March of the Falsettos
Playwrights Horizons

March of the Falsettos is the sequel to William Finn's In Trousers, which originated at Playwrights Horizons and was recently revived by the Second Stage. Whereas In Trousers was somewhat reluctant to announce itself as a musical about a married man who discovers he's gay and bids goodbye to the women in his life, Falsettos directly confronts the emotional issues involved by bringing on all the concerned parties: our hero Marvin, his wife, his son, his lover, and his shrink. The result is a fast-paced, strongly Sondheimian "soap operetta" whose only peer among current musicals is Marry Me a Little, another modest, intermissionless show that tells its story through song instead of dialogue.

Falsettos has its faults, but they exist on a plane where you would never think of discussing such mindless hackwork as Woman of the Year or Annie. Finn's Marvin musicals are more than mere entertainment, more that pleasant distractions; they aim to engage the intellect with intricately crafted music and a libretto that addresses real life instead of make-believe, that treats romance realistically and unembarrassedly rather than sweetening and simplifying it for consumption by imbeciles. The 20 songs that make up Falsettos aren't conventional verse-chorus-verse compositions but subtle conversational numbers through-composed, beautifully interwoven and gorgeously arranged for a lavish (by OOB standards) seven-piece orchestra. Like any work that attempts to tread new ground, it doesn't imprint itself on the brain at first hearing; but what the score lacks in variation and hummable tunes, it makes up in the moment-by-moment unexpectedness that defines good theater.

Almost everything about the undertaking is decidedly brave. Finn assembles five credible, startlingly unstereotyped characters: a woman who chooses to be a full-time homemaker yet is not presented as dull nor ridiculed for her choice; a kid who is wise beyond his years but still has a child's needs; a shrink who oozes both jargon and compassion;  a gay male couple who meet each other as equals and exhibit none of the mannerisms familiar to stage faggots. The author then has them sing with treacherous relentlessness about love and psychology without becoming boring or predictable and without lapsing into what prudes call "special pleading." There are no blanket conclusions such as "marriage sucks" or "gay relationships are superior"; Marvin is clearly a self-centered, confused prick whether he's with a man or a woman. And in the most poignant song, Marvin's ex-wife and shrink (who have rather contrivedly fallen in love and decided to marry) extol the pleasures of "Making a Home" while Marvin's lover Whizzer packs sadly to leave -- an untrendy but truthful acknowledgement that it's attractively easy to play society's traditional sex roles and depressingly tough, if not futile, to attempt redefining them.

The characters' cartoony humor and emotional verisimilitude are so refreshing that it's disappointing when a song trails off into vagueness or triteness, as on Whizzer's solo "The Games I Play" and "Trina's Song"; more character development wouldn't hurt. The pay's psychoanalytic orientation produces an occasional glut of words, which leads to an overreliance on sub-melodic themes rather than real tunes. Playwrights Horizons' bare-bones production obviously -- and wisely -- poured its money into terrific musicians and singers (unmiked!). Although James Lapine has done a wizardly job of staging a demanding show, his direction falters whenever a number requires production values, such as "March of the Falsettos" or "Jason's Therapy." Still, these are tiny quibbles. Falsettos exemplifies the kind of "pocket musicals" Stephen Sondheim used to dream about. I wish there were 10 composers writing two of these a year, but obviously the talent is much more rare; Finn seems to be the only one doing it, and his achievements thus far rank him among the most exciting (never mind most promising) composers in the musical theater.

The title song, incidentally, pinpoints what March of the Falsettos is really about. The four men, wearing see-through business suits over their street clothes, clomp around trilling in high voices a song about how it takes a real man to do what they're doing. The march of the falsettos is a metaphor for daring to expose -- at the risk of seeming castrated or effeminate or in some way less than manly -- the little-boy emotions lurking beneath the sturdy veneer of Man. What I most admire about Finn's work is how he narrowly avoids sentimentality and corniness in his earnest insistence on exploring men's feelings, whether romantic, (homo)sexual or -- as in the case of Falsettos' surprisingly tender finale -- parental.

Soho News, April 15, 1981