When “Falsettos,” a comic, sung-through musical tracing the tribulations of a fractious band of New Yorkers — many of them gay — landed on Broadway back in 1992, it was a heady time for LGBT rights.
ACT UP was still in full-on warfare mode, desperately trying to draw attention to the shameful complacency surrounding AIDS (shockingly, the number one cause of death among US men ages 25-44). Bill Clinton, who would be elected president that November, was vowing to enact legislation allowing gays in the military – a goal he would, of course, fall spectacularly short of due to entrenched homophobia.
The very existence of “Falsettos” was an implied political statement. At a time when the LGBT community was being demonized, it was one of the precious few Broadway offerings showing that gay people can have just as tender and messy relationships as straight people. It also asserted that gay men dying of AIDS are deserving of compassion from the community around them. The piece ran for more than a year and won Tony Awards for Best Book (by William Finn and James Lapine, who also directed) and Best Original Score (also by Finn).
Now, nearly a quarter-century later, “Falsettos” is being revived in a slick, sensitive new Broadway production courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater. And while, understandably, the show has lost much of its urgency, it retains its ability to touch the heart. It also retains its chaotic quirks, with wild mood swings – jumping from jubilation to despair – that can be difficult to reconcile. Lapine is back at the helm.
“Falsettos” has always been a peculiar, patchy musical — a meshing of two Off-Broadway shows. Act I (set in 1979) is drawn from “The March of the Falsettos, which debuted in 1981, while Act II (set in 1981) is from “Falsettoland” that debuted a decade later. The titles of the musical numbers alone reflect a vast diversity, from “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” to “Making a Home,” “Days Like This I Almost Believe in God,” and “You Gotta Die Sometime.” Finn’s musical style remains full of verve and whimsy.
The impeccable cast works hard to smooth over the bumps. As Marvin, Christian Borle (fresh from his Tony Award-winning turn in “Something Rotten”) reveals undercurrents of warmth in an otherwise unlikable protagonist who has left his unsuspecting wife, Trina (Stephanie J. Block, in top form), and geeky, pre-teen son (Anthony Rosenthal) to be with a man. Whizzer, his immaculately groomed, self-absorbed new lover, deftly played by Andrew Rannells, exhibits a cocky allure that makes it easy to understand why Marvin upended his life.
Block literally stops the show with her tour-de-force number, “I’m Breaking Down,” where she realizes the terrible toll of Marvin’s betrayal. Here the balance of comedy and catastrophe is pitch perfect.
The plot gets tangled further when Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), Marvin’s insecure psychiatrist, falls for Trina and they, against all odds and ethics, become a couple. Later, this fraught, dysfunctional family is expanded by the addition of the sympathetic lesbians next door, Dr. Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe).
The ever-shifting family structure, it should be noted, is nicely echoed in David Rockwell’s abstract, versatile set featuring a variety of large, soft gray building blocks constantly being reconfigured.
Marvin and Whizzer have their ups and downs, and often find themselves sparring on the racquetball court or in the bedroom. It’s not until Whizzer gets sick that the potency of their love fully shines through. “Slap my face or hold me,” Marvin says toward the end.
The show, which clocks in at two hours and 40 minutes, hums along briskly enough, but could use some judicious trimming. The creepy, neon-accented fantasy dance routine, “March of the Falsettos,” feels sorely out of place. The book has its share of stereotypes that have not aged well — the nagging, New York Jewish psychiatrist, for example.
Not that a bouncy, quasi-operetta about cheating, divorce, and terminal illness spotlighting miserable neurotics is for everyone. But if you focus on the underlying spirit of love and acceptance, this “Falsettos” can warm even the most hardened critics.
Perhaps the contrast between the two iterations a quarter-century apart can be summed up by their respective Playbill covers. The current Playbill depicts a complex, heart-shaped diagram featuring arrows and cute, smiling faces. On the 1992 cover was a stark illustration by none other than Keith Haring – known as much for his AIDS activism as for his artwork and by then dead for two years – featuring three figures defiantly holding up a radiant red heart.
FALSETTOS | Lincoln Center Theater | Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. | Through Jan. 8: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $42-$189 at ltc.org | Two hrs., 40 mins., with intermission