Theater Review: William Finn Reveals A New Brain

Photo: Joan Marcus

A New Brain, the killer musical about a songwriter facing a life-threatening brain condition, could only have been written by William Finn. For one thing, it’s highly autobiographical. When Finn accepted his two Tony awards for Falsettos in 1992, he was already suffering from what he’d been told was an inoperable brain tumor. (“From the rear, I look like I’m walking on a sailboat,” he said of his trips to the podium.) The musical itself began during his recovery, when James Lapine, his Falsettos book writer, insisted that he make notes about what he was experiencing. After the success of surgery to correct what turned out to be not a tumor but an arteriovenous malformation (not many musicals use that phrase), those notes organized themselves into songs that explored the unexpected gift of survival and the problem of creativity. Originally performed in revue format, the songs eventually became the basis of the more ambitious and nearly sung-through work, with a book by Lapine, that Lincoln Center Theatre produced in 1998 and that Encores! Off-Center is reviving this week.

To emphasize the themes, Finn and Lapine changed the Finn character from an established success — Finn turned 40 in 1992 — to an ambitious newbie named Gordon Schwinn. Though filled with bigger things to say (“I don’t have time to write my real stuff / But I feel stuff”), Schwinn is stuck cranking out ditties about frogs and spring for a maniacal children’s TV character named Mr. Bungee. It will surprise no fan of Finn that Schwinn is accoutered with a super-manly paragon of a boyfriend, a protective but borderline-crazy mother, and a female best friend still semi-in-love with him and resigned to her fate. These three watch, variously helpless, defiant, and hysterical, as Gordon undergoes hospital procedures including an MRI and a craniotomy, each of which gets its own song. (At one point, there is a stumblebum dance of the brain-dead.) The cast is filled out with various nurses and doctors, Schwinn’s reprobate dad, and an oracular bag lady with a big voice.

That bag lady is another reason A New Brain could only be written by Finn: She’s a groaner of a cliché, wedged into the story largely in order to make room for some rip-roaring songs. And though some people near me at City Center last night whispered admiringly about the material’s Sondheim-esque qualities, Finn is more of an anti-Sondheim, except perhaps for the whiff of neurotic intelligence off-gassed by the complicated thought patterns of his characters. But understatement is not Finn’s gift, nor formal discipline, especially in the lyrics; he never saw a rhyme he wouldn’t hitch a ride with. (“Damn these books. / So much flotsam. / I could plotz, am / I distressed?”) Finn is not just indulgent, but a kind of patron saint of indulgences: He valorizes the vulgar and deliberately violative, and turns that into an aesthetic.

When the aesthetic matches the material he’s hugely successful: I’m a big fan of the Falsettos musicals and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, both of which have an immediate this-is-happening-now quality. (It’s less successful in historical or more tightly plotted stories, like the ones in Romance in Hard Times and the recent Little Miss Sunshine.) With its existential questions and probing narrative, A New Brain would seem to fall in the latter category, and indeed, it suffers a bit from an unwillingness to prune away some of its revue-form roots: There are too many songs and, especially, too many wrap-it-up songs at the end. But the miracle is that the show is nevertheless terribly moving, making excellent use of what can, in other contexts, be Finn’s least successful tics. His dittyishness works well for the Mr. Bungee material, and his musical structures, which are sometimes monotonous elsewhere, effectively dramatize the obsessive thinking of a man trapped in a hospital room and in his life. It’s a brilliant Finnian moment when the repeated beep of a hospital monitor, so familiar from medical soap operas, becomes the accompaniment for one of his most joyous songs, “Heart and Music,” as plain an expression of Finn’s philosophy as he has ever written.

If that song, and many others, seem even more moving now than in 1998, perhaps that’s because those of us who saw it at Lincoln Center are now 17 years older. Back then, it was hard not to see the show’s focus on brain disease as a stand-in for AIDS, which was no metaphor; now it emerges more clearly as a stand-in for mortality in general, and the responsibility we have to use ourselves fully in the meantime. (With AIDS, even by 1998, it did not feel like there was a “meantime.”) The authors have also fiddled with the material, sharpening and tightening it significantly. Gordon’s first collapse, originally over a restaurant dinner of calamari, now takes place at the piano as he tries to write a song about spring for Mr. Bungee — a much apter expression of the artistic dilemma he must work through in the next 100 minutes.

And then there is the production, directed swiftly and simply by Lapine and cast nearly to perfection. Jonathan Groff, playing against type as Gordon, is such a naturally sympathetic performer that even the character’s most off-putting qualities do not put you off. (Malcolm Gets, the original Gordon, was colder and angrier, also appropriate, but not very inviting.) And though Groff and other members of the cast had noticeable intonation problems on opening night, perhaps the result of difficulties hearing the six-piece orchestra, his singing is exceptionally connected to his emotions; it’s a beautiful performance. (The original orchestrations, by Michael Starobin, and vocal arrangements, by Jason Robert Brown and Ted Sperling, make a small ensemble sound very rich.) Other vocal standouts include Ana Gasteyer as Gordon’s mother, rock solid as a woman all but falling apart, and Rema Webb as the bag lady, belting those extraneous songs.

And yet even that character is eventually woven back into the story, so that Finn’s discursive style adds up instead of subtracts. Health, and for that matter the right to express one’s feelings through talent, is (she reminds us) a privilege and an accident when most of life is “a trashy old catastrophe” in which “things don’t get better.” What makes A New Brain so satisfying, and this production of it so revelatory, is that its almost relentless humor and cynicism are used to promote a very serious and often sad inquiry into key human questions. What do we make of our time here? What do we make of our abilities? Finn’s answer is the obvious one, but no less generous for that. If your brain is wired for it, you make music.

A New Brain is at City Center through June 27.

Theater Review: William Finn’s New Brain