged; structures to be built and broken down—convey the ebb and flow of family and romantic life in Falsettos, where even out of the most grief and trauma-eliciting destruction comes the possibility of hope and renewal.
This becomes especially acute in the second act, set in 1981, when—as Dr. Charlotte tells us—“Something Bad Is Happening.”
That “something bad” is HIV and AIDS, which were then nameless. The disease was first known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) in its first iteration.
And the setting is 1981: There are no treatments. And in 1992, when the play premiered, the life-saving HIV and AIDS drug combinations were still years away too. People were still dying, and for LGBT people of a certain age—as when watching Angels in America or Rent or The Normal Heart or Fun Home—this raw and awful piece of the past is still piercing; the memory of lovers, partners, and friends lost mixed with the awareness of a much-more prejudiced and ignorant time past.
But Falsettos doesn’t simply move us by evoking decline and loss; it moves us because it imagines this group of family and friends finding a way, somehow, to defy the awfulness of what is engulfing them.
In one stunning song, Marvin, Whizzer, Dr. Charlotte, and Cordelia sing “Unlikely Lovers,” a double-edged title that reflects not just their own partnerships, but the sheer unlikeliness of all partnerships, and how—swimming upstream against so many harsh currents—LGBT people themselves succeed in making relationships.
Falsettos embraces all sexualities, new kinds of families, and all kinds of voices, without ever straying into preachiness. At a very different time it demanded the audience did not just sympathize with its gay characters as a persecuted, suffering minority. It showed them three-dimensionally (periodically the actors break out into a questioning chorus of defining “the homosexual”), just as it complexly showed the wife of a man who is gay and who has left her.
For a Broadway show, Falsettos bravely ends on twinned notes of sadness and defiant, loving survival, rather than razzmatazz and a big song. After audiences have dried their eyes, they may find that the musical’s dramatic residue makes them treasure not just their loved ones but also their own strange, tangled lives. In Falsettos, both are honored as things of complex wonder and value.