This musical is actually two one-act musicals written a decade apart that deal with the same set of characters, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. They were originally the second and third parts of a trilogy, but the first installment, In Trousers, is not generally performed with the others today because it featured a very different style and structure from the other two. In Trousers featured some wonderful melodies, but it was essentially a string of discreet set pieces that could have been done in almost any order with the same result, whereas the latter two installments feature a dramatic unity that is very rare in musical theater.
The two-act version that is performed today is completely sung-through, with an emphasis on intricate sung conversations. It tells the story of a man named Marvin who realizes he’s gay, leaves his wife, Trina, for a young man named Whizzer, only to watch Whizzer slowly succumb to AIDS. The primary themes are Marvin and Whizzer’s deeply dysfunctional but ultimately loving relationship, and Marvin’s relationship with his sour-tempered but wise-beyond-his-years preteen son, Jason.
This may seem like a very maudlin story, but it is told in some of the sharpest and drollest lyrics ever heard on Broadway, with a sophistication and off-kilter wit that still seems ultra-modern over thirty years after the first act was written. Composer William Finn has a real gift for quirky and outrageous song ideas, such as the show’s hilarious opening number, “Four Jews In a Room Bitching”; or Jason’s brutally blunt “My Father’s a Homo”; or Marvin and Whizzer’s murderously passionate domestic tango “(I would kill for) The Thrill of First Love”; or “Everyone Hates His Parents”, in which Mendel, the psychiatrist who marries Marvin’s ex-wife, commiserates with Jason about a universal experience; or the deeply morbid “You Gotta Die Sometime”.
But Finn also has a gift for exquisite lyrical melodies, as in Whizzer’s self-reflective “The Games I Play”; or Marvin’s heartfelt reconciliation with Jason, “Father To Son”; or his rhapsodic expression of his love for Whizzer, “What More Can I Say”; or the breathtaking romantic quartet “Unlikely Lovers”; or the extremely moving final statement, “What Would I Do?”
Marvin’s beleaguered ex-wife, Trina, has two stunning solos, the hilariously neurotic “I’m Breaking Down” in Act One and the shell-shocked “Holding to the Ground” in Act Two. Her second husband Mendel gets the priceless “Love is Blind” (‘love reads like a bad biography/all the names have been changed to protect the innocent’), and a hilariously inept sung marriage proposal.
As fine as every one of the show’s formal songs are, where it really shines is in the extended sequences of sung dialogue that flesh out these ultra-complex, neurotic characters. These are very honestly-portrayed, very flawed people, and Marvin in particular is a self-involved, manipulative manchild until life finally forces him to grow up at the very end of the show. But we ultimately come to sympathize with these difficult people because we see reflections of ourselves in them. Their flaws are the flaws of real human beings, and their struggles and neuroses are depicted with an honesty that is very rare in the theater.
The show was also rather groundbreaking in its treatment of gay characters. Even by the time it finally came to Broadway, most gay-themed theater, and nearly all gay-themed musicals, were essentially pleas for tolerance (look at La Cage Aux Folles, for example). This was probably the first major Broadway musical that told a story where the main characters happened to be gay, but their being gay was not the primary subject matter of the show, which is always an important breakthrough in the portrayal of any minority.
In general, this is an extremely accomplished, almost Sondheim-level piece of sophisticated, adult musical theater, and it deserves all of the acclaim it has won. Given its seemingly esoteric subject matter, its complex post-Sondheim music, its unusual structure, its ultra-sophisticated sensibility, and the fact that it is, after all, a tiny show with only seven characters, you wouldn’t expect it to be the Broadway behemoth into which it has grown. But its humor and heart have made it surprisingly popular with mainstream theatergoers, and given the acclaim now being accorded to the recently opened revival of the show, I felt it was an appropriate time to pay tribute to one of the modern Broadway era’s greatest masterpieces.