Falsettos in many ways, is a love letter to a time gone by. Originally conceived as the second and third installments in a musical trilogy that follows Marvin and the evolution of his family as he embraces his homosexuality, the segments appeared individually at Playwrights Horizons and other theatres from 1979 to 1990. In Trousers (1979), March of the Falsettos (1981), and Falsettoland (1990) bear the mark of an era, including the haunting notes of the AIDS crisis.
The latter two premiered on Broadway in 1992 as a two-act musical and won Tony Awards for Best Score (William Finn) and Book (William Finn and James Lapine). By that time, AIDS had ravaged not only the theater community, but also the American psyche.
Lincoln Center Theater’s revival, currently playing at the Walter Kerr Theater in a limited engagement through January 8, is faithful to the original with some modern sensibilities, notably choreography (mostly staging) by Spencer Liff, who invigorates the material with plenty of movement and keeps the ensemble agile within the recitative-heavy score. David Rockwell’s set—a seemingly endless pile of grey building blocks—also distracts from the fact that Finn’s material doesn’t have a lot of forward momentum.
But those familiar with the composer/lyricist’s work (Little Miss Sunshine, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, A New Brain) know that Finn’s strengths lie in his ability to create character, and Falsettos offers juicy material for the seasoned ensemble. Marvin (Christian Borle) is at the plot’s epicenter. In Act One he comes to terms with the end of his marriage to Trina (Stephanie J. Block) and eventually the demise of his relationship with Whizzer (Andrew Rannells). Meanwhile, Trina falls for Marvin’s neurotic psychiatrist (Brandon Uranowitz), all the while trying to keep her pre-teen son (Anthony Rosenthal) from spinning out of control.
Act Two takes place two years later. Marvin has reconciled with Whizzer and the couple befriends the “lesbians from next door”: Charlotte (Tracie Thoms), a doctor facing the as-yet-unnamed virus, and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe), her kosher caterer girlfriend. Jason’s Bar Mitzvah looms in the near feature as Whizzer faces a bleak diagnosis.
While it might be hard for millennials to grasp Finn and Lapine’s intentional vagueness, in 1981 there were 234 known AIDS-related deaths. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis had yet to be born and it would be another six years before ACT UP was founded. By the time the musical migrated to Broadway in 1992, this was still unchartered territory in the world of musical theater (the Gershwin mash-up, Crazy For You, won the Tony Award for best musical that year and Angels in America would arrive on Broadway a year later).
In short, show a little respect, kids. Falsettos is quirky in structure, a “tight-knit” family unraveling into something entirely new. Borle has been quoted regarding his enthusiasm to tackle a “three dimensional person” coming off of Something Rotten! and Peter and the Starcatcher. His restraint, though, often reads as negative and snarky. Marvin isn’t the most likeable character but the audience needs to understand why Trina and Whizzer have both fallen for him, and it’s only in the Act One finale, the beautifully touching “Father to Son” that we see a glimmer of his soft side.
As his ex, Trina, Block pulls out all the stops with a voice that reaches the rafters and comedic timing that stops the show midway through Act One with “I’m Breaking Down,” a song that laments her crumbling marriage. Unfortunately, busy staging masks her Act Two 10 o’clock number, “Holding to the Ground.” (Whizzer gets the 11 o’clock slot).
Uranowitz as her nebbishly hippy psychiatrist husband is quite the charmer with just enough shtick to offset the gravitas, while Rannells isn’t too off course from his character on HBO’s Girls. Thoms and Wolfe deliver due diligence in underwritten roles that appear out of nowhere (and go nowhere) in Act Two, while Rosenthal is more believable as a tween than a 13-year-old facing adulthood. Across the board, there’s not a lot of chemistry among the cast, which feels amiable but not deeply rooted.
What is most resonant about Falsettos in 2016 is its message of diversity, tolerance and acceptance—themes that are running amok these days in other circles. In the original script Whizzer’s passing is implied and not so literally staged as in this revival. As his family of choice gathers around his tombstone, Mendel sings:
Women with children.
We’re a teeny tiny band.
Lovers come and lovers go.
Lovers live and die fortissimo.
This is where we take a stand.
Welcome to Falsettoland.
Thanks for the reminder, William Finn. This is where we take a stand.
Walter Kerr Theater
219 West 48th Street, NYC
Through January 8
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him social media at @roodeloo.