Here’s a little piece of history. It’s Frank Rich’s original review of the Broadway debut of Falsettos. Mr. Rich is now well-known as a cultural commentator for the New York Times, but in 1992, he was a passionate advocate of forward-thinking shows like this one.
It’s a fine piece of writing, but more importantly it really helps to bring to mind the context in which the play was created. It wasn’t that long ago, but in many ways, it was a very different world.
Falsettos; Broadway Boundary Falls Amid Reunions
By FRANK RICH
Published: April 30, 1992, Thursday
Last night’s opening of William Finn’s exhilarating and heartbreaking musical “Falsettos” at the John Golden Theater marked the official end of the Broadway season, and what more perfect end to this season could there be? In a theater year marked by signs of an American musical renaissance on Broadway and an explosion of American playwriting off Broadway, “Falsettos” is a show in which the boundary separating Off Broadway and Broadway is obliterated, a show in which the most stylish avatars of the new American musical embrace the same thorny urban landscape of embattled men and women to be found in so many new American plays.
The evening also brings this highly charged season to a close with the charged emotions of an eagerly awaited reunion. “Falsettos” is the seamless merging of two one-act musicals, “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland,” that were produced individually in 1981 and 1990. All three original leading men — Michael Rupert, Stephen Bogardus and Chip Zien — are back, as is the original director, James Lapine (who is also co-author of the book). A lot has happened to them since they and “Falsettos” first came together. A lot has happened to the audience. Like any reunion worth attending, this one tempers its feelings of joy with those of deep loss. The wave of euphoria “Falsettos” evokes is inseparable from the wave of tears that rises audibly through the house once Mr. Finn raises the ghosts of those Falsettoland loved ones no longer here to join the party.
Those who have never encountered this work in any form will have the enviable experience of meeting its achingly articulate characters and laughing for the first time at the idiosyncratic linguistic twists of songs about “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” the perils of psychotherapy and the familial predicament of watching “Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball.” Newcomers can also be confident that Mr. Lapine reassembles and refreshes his original intimate staging. Douglas Stein’s spare and sparkling Pop Art production design remains intact, and so does the scale of the “teeny tiny band” playing the clever orchestrations of Michael Starobin. What old “Falsettos” hands will discover is that Mr. Finn has done some smart, delicate tinkering with “March of the Falsettos” and that “Falsettoland” gains exponentially in power by being seen only 15 minutes, instead of 9 years, after the first installment.
Seen in this form, “Falsettos” also emerges as far more complex than its simple story might suggest. In telling the adventures of Marvin (Mr. Rupert), a man of 1979 who leaves his wife and son for a male lover, Whizzer (Mr. Bogardus), Mr. Finn is not merely writing about the humorous and sad dislocations produced by an age of liberated sexual choices and shifting social rules. When 1981 arrives in Act II — and with it, a virus “so bad that words have lost their meaning” — Mr. Finn is not merely charting the deadly progress of a plague. The unified “Falsettos” is as much about Marvin’s abandoned wife, Trina (Barbara Walsh), and young son, Jason (Jonathan Kaplan), as it is about Marvin, Whizzer and Mendel (Mr. Zien), the psychiatrist who goes from being Marvin’s doctor to Trina’s new husband. Most important, it is about all its people together, a warring modern family divided in sexuality but finally inseparable in love and death.
“I want a tight-knit family,” sings a childish, self-absorbed Marvin early on as he tries to juggle lover, wife, son and shrink. Two acts later that ambition has been achieved and enriched as all the reconfigured couples are joined by still another couple, an endearing pair of “spiky lesbians” (Heather Mac Rae and Carolee Carmello), to celebrate Jason’s bar mitzvah. But the battle to achieve that tight-knit extended family is not easy. It cannot be won until Mr. Finn’s male characters answer the jokey question they ask rhetorically in song in Act I: “Who is man enough to march to ‘March of the Falsettos’?”
That question demands that these boys, whatever their age or sexuality, figure out what masculinity is. How they clumsily try to do so — in and out of bed, marriage and psychotherapy — is the source of the show’s humor in Act I. The answer they discover is what gets them through the tragedy of Act II. As Mr. Finn sees it, the man who is man enough to march forward is the man who is man enough to love men, women and children unselfishly, standing face to face, no matter what. If Jason’s bar mitzvah is one of the most moving you’ve ever seen, it is in part because it takes place in an AIDS patient’s hospital room, in part because Marvin in tandem with his smart son has at last grown up to be a man.
This progress is beautifully delineated by Mr. Rupert, whose nearly 25 years of honorable service as a juvenile in Broadway musicals reaches its long deserved, highly affecting payoff in Marvin, a character whose leap past eternal boyishness into mature, consuming passion inspires the most full-throttle singing and acting of this performer’s career. Marvin’s story also gains some new gravity in “Falsettos” thanks to the recasting of his son and estranged wife. Jonathan Kaplan, a very young Woody Allen with a big singing voice, is a sublime Jason. Barbara Walsh, as Trina, repeats the strong performance she gave in Graciela Daniele’s fine Hartford Stage Company production of “Falsettos” last fall. Because of Mr. Finn’s revisions, she has a spine denied her distinguished, ditsier Off Broadway predecessors in the part, Alison Fraser and Faith Prince. In addition to her new show-stopper (“I’m Breaking Down,” adapted from “In Trousers,” an earlier Finn musical about Marvin and company), Ms. Walsh socks over a rewritten “Trina’s Song” in which she indicts the “happy frightened silly men who rule the world” more fervently than before.
Mr. Zien, the most perpetually addled of therapists, and Mr. Bogardus, a pretty boy who ages fast, are both better than ever as respectively the wittiest and the most heroic of those men. When Mr. Zien offers a citation from the Torah to support his contention that “Everyone Hates His Parents,” he ignites one of Mr. Finn’s most riotous verbal riffs, just as Mr. Bogardus’s forceful, never entirely knowable Whizzer conversely extends the spectrum of “Falsettos” to defiance and political rage in the chilling, unsentimental “You Gotta Die Sometime.”
At this late date, it may be superfluous to praise Mr. Finn’s talent as a composer, but one of the virtues of “Falsettos” is that you take in his whole, wide range in one sitting and appreciate the dramatic uses to which he puts his music, not just the eclecticism of tunes that range from show-biz razzmatazz (“Love Is Blind”) to lullabye (“Father to Son”) to lush ballads (“Unlikely Lovers”). Neither an opera nor a conventional musical, Mr. Finn’s score is full of fine details: a musical signature from Act I will turn up fractured in Act II just as a life cracks up; the notes underlying “spreading” in an internist’s lyric about “something bad spreading, spreading, spreading round” themselves spread the terror of a still nameless virus that defies the meaning of words.
Mr. Finn’s range is a decade’s range, at least as seen from the admittedly limited perspective of mostly white, moderately young and affluent, often Jewish New York. When “March of the Falsettos” first charged confidently forward in the tiny upstairs studio theater of Playwrights Horizons 11 years ago, nothing so bad was happening, and the high spirits of that moment pump through Act I of “Falsettos” as if pouring out of a time capsule. Act II plays out in another key as lovers no longer “come and go” but “live and die fortissimo.”
“Falsettos” may now be a Broadway musical, but it cannot and does not pretend for a second that the lovers have stopped dying. It is the heaven-sent gift of Mr. Finn and company that they make you believe that the love, no less fortissimo, somehow lingers on.