A man leaves his wife and child to find love in the arms of someone new. Their passionate love affair is equal parts heartwarming and contentious. While there’s nothing new about this plot, imagine that it’s the 1980’s and the man at the center of these events has left his wife for another man at the height of the AIDS epidemic. In that context, the musical and its performance becomes much more revolutionary.
Falsettos is actually the combination of three one-act musicals, In Trousers, March of the Falsettos, and Falsettoland. They tell the story of Marvin, a once-married man who leaves his wife, Trina for a new lover named Whizzer. With book, music, and lyrics by William Finn, the original one-act productions were truly groundbreaking in their treatment of LGBTQ life as normalcy rather than a plot device. Watching the revival years later, I was struck by how real all of the characters seemed, how enraging, frustrating, and ultimately loving they are to each other.
In the late 1980’s, Finn began working with acclaimed director and writer James Lapine. Lapine, fresh off of his success with Into the Woods worked with Finn to streamline and focus the three one-acts into a more traditional two-act musical called Falsettos. The new version abandoned most of the material from In Trousers and focused more on the storyline of the other two pieces. The first act largely centering around Marvin leaving Trina for Whizzer, Trina marrying Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel, and the impact on their child Jason. The second act takes a notably more somber tone centering on Jason’s impending Bar Mitzvah along with Whizzer’s illness and eventual death.
Along with Angels in America and The Normal Heart, Falsettos led the vanguard of an LGBTQ theatre movement that continues to this day. Those early works demonstrate an understandable focus on the AIDS crisis, but Falsettos touches on the epidemic is far less explicit than the other two shows. The disease is only ever mentioned obliquely, which is important because it desensationalizes the illness. Yes, this is a story about a man who is dying of AIDS, but it is simultaneously, and more importantly a story of a young man dying in his prime and of a lover, family, and friends suffering that loss.
This is the genius of Finn and Lapine’s work. One of the culminating moments in act two features “Unlikely Lovers," an ensemble song sung by two same-sex couples, a heterosexual couple, and a young adolescent. While we are aware of their sexuality and their romantic life, it is not at the forefront of the work. Finn and Lapine were not reflecting the world “as it is” back to their first audiences, but instead reflecting the world they wanted: tragic but also hopeful that there will be a time when the LGBTQ will be accepted and those young and old will not die of an unknown and unspoken killer.
At first, I thought about the revival as nostalgic. I first saw Falsettos as a young teenager in Los Angeles in the early 1990’s. The show was my introduction to a completely different world, but one that did not sink in until watching the recent revival. At the time of this first tour, Stonewall and the LGBTQ rights movement was barely 25 years old. The depiction of adult, romantic same-sex couples on stage was uncommon. To me, it was normal. When Marvin sings “What More Can I Say” to Whizzer as they lie in bed, my favorite song in the musical, I thought about the beauty of that moment. It wasn’t until the revival when I understood the chutzpah that Finn and Lapine demonstrated in daring to present these lives as normal.
Furthermore, the characters aren’t all pleasant and perfect as many exemplars of minority characters are forced to be. Marvin is alternately needy, egotistical, and demanding. Trina suffers from mental health issues and marries Mendel, her husband’s psychiatrist. Their son, Jason, initially prefers to play chess against himself to any real social interaction with peers. There’s a dissonance between their family and the popular notion of what a family should be. This was not dissimilar to my experience with divorced and neurotic parents and helped me understand and see the world of the play as completely normal. I think it’s a good and bad thing that people like me perceive the family in Falsettos this way. On the one hand, it signals a shift in thinking that this musical foresaw. On the other hand, it can lead to a complacent belief that these rights were not hard won. The revival of Falsettos reminds us that we must continue to fight for the normalcy these families so richly deserve.