This concert performance of the works of lauded Broadway composer William Finn isn’t terrible, but it isn’t quite as good as it sounds on paper, either. A few of the songs work beautifully, particularly the selections from the Elegies song cycle (“Passover”, “Only One”, “Anytime (I Am There)”). And some of the performances are excellent, particularly Sandy Binion’s deeply angry “Trina’s Song” and Sally Wilfert’s heartbreakingly matter-of-fact “Anytime (I Am There)”.
That said, the show’s real problem is that of all the great Broadway composers of his era, William Finn is probably the least suited to being featured in an anthology format. True, the same format has worked repeatedly for Sondheim, but as integrated as Sondheim’s shows are, he still generally writes distinct individual songs that retain at least some of their content out of context. Finn, on the other hand, tends to write seamless sung-through musical dramas that feature very few extractable set pieces.
The “Falsettos Suite” is a perfect example. “Trina’s Song” and “Unlikely Lovers” are wonderful here, but the rest of the songs, divorced from their context in the show’s free-flowing whole, just sound frivolous and trivial. And the medley of “Set Those Sails” from In Trousers and “Sailing” from A New Brain doesn’t make any sense…beyond the fact that they both use a sailing metaphor, those two songs don’t really have anything in common. The former is a stirring anthem, the latter a melancholy ballad, and their tones completely clash when they’re sung together. This is why the selections from Elegies (which was a plotless song cycle to begin with) are the most effective.
Of course, the main actual reason anyone would buy this recording is for the material that’s not found in any other show, and this revue does indeed contain some fascinating rarities. For all its problems, the cast album is probably worth picking up for such previously unrecorded gems as the hilarious “Billy’s Law of Genetics”, the philosophical “Hitchhiking Across America”, the sweet “You’re Even Better Than You Think You Are” (a song written as a dedication to Finn’s old college), and the quietly wistful “I Went Fishing With My Dad”.
Unfortunately, even William Finn has his off days, and as you might expect, there’s a reason some of this material never made it into a finished show. In particular, the opening (the hammy “Mister, Make Me a Song”) and the final number (the dreary “Song of Innocence and Experience”) are both weak, which hurts the show’s overall impact. And the “Republicans” number, which is chopped up into a running gag here, is probably the most witless thing Finn ever wrote.
So while this revue is still good enough to be worth acquiring on recording, it doesn’t remotely compare to any of Finn’s actual theater scores…yes, even 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has a more interesting cast album than this.