Last weekend was the final production of the season for Nearly Naked Theatre, one of the local theater companies we try to support. It was, indeed, the final show of the season but it was not what I was expecting.
When we subscribed at the beginning of the season, the final show was supposed to be a production of William Finn’s Falsettos. This company had announced Falsettos a couple of years ago but had to drop it. If memory serves, it was dropped that time because they could not obtains the rights due to a competing local production. This season it was cancelled for financial reasons. I was disappointed. I’d been looking forward to seeing the show again.
For anyone unfamiliar with Falsettos, it is a interesting musical with an even more interesting history.
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
In 1979 William Finn wrote a one-act musical called In Trousers. It tells the story of Marvin, a contemporary, professional man with a wife and a young son who is struggling to come to terms with his identity. It opened and closed off-Broadway fairly quickly.
Two years later, in 1981, Finn wrote the sequel, a one-act musical called it March of the Falsettos. Time has passed. Marvin, his wife Trina, and their son Jason, now age 10, struggle to come to terms with Marvin’s homosexuality and his less than tranquil relationship with his lover, Whizzer. Trina finds validation in the arms of her psychiatrist. Jason forms a bond with Whizzer. But none of this is sufficient to keep Marvin and Whizzer together. They are looking for different things. They break up. Alternative family structure notwithstanding, it is, in many ways, a typical ‘book-show’ musical; a romantic dramedy.
Nine years later, Finn wrote the third installment of ‘The Marvin Trilogy’, a one-act musical called Falsettoland. The music and lyrics were Finn’s but this time he collaborated with James Lapine on the book. Falsettoland picks up the family’s story three years later. Jason in preparing for his bar mitzvah. Trina and the psychiatrist are still together and Marvin and Whizzer are still apart but still emotionally connected.
Falsettoland is a much darker. As the title of one of the songs says; “Something Bad is Happening” Of course, the bad thing that happened in the lives of people like Marvin and Whizzer between 1981 and 1990 is AIDS. During the show Marvin and Whizzer come back together but only for a time before Whizzer’s death.
All of the shows in the Marvin Trilogy are one-act musicals that ran, with varying degrees of success, off-Broadway. In 1992 Lapine and Finn collaborated on Falsettos; a two-act musical which combines the second and third installments of the original trilogy into one piece. It opened on Broadway in 1992 and ran for 500 performances.
There are certainly better musicals than these but I think they occupy a unique place in the popular culture. The writers take the same characters through the 1980’s. They could not have envisioned what was to came when the second installment was written in 1981. By 1990 much art and popular culture was focusing on AIDS but none I’m aware of that could examine it with a story arc that began before the epidemic. It’s not just the plot has come to incorporate AIDS, the third installment is darker, less innocent than its predecessors. It is almost nostalgic for the time when all the characters had to worry about was crumbling relationships and adolescent angst.
I’ve been lucky enough to see all three of the original pieces as well as the composite. My favorite song from the show is “What Would I Do?” It is the last song in the show and Marvin sings it just after Whizzer’s death. Whizzer comes back briefly and it becomes a duet. I am sure I have heard this song 100 times but it never fails to move me. I could not find a good staged performance of it on Youtube so this is from the original cast recording.