Written by Erik Piepenburg
It’s a fanciful word — rooted in the Italian falso, or false — that describes what happens when a vocalist, usually a man, sings notes higher than his normal range. A smooth falsetto can make the heart soar and swoon. Just ask Frankie Valli or Justin Timberlake.
That same ascendant spirit comes to life on stage in the musical “Falsettos.” Written by two Tony Award winners — William Finn (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) — “Falsettos” is a heartfelt and thought-provoking show about a modern family as they try to figure out where they stand in a complicated world. Finn says the title was inspired by people who exist “outside the normal range,” like the falsetto itself.
“The show is funny and emotional at the same time, which is the sort of stuff I like to write,” said Finn.
Set in the 1980s, “Falsettos” tells the story of Marvin, who comes out as gay and leaves his wife Trina for Whizzer, a younger man, much to the chagrin of Jason, Marvin and Trina’s 12-year-old son. Also within this extended family circle are Mendel, Trina’s new husband, and Whizzer’s doctor Charlotte and her lover, Cordelia. It’s an unconventional tribe.
“It’s about a family and a husband and wife, and that’s about as small and regular and normal everyday life as we can get,” said the producer Jordan Roth. “But then it’s about these enormous ideas that sit above that, like what it is to be a family, to be human, to love, to parent, to connect with another person.”
The show is actually a combination of two one-act musicals, “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland,” that Finn and Lapine wrote in the early 1980s. Both premiered at Playwrights Horizons, an Off Broadway theater, and together opened on Broadway in 1992 as “Falsettos.” The show was a hit, winning Tony Awards for best score and best book.
In 2016, a new production of “Falsettos” received glowing reviews and five Tony nominations when it returned to Broadway. The New York Times called it an “exhilarating, devastating revival” that surges “with such vitality that it feels as fresh and startling as it did back in 1992.”
“Its fundamental subject,” said the review, “is that mysterious, maddening, uplifting, life-complicating emotion we refer to as love, which hasn’t changed in 25 years.”
For Finn, those words were thrilling to read.
“The New York Times said it was a perfect version of a perfect musical and that was surprising,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t know it was perfect. I was thrilled to find out it was.”
Now on tour across the country, the “Falsettos” revival is most notable for its timeless message. The songs convey “what people’s hearts sound like,” as Roth put it. The characters “are literally singing their souls and their every thought, and not just their really big thoughts as often is the case in musicals,” he said.
Lapine, who directed both the original and the new revival, said mounting the show was a shot in the dark, not because it wasn’t worthy of being revisited, but because among the difficult topics it explores is the AIDS epidemic in its early days. The original production opened on Broadway as the crisis hit New York City especially hard.
“It was very touching for all of us, particularly a lot of people in the theater who knew people who were struck by the disease and lost friends,” remembers Lapine. “It became a very emotional experience when it opened.”
Any trepidation over the decision to bring “Falsettos” back was erased the night of the revival’s first performance on Broadway.
“People who had seen it the first time came back to see it,” he said. “People who have since had children and families of their own brought their families back to see it. A whole younger generation who grew up listing to the cast albums, putting it on at colleges and schools, came to see it. The reception was well beyond anything any of us expected. It was a kind of welcoming home.”
The diversity expressed in the show – of family, identity and sexuality — is something every audience member can relate to. There are characters who look familiar and characters who don’t. Every song has a universal quality that will resonate for audiences no matter where they live or what their beliefs are.
“When we put on shows in New York there are many tourists and people from out of town and out of the country,” says Lapine. “It’s a different experience when you’re in your own town seeing a show. I think it will be very powerful for people to see this in cities across the country.”
At a time when our country is polarized by political identity and cultural affinities, the promise of “Falsettos” and its message of hope and love is that it will touch hearts beyond Broadway.
“Theater is a way in for all of us,” said Lapine. “We get to spend a little bit of time coming to know someone in that very personal way that only theater reveals. That’s how we change hearts and minds: change hearts first.”