William Finn has drunk his tea, removed his socks and stretched out on his couch to answer calmly all manner of questions about his life and career. Based on past articles about him, the clenched, frazzled speeches he gave in accepting two Tony awards for his musical Falsettos, and mostly on the variety of neuroses he’s attributed to the characters in his musicals, one expects a discussion with Finn to reveal a generous measure of angst. True, he launches the conversation by mentioning his therapy, and his leaps of logic sometimes take a moment to follow, but in general a meeting with Finn belies whatever image he’s developed as the leading neurotic of the American musical theatre.Order now
The composer/playwright is now enjoying the success, on Broadway and elsewhere, of Falsettos, for which he wrote the music, lyrics and (with James Lapine) book. The critically praised Broadway production, directed by Lapine, unites March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, Finn’s two inventive one-acts that debuted nine years apart at New York’s Playwrights Horizons and were first paired in a 1991 Hartford Stage Company production. The conflated Falsettos opens March 13 at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre and will tour the country starting next month.
A different kind of family
Marvin, the character at the center of Falsettos, is a distinctive and complex figure. At the outset, he has left his wife to begin a relationship with a man, Whizzer, and is struggling to unite those who surround him–his son, lover, wife and friends–into a “tight-knit family.” Marvin starts out as a man wrapped up in the problems of his own little world but grows and deepens as he is confronted with difficult realities. In fact, there’s more to the Marvin phenomenon than Falsettos reveals–it was an earlier musical, a dense, weird inspired piece called In Trousers, that introduced both Marvin and Finn to New York audiences in 1978.
Though Finn’s infatuation with theatre had begun long before, during his childhood years in Natick, Mass., a suburb of Boston, he did not complete his first musical until college. “I didn’t think the sort of music I was writing or was interested in was theatre music,” Finn remembers. “I was writing sort of folky, rocky music. That was the sort that interested me–Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, eventually Randy Newman.”
On the heels of such early efforts at Williams College as Sizzle (“a musical account of the Rosenbergs, Ethel and Julius”) and Scrambled Eggs, set in a whorehouse, Finn was commissioned to write a musical at the University of Rhode Island. He called it Scrambled Eggs II, and it was a disaster. “As I was writing it, it seemed very charming,” he says. “I’m sure it was dark and miserable, as I was in those days.”
After a year of studying music at the University of California at Berkeley, Finn moved to New York in 1976. Working with singers Alison Fraser, Mary Testa and Kay Pesak and writer Adam LeFevre, Finn developed Jocks, a musical “about some athletes in Ohio.” The collaborators staged the show in Finn’s apartment.
“Jocks was the first show we put on,” Finn recalls. “We’d get 150 people into this tiny little apartment. People would be sitting everywhere, and it always turned out to be the hottest day of the year. I’d pass out Handiwipes so people could wipe themselves and cool off. It was a lot of fun.”
Andre Bishop, who was at the time literary manager of Playwrights Horizons, was one of the people who squeezed into Finn’s home to hear Jocks. Ira Weitzman, the director of Playwrights’ newly developed musical theatre program, represented the theatre at the composer’s next apartment musical, In Trousers.
“I just remember flipping out. I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck,” Weitzman says today. “There was something so entertaining and yet sophisticated and adult and interesting and neurotic and gutsy about it. I just went right up to Bill Finn at the end and said, ‘Please come work at Playwrights Horizons.'”
“I knew I had struck some pay dirt,” Finn remembers. Still, the apartment version of In Trousers seems to have created some confusion. At least one seasoned observer thought the show was about an autistic child.
“Yeah, because of the opening number” Weitzman explains. “You hear the lyrics, ‘Marvin is a boy who has giddy seizures.’ What are you supposed to think? Billy was writing in emotional code. He has his own sense of metaphor. You think it’s about an autistic kid, but it was about a kid whose prepubescent emotions were going wild.”
In Trousers was first presented at Playwrights as a late night cabaret with Finn himself directing and playing Marvin; Fraser, Testa and Joanne Green played the ladies in Marvin’s life. A full production debuted on Playwrights’ main stage in February 1979 with Chip Zien replacing Finn as Marvin.
During the course of In Trousers, Marvin eats breakfast, has his first sexual experience with a man, has another sexual encounter (this time with his female teacher), gives a report on Christopher Columbus and takes a shower. The musical is almost entirely sung and was staged abstractly. Considering the other musicals running in New York at that time (Ain’t Misbehavin’, On the Twentieth Century, They’re Playing Our Song), In Trousers seems like a great leap forward in musical theatre subject matter and style.
“I thought I was breaking absolutely new ground,” Finn now claims. “I believed the way I was writing and what I was writing about was new to the theatre.” But didn’t he experience any hesitation writing about matters of such a private and sexual nature?
Flat like a bad idea
“When I wrote ‘Whizzer Going Down’ the first theatre song about a blow job that I know of–I thought I might have been losing some of my audience. But I found it very liberating. You write those words very carefully. When I wrote, ‘He’s on his knees I’m lying flat just like a bad idea,’ I thought it was one of the funniest things. Once you can write about blow jobs, you can write about anything.”
Weitzman’s memory of Finn from the days of putting together In Trousers confirms that the songwriter’s personality was at one time much less calm than that of the relaxed composer on the couch. “He was at once the Wild Man of Borneo and this amazing magnet that you were drawn to,” Weitzman observes.
If Finn has changed, so has his long-term hero. It’s more than likely that the three Marvin musicals reflect the personal development of their creator during the 14 years since the character first emerged. In Trousers is all subtext, emotion, unleashed energy, and March of the Falsettos (which first teamed the composer with writer Lapine) continues to rely on stream of consciousness in character and action; but in the latter musical, Marvin first begins to see a world that exists beyond his own obsessions. Falsettoland is the most mature work of the three, equally bold and imaginative, but more subdued, relying on a core of solidly structured songs and a central character who has had to grow from a giddy 14-year-old to an adult whose life has been tempered by experience and loss.