William Finn—known to those close to him as Bill—is a creative giant.
Finn burst on the Off-Broadway musical theater stage in 1981, with “March of the Falsettos,” an exploration of the connections and losses the American family, in all its meanings, faced from AIDS. Critics and aficionados immediately drew comparisons to Stephen Sondheim. He followed “March” with a prequel, “In Trousers,” in 1987, and, in 1990, a sequel, “Falsettoland.” The second and third part of this AIDS trilogy were combined in “Falsettos,” a 1992 Broadway entry that won two Tonys—one for Finn’s music and lyrics, the other for the book he wrote with James Lapine.
Among Finn’s other noteworthy efforts are “A New Brain” staged in 1998 with a cast that included Kristin Chenoweth, and based on his own life-threatening brush with a brain illness, and “Elegies,” a heart-rending song cycle of mourning produced in 2003, with an ensemble that included Betty Buckley.
But I first heard Bill Finn’s songs years before his Off-Broadway success and later on Broadway, riding in the back of a pick-up truck bouncing over the mountains of upstate New York in the summer of 1974. I fell in love with everything about him, but I clung to his words and music and have returned to them often. Bill Finn writes about people who go through life remaining outsiders to one degree or another. Those who are misunderstood, those who might be clumsy and surely those who are gay will find themselves in his work.
His plays moaned and expressed yearning not previously found on stage—women in love with men who were not available because they were gay; men trying to discover their sexuality behind closed doors; parents unable to fathom the depths of emotion that bubbled up beneath the surface of their offspring. All these stories were told in minor and major keys that vibrated my very core.
Finn is back on the New York stage at Circle in the Square Theatre with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” for which he wrote the music and lyrics, with the book by Rachel Sheinkin and Lapine directing. When I recently traveled up to his apartment, where he works, on West 98th Street, Finn allowed me to revel in my memories. Sitting on the world’s most uncomfortable chair, I listened as he played from “Elegies,” including the song he believes is his best—“Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving,” the story of a gathering of gay men who come together to give thanks but also to mourn the dwindling of their tribe due to AIDS.
The song is a simple paean to love gained and lost. It tells of pies baked, eaten, but not forgotten. Finn allowed me to see how he fell in love with Arthur Salvadore, with whom he has been a partner for more than two decades. “The most handsome man who wore a tie,” is how Finn describes Salvadore, with whom he walked home after their first dinner and with whom he’s been walking ever since. “When he smiles he makes my heart flutter,” is the lyric that wound around me and made me cry, just as surely as if I had stepped on glass.
That was a common reaction that I’ve had to all of Finn’s music—from “In Trousers” to “Falsettos” to “The New Brain” and now this. I wondered out loud how his music so often elicits this emotional response in his audience and Finn responded, “ What I write is so specific that it transcends. If you make it specific enough, you make it universal. I hope my songs become like stories around a campfire, ones where we can all see ourselves. I write story songs.”
Bill Finn has always been clear about his gift and his direction and he has pursued his goals with vigor.
“I am very specifically good at one thing and it has made my life easier,” he told me. “I didn’t do all the fun things of looking at career choices. I wrote three shows while I was at Williams College. I thought I was a slug, a ne’er-do-well but I was wrong, I was a very determined person. I chose to individualize myself out of the pack by what I wrote.”
Finn knew from the time he was in college hat he was gay but he it wasn’t easy for him to talk about it, but he was able to integrate his sexuality into his work from the start.
“I was uncomfortable talking about blow jobs, but I could write about blow jobs,” he said. “I was gay but I was never flamboyant. I was who I am now—always.”
Finn is not known as a specifically gay writer and according to him he has never been fully embraced by the gay community even though his productions are filled with wonderfully layered, intriguing gay characters.
“I write what I write,” Finn explained. “A lot of gay people love my stuff.”
“The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee”—which some would say returns to the theme of outsider status, in this case with six adolescent overachievers—began its Broadway run on May 2 after sold-out runs at the Second Stage on West 43rd Street and at the Barrington Stage Company in Sheffield, Massachusetts. But Finn sees the show differently that many familiar with his body of work might.
“Delicious, a real lovely thing that people seem to love,” he said. “I have always written about outsiders and this is the first place where these kids feel normal, not like freaks. Also it is about words so that is fun.”
It is impossible to watch “Spelling Bee” without smiling and remembering all the other magical Bill Finn moments from the last few decades. His work celebrates all of us and cannot help but move us from guffaws to giggles to groans—along with the tears.
Bill Finn is a consummate storyteller, for all seasons of the stage.
“25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is at Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway, at 50th Street. Performances are Tuesday to Saturday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday & Saturday, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 3 & 7:30 pm. Tickets are $95 at 212-239-6200.