Musicals You Must Listen To: The Work of William Finn
As I was sitting around trying to find some ideas about what to write in my next instalment for Aussie Theatre, I came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to write about something ‘new’ and exciting each week.
As I was sitting around trying to find some ideas about what to write in my next instalment for Aussie Theatre, I came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to write about something ‘new’ and exciting each week. Trying to find something that was first worthy to write about and something that was worthy to read while sitting with my iTunes playlist on shuffle, out popped this amazing tune from a composer who is so very under rated (in my opinion). He is not new to the musical theatre scene, nor has he had the blockbuster success of Wicked or Les Mis like some other composers. But he has written several hits, enjoyed several Tony Award nominations and two Tony wins. This man has an amazing body of work, some of which is known to many and some of which has possibly been forgotten… I am talking about the work of the one and only WILLIAM FINN (pictured).
Whilst a lot of his recent work is more familiar to most of us, in this instalment I’d like to focus on some of his earlier work before A New Brain and before 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I’d like to talk about his Marvin Trilogy, perhaps better known as his ‘Falsettoland Trilogy’. I know, I know a lot of you will already have heard of this work, but I’m going to strive every week to, at least, introduce some of you to new material and refresh the memories of the other readers as well. I thought this would be a great place to start. I was first introduced to the work of William Finn about 12 years ago now by Les Solomon, who suggested I expand my musical horizons past Les Mis and Phantom. He gave me one song: ‘What More Can I Say’, and so began my first foray into Falsettoland, and the world away from blockbuster musicals. William Finn, the musical genius, is known to be a very auto-biographical composer – focusing his work on up to date social and personal issues as well as adding a touch of controversy here and there. It is his raw truth of storytelling which makes his shows so compelling and so interesting to listen to and deconstruct as a performer. Past and present topics have included: Gay rights, gay and Jewish experiences in the modern world, family, belonging, death, HIV and other serious illness. These are all topics which many other storytellers tend to shy away from. The Falsettos Trilogy is a set of one act musicals revolves around the lives of Marvin (the character some speculate is based on Finn himself), his ex wife Trina, Marvin’s lover and life partner, Whizzer, his shrink, Mendel and his son Jason. The first instalment of the trilogy is named In Trousers, was first produced in 1979 with book, music and lyrics by William Finn. (The show was also directed by Finn). In this musical we are introduced to Marvin, an unnamed wife and his son, Jason. We go on the journey with Marvin as he remembers his High School years and the relationships he formed there. He tells stories of his high school love, we learn about Miss Goldberg, his English teacher, all before revealing to us that he is Gay. Unsure whether to follow his instincts or be the good Jewish boy he was raised to be, we follow Marvin as he strives to become himself. In 1985 after several rewrites the show returned to Off-Broadway to rave reviews but never transferred to Broadway. In 1981 came the second instalment entitled March of the Falsettos. Again, book music and lyrics by William Finn, but this time directed by James Lapine. Another one Act musical, this story picks up right where we left off and continues Marvin’s journey in seeking all the answers and the fairytale ‘Happy Ever After’ life. However Marvin wonders if such a thing ever exists. His family situation is very complicated being a very traditional Jewish family. Marvin is definitely feeling the pressure of his ‘less traditional’ lifestyle although life becomes a lot more complicated when his own shrink gets involved with his ex-wife Trina. At the end of this Act Marvin is still very unsettled in his own skin but he has at least managed to save his relationship with his son. Slightly more successful than In Trousers which initially only ran for 16 performances, March of the Falsettos opened May 20th, 1981 and ran for 4 months. Again not transferring to Broadway (in this format). The show transferred further off Broadway and ran for a further 268 performances. His final instalment of the Trio is Falsettoland written by William Finn (music and Lyrics) and James Lapine (book). Opening in 1990, this chapter sees Marvin preparing for Jason’s (his son) Bar mitzvah and also sees Marvin and his lover Whizzer trying to deal with Whizzer’s bizarre life-threatening and undiagnosed illness, which we as the audience are immediately recognizing as HIV/AIDS. By far the most emotionally charged, rollercoaster ride of the 3 instalments. The trilogy ends beautifully with the death of Whizzer, as Mendel wishes us, the audience, well and farewells us from the craziness of Falsettoland. It isn’t until 1992 that the musical series gets a shot on Broadway; presented as a two act musical, missing the first part of the Trilogy, In Trousers. March of the Falsettos (Act 1) and Falsettoland (Act 2) are joined together to form what is now known as Falsettos. Many people will be familiar with the work in this form, but plenty are missing out on the brilliance of In Trousers – the start of what turns out to be an incredible story. The show has been a huge success, winning 2 Tony Awards, for the best Book and Best Score as well as scoring multiple nominations from the Tony Awards and Drama Desk Awards. If you’re familiar with William Finn’s more recent work you will LOVE the music immediately. It is quintessential Finn; distinctive and a real pleasure to listen to and perform. Lyrically the show is very clever and extremely witty. There are definitely a few belly laugh moments, if not at least a few giggles, with songs like ‘4 Jews in a Room Bitching’ and ‘Marvin’s Giddy Seizures’. I’m absolutely positive you will all love this trilogy. For those new to the work of William Finn, do give it a chance. Finn is a composer whose music does grow on you – trust me! In my opinion sequels of musicals are rare and very seldom do they work or live up to expectations of the previous instalment. The ‘Falsettos Trilogy’ completely breaks the mold in the sequel department. It absolutely works and is a complete joy to watch and listen to from start to finish. I really hope you like this a lot.< /div> So until next time happy listening and keep smiling. I have some great ideas for my upcoming columns so keep an eye out for the next instalment. Cast Recordings:March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland are both available on ITunes however at this stage In Trousers is not. (It is available at Amazon.com) The March of the Falsettos (Original Cast Recording) – William Finn
Falsettoland (Original Off-Broadway Cast) – William Finn Male Songs to check out:What More Can I Say? – Falsettoland (Original Off-Broadway Cast) – is a great song for a guy and a great Audition Piece. Female Song to check out: Holding to the Ground – Falsettoland (Original Off-Broadway Cast) – is a strong song with a good chance to show off your belt.
Other works by William Finn:A New Brain 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee, Infinite Joy, Elegies – a song cycle, Make me a Song, Little Miss Sunshine (Currently In Production).