The heartbreaking revival of the William Finn–James Lapine musical Falsettos that opens tonight on Broadway comes, by chance, just a day after scientists reported in Nature that the longstanding popular narrative of AIDS in America is mistaken. A new analysis of decades-old blood samples, including some from the airline steward known as “Patient Zero,” shows that the infection arrived in New York long before he did, probably from multiple sources, including clotting factor for hemophiliacs. In other words, though 658,000 people (and counting) have died in the United States alone, there was no “Man Who Gave Us AIDS,” as the tabloids called the steward, Gaëtan Dugas. It was mostly our need for a monster that made him one. Have we outgrown the need?
I can’t help asking that question, through tears, after seeing this revival of Falsettos, which implicitly asks it too. A revival today could hardly avoid doing so because Falsettos is, among other things, about the moment when AIDS switched the focus of the gay movement, and theater that took up its themes, from a tradition of looking narrowly inward to a new way of looking angrily out. Act One (originally produced as March of the Falsettos, in 1981) is set in 1979, when the gay agenda, to the extent there was one, largely concerned itself with personal liberty. The musical explores this through the domestic ménage of a self-involved 30-something Jew named Marvin, who as the action begins has divorced his wife, Trina, left their 10-year-old son, Jason, and taken up with Whizzer, a non-monogamous pretty boy who refuses to be tamed. This closet-crashing narrative might have been uplifting in the traditional manner of early gay-lib material if Finn and Lapine weren’t so determined to upend that kind of piety by making Marvin such an entitled asshole. “I want it all,” he tells his shrink, Mendel, who while counseling Trina through Marvin’s departure falls in love with her. This was not part of Marvin’s plan, nor was the decision to end things with Whizzer. Even so, by intermission, he has achieved some form of what he wanted: sexual freedom (even if mostly unexploited) and “a tight-knit family” despite its unorthodox composition.
But Act Two (originally produced as Falsettoland, in 1990) is set a crucial two years later. It’s now 1981, and as Marvin and Whizzer's new neighbor Dr. Charlotte puts it, “Something bad is happening.” (The first news report of what would later be called AIDS appeared in the Times that July.) At first this “something bad” seems disconnected from the main action, in which Marvin, having taken up again with Whizzer, learns to be a better partner, while Jason attempts to navigate the amusing shoals of his hormonal Bar Mitzvah year. But the generally comic and peppy tone of the material turns vastly darker and more elegiac as Whizzer falls ill, reconfiguring once again the characters around him. This may seem like small potatoes. But if Whizzer, Marvin, Trina, Mendel, Jason, Dr. Charlotte, and her lover, Cordelia, are a “teeny tiny band” who “live and die fortissimo,” in another way, they are representatives of a much larger phenomenon of loss that would soon reach the whole country, and world.
Together, the two halves of Falsettos (which debuted on Broadway in 1992) work as a hinge, opening a door beyond the smallish dramas of individual accommodation that had characterized so many pre-AIDS gay stories. This show is the opposite of those, with their special pleading; like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, but less violently, it almost dares you to love it and its gay men despite their constant obnoxiousness. The dare isn’t idle, either: The level of selfishness among the characters, mitigated only slightly by their cute Jewishness, is dauntingly high. The shrink not only sleeps with but marries his patient. The kid calls his father a prick. At one point, Marvin even hits Trina, whom he has already infected with syphilis and hepatitis.
Finn’s songs work in much the same way, so subverting the norms of Golden Age ingratiation and lyrical etiquette that I sometimes find myself gasping at their relentless opportunism. (Finn grabs at a rhyme as if it were the last canapé on a tray.) Because the book, by Lapine and Finn, is more of an armature than a text — the show is almost completely sung — much of the backstory and character motivation is left at the mercy of Finn’s zigzag lyrics; if “hepatitis” did not rhyme, sort of, with “excite us,” would Trina have it? But this apparent randomness turns out to be dramatically apt for a show about the accidental collisions that shape both individuals and societies. If, after 24 years, I still don’t understand what the male characters mean when they describe themselves, in the show’s first lines, as “four Jews in a room” who “plot a crime” — there’s no crime — well, do we ever understand what people mean? Finn isn’t a pinner-downer, he’s a mixer-upper; he shakes the soda cans and lets them spritz and effervesce.
So when the men sing “March of the Falsettos” in Day-Glo outfits, apropos of nothing, you are forced to investigate its relevance for yourself. (I think Finn and Lapine use the notion of falsetto to represent new ideals of maleness informed by feminism and gay liberation — but your mileage may vary.) In any case, as the show advances toward its almost unbearably moving conclusion, the manic jokiness and indirection of the earlier material give way to plainer, sadder language, lyrically and musically. The effect is paradoxical, shining a beam on the characters’ specific pain while also broadening out to include them in a world of it. It’s hard to get through the last half hour intact, but then it was hard to get through the ’80s, too. Falsettos is ultimately liberating though, perhaps in the way AIDS liberated the gay movement from its adolescent solipsism: It does not allow us to look at people as monsters, but doesn’t let us see saints, either.
If this Lincoln Center Theater production, directed (like all the earlier New York incarnations) by Lapine, has any serious faults, they arise from that agenda. As written, Marvin is so nasty and erratic in the first act that the plot, which depends on so many people wanting his love, won’t turn. Christian Borle can’t resolve that contradiction and thus comes off a bit unsteady, at least until he regains his footing in the second act. The other principals, whose roles are more tightly written, are excellent throughout: Andrew Rannells delivering a super-high-gloss Whizzer without reducing him to a boy toy; Stephanie J. Block deftly coloring in Trina’s insecurity (and stopping the show with “I’m Breaking Down”); Brandon Uranowitz offering an unusually sexy Mendel; and Anthony Rosenthal making a crazy-confident Broadway debut as a sweet-but-not-too-sweet Jason. (In the second half, Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe are lovely as “the lesbians from next door.”) As for the negative buzz about David Rockwell’s scenic design, which builds on the reconfigurable, multicomponent playground equipment his architecture firm designed for real-world use, I found it more than apt metaphorically, even at the expense of some excessive grayness. (Even that became powerful, at the end.) Similarly, the gesture-based choreography of Spencer Liff proved more illuminating than odd, in a tight race.
But you don’t go to Falsettos for the décor and dancing. You go because it reminds you that the world can change — and how, at great cost, it once did.
Falsettos is at the Walter Kerr Theatre through January 8.