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The Quirky William Finn

5 minute read
William A. Henry III

A BROADWAY MUSICAL ABOUT A man who leaves his wife and son for another man, then breaks up with the male lover, woos him back and ultimately watches him die of aids might not sound like most people’s idea of entertainment. Certainly no other current musical opens with a song called Four Jews in a Room Bitching, features a soft-shoe-dancing psychiatrist lilting about how “everyone hates his parents” or has two women characters cheerily introduce themselves as “the lesbians from next door.” But then, only Falsettos, which capped off the Broadway season last week to wide critical acclaim, has music and lyrics by the quirky, quixotic, querulous and unquenchable William Finn. Depending on your ears, Finn is either Stephen Sondheim’s natural successor or merely his canniest imitator. (Both are graduates of Williams College, and Sondheim, it is said, thinks the resemblance stops there.)

Like Sondheim, Finn is prone to write tinkly, brittle art songs that break off in midphrase and to fill them with lyrics so clever they reward, and maybe require, repeated hearing. Like Sondheim, he is witty, wistful and wickedly funny. But Finn is readier to satisfy the playgoer’s yearning for a hummable phrase. In Falsettos he gives every character a big ballad, ranging from the tender What More Can I Say to the abandoned wife’s showstopper I’m Breaking Down to the AIDS patient’s edgy, sardonic You Gotta Die Sometime. In all, the three dozen musical numbers add up to the richest emotional experience offered by any musical on Broadway.

The path to get there was bumpy. Hartford Stage mounted a different-looking version last fall that Lincoln Center pledged to bring to Broadway but then reneged on. With less than three months left in the season, Fran and Barry Weissler, who have won three Tony Awards by mounting star-package revivals like 1990’s Fiddler on the Roof with Topol, decided to make this no-stars gay story their first new musical. Says Fran, a grandmother: “This was a big departure for us, our usual investors and our usual audiences. Half of the money in the show ((it cost $950,000 to mount, about a fifth of the average musical)) is our own. But we had to do it — we couldn’t not do it.”

For Finn, 40, the Broadway debut of Falsettos is the fulfillment of an obsession. In 1979 he wrote a short musical called In Trousers about Marvin, a repressed homosexual who hears the mating call of liberation, ends his marriage and, in one memorable if unnerving moment of stagecraft, sings about the exquisite pleasures of oral sex with his new boyfriend Whizzer. Finn makes no bones about the piece’s autobiographical flavor: “Though his history bears no relationship to mine, temperamentally Marvin is me. He is not easy. He is no joy to live with. But there is something to admire, I think, in the way he wants it all. When people say he’s a spoiled brat, I just don’t understand.”

Two years later, Finn advanced Marvin’s story in March of the Falsettos, which begins with Marvin envisioning his old and new lives merging into one big, happy family and ends with him alone. The narrative was shaped with director James Lapine, who vaulted from that into becoming Sondheim’s director and librettist on his two most recent Broadway musicals, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. But Finn could not seem to capitalize on his new opportunities.

For nearly 10 years he tried other stories. Nothing worked. The one musical he finished, Romance in Hard Times — about a mystical pregnancy and a Depression soup kitchen — ran briefly off-Broadway at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. Says Finn: “The show wasn’t perfect, but parts were brilliant. The score was spectacular.” The reviews were so bad that he was relieved he had jury duty after it opened: “I figured that if I were in the courthouse I wouldn’t actually commit suicide.”

Finally Finn turned his attention back to Marvin and his world — Whizzer, the former wife Trina and son Jason, and Trina’s new husband Mendel, who had met her when he was Marvin’s psychiatrist. Plus, of course, the lesbians, a doctor treating “frightened bachelors” at the outset of the AIDS epidemic and a chef who experiments in nouvelle kosher. Says Finn: “I realized that I was obsessed with these characters. I still am. I am not interested in writing about anyone else. Everything that moves and grips me in the theater can be told through these people. And they all seem to sing quite naturally, which is vital for a musical. They are all given to that level of emotional excess.”

By the time Finn resumed, picking up their lives two years on, the decade that had passed in real life had revealed the defining impact of AIDS. Moreover, it had deepened his skills. When Falsettoland debuted, it ranked as the first (and still the only) great musical of the ’90s. Coupled with March of the Falsettos and material culled from In Trousers, it hits harder.

Is there more to come in Marvin’s life? Finn predicts yes — and hopes that this time it emerges faster. “I probably won’t refer to falsettos next time though,” he says. “I used the term because it is for songs outside the normal range of the voice, and these were characters outside the normal range. There hadn’t been musicals or many plays dealing with homosexuals in a noncampy way. Now, as our notion of families broadens, these characters are well within the range.”

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