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Photograph: Joan MarcusFalsettos

Broadway review: William Finn and James Lapine’s game-changing musical Falsettos returns to break new hearts

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

“It’s about time, don’t you think?” sings Marvin (Christian Borle) at the outset of the second act of Falsettos, and yes: It is. It’s about time that William Finn and James Lapine’s intimate, obstinate, heart-shattering 1992 musical has returned to Broadway, to poke us and amuse us and reduce us again to helpless tears. Few musicals have the range, idiosyncrasy and emotional punch of this profoundly unconventional and personal work. Directed by Lapine, the show’s revival is very much about a specific Jewish family in the early 1980s, and while its story of a man who leaves his wife and child for a male lover may be less novel today, its larger truths continue to resonate. Seeing Falsettos now is like opening a time capsule and finding a mirror.

Part of what makes the musical so unusual is that it was written as two separate one-acts, nine years apart. Act I of the show, first presented in 1981 as March of the Falsettos, is a nervy, yappy exploration of masculinity and its discontents. Marvin has abandoned the tense, eager-to-please Trina (Stephanie J. Block) and their hypersmart prepubescent son, Jason (Anthony Rosenthal), to move in with Whizzer (a knowingly sinuous, almost snaky Andrew Rannells). But Whizzer is not the submissive caretaker that Marvin has come to expect as his prerogative; and when Trina finds love with a psychiatrist, Mendel (a scrappy Brandon Uranowitz), Marvin can’t handle the loss of a thing he had thrown away.

“We are manipulating people and we want to know our worst sides aren’t ignored,” sing the male characters in the opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” and Finn doesn’t shy from their less appealing qualities. His score throws a lot of elbows at them, in ways that are sometimes hard to absorb, especially in the dense title song—a manchild march that Lapine stages as a creepy black-lit nightmare of arrested development. It is Trina who comes off most sympathetically, and Block brings down the house with a bravura comic performance of “I’m Breaking Down,” a neurotic implosion set to music that evokes a carnival striptease. (It ends with her waving a butcher’s knife and belting a high note with a piece of banana stuck in her mouth.)

By Act II, Marvin has grown up a bit, but the more significant maturation is Finn’s. As enjoyable as the snaggletoothed and biting first half can be, it hardly prepares you for the extraordinary second, which premiered as Falsettoland in 1990 and may be the best gay-themed musical ever written. The arrival of AIDS—unnamed at the time, but inchoately looming as “something bad”—changes the games for everyone on stage, and for Finn’s writing as well. He rises to the challenge with a tremendously moving collection of songs: sparky, funny, wrenching and sweetly romantic, with frequent enough twists of melody and phrase to resist being maudlin. As the fractured blended family of March—expanded to include two lesbians (Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe)—comes together in the face of grief, Falsettos brings us with them through a scarred yet healing depiction of collective loss and purpose.

Over and over, right up to Marvin and Whizzer’s rueful final duet, “What Would I Do?”, Finn pushes musical theater to the limits of what we can ask of it. Those who know the show may find fault with some of the revival’s choices: The jagged skyline set is ugly, for example, and Borle sometimes hits Marvin’s meanness too hard. But flaws are written into Falsettos, as is the impulse it elicits to forgive them. In a world divided by pettiness but capable of better, the show feels as timely as ever.

Walter Kerr Theatre (Broadway). Music and lyrics by William Finn. Book by Finn and James Lapine. Directed by Lapine. With Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, Stephanie J. Block, Brandon Uranowitz, Anthony Rosenthal, Tracie Thoms, Betsy Wolfe. Running time: 2hrs 35mins. One intermission. Through Jan 8. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam

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