As I sat in my seat in the beautiful new Daniels Spectrum theatre, excitedly awaiting the first act of the revolutionary musical Falsettos, I heard a man behind me say, “it still has that new theatre smell.” That it did, not yet one year past its opening, but what I found on stage was in startling discord to the environment in which it was presented: a musical, set in the late ’70s and early ’80s, that deals with coming out, psychoanalysis, the perils of Jews playing sports, and AIDS. It is, in short, a musical quintessentially of its time, a feature to which costume designer Alex Amini pays close attention with her period dress and hairstyles. Watching Falsettos at Daniels Spectrum felt like an invitation to compare two eras, separated by only three decades but a world of difference, and to determine what is still relevant and meaningful in a show like this in a time like now. It turns out, there’s an awful lot.
Falsettos, in the form in which it is currently presented (it has undergone many changes since it originated as a one-act in 1979), tells the story of Marvin, a New Yorker who, upon coming out as gay and leaving his wife for a young lover, tries to keep his unusual Jewish family together. His young son, Jason, is frustrated by the changes around him, which multiply when his father’s former therapist falls in love with and then marries Jason’s mother. The entire show is sung through, and although the styles of music vary depending on the content of the song, all orchestrations are centred around the staples of the era, with piano and drum playing the most prominent roles. Each scene is its own vignette; each vignette has its own theme, style, and purpose in the overall non-linear plot of the show. By the end, a series of explorations of love, lust, faith, marriage, monotony, and sanity converge upon the sudden contraction of an incurable illness by Martin’s lover, Whizzer. Although it spans a broad emotional spectrum, from humorous and kitschy to sombre and philosophical, Falsettos maintains a constant sense of humour and wit which make pleasant scenes more pleasant and bleak scenes, by contrast, all the more noticeably bleaker.
Falsettos is driven by stellar performances from its entire cast, among whom Eric Morin as Whizzer and Stephen Patterson as Marvin stand out for their power and tenderness, both emotionally and musically. Also always of note is young Michael Levinson, who once again impresses with his verve. Although all cast members sing well, it is the drama and theatricality, not musicality, that make Falsettos so notable. Tim French’s brilliant choreography bridges the play and the musical by turning the entire stage at times into an extension of the subconscious and, in doing so, draws out every inch of drama and profundity in the pop-inspired score.
Falsettos is difficult to categorize. Its components have been featured both on and off-Broadway; its style is comedic but its content is tragic; its music and plot seem antiquated even though they are younger than much of the cast. It is a musical of contradictions and eschewed binaries, the [only] kind of show that would make itself up of a deliberately bizarre assortment of people and then show that they are all one family. Even though coming out and AIDS are no longer quite as pressing as they were at the time of the show’s creation, Falsettos can be enjoyed for so much more than the things that happen to its characters. It is ultimately a musical about people who form bonds with each other, whether they want to or not, and then discover the strengths and weaknesses of those bonds when faced with the challenges from the world, and from themselves.
Note: Students receive 20% off the ticket price.
music and lyrics by William Finn
book by William Finn & James Lapine
directed by Robert McQueen music direction by Reza Jacobs
choreographed by Tim French
Darrin Baker, Sarah Gibbons, Sara-Jeanne Hosie, Michael Levinson, Eric Morin, Stephen Patterson, & Glynis Ranney
set design Patrick Du Wors lighting design Kimberly Purtell
costume design Alex Amini sound design Adam Harendorf
stage manager Melanie Klodt apprentice stage manager Rachel Dawn Woods
production manager Sandra Henderson assistant musical director Tara Litvack