Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: FALSETTOS
Okay, this week, I only have to throw out two CDs, but it hurts!
I'll never forget May 31, 1992--the 46th Annual Tony Awards. I had just turned 16 and was eagerly tuning in to absorb the Broadway of it all. I didn't really know much about any of the shows, other than that friends and family in New York had flipped for Guys And Dolls and that my parents had loved an earlier incarnation of Jelly's Last Jam when it played the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Glenn Close was hosting and Patti LuPone was presenting and I was not moving from my seat on the couch until I had a ranked list of the shows I wanted to see when I got to New York to visit my grandparents for Thanksgiving.
By the time Glenn introduced the third Best Musical nominee ("Set in the early 1980s, Falsettos is a funny and moving exploration of life, love, sex and the other unscheduled events that touch our lives.)" I was overdue for a bathroom break. It's a good thing I stayed seated, or my whole life might have taken a different course.
Looking back, I want to say I immediately knew this show was for me from the first "Welcome To Falsettoland" lyric in the medley performed at the Tonys, "Homosexuals," but rewatching the clip, I realize that they changed it to "Screwy families" to make the show more mainstream palatable on the Tonys. Same thing with "spiky lesbians" becoming "spiky families." But when the camera zooms in on handsome Michael Rupert and Stephen Bogardus turning toward each other and singing, "Pretty boys are in demand," the clip lives up to my memory. This was no small deal in 1992, although Falsettos proved to be in one a slew of "gay plays" that popped up on Broadway over the next few years and changing the previously heteronormative landscape.
More than being for me, the next bit of the medley proved to me Falsettos was about me when 11-year-old Tony nominee Jonathan Kaplan took the stage singing:
My father's a homo.
My mother's not thrilled at all.
Father homo--what about chromosomes?
Do they carry? Will they carry?
Who's the homo now?
This was major. My life story, as I later documented in my solo play Patti Issues (playing Green Room 42 in New York March 6 and Casita Del Campo in Los Angeles March 26) began with my father coming out of the closet when I was 9. I had never seen this reflected in any art or entertainment prior to Falsettos. I was blown away.
The saga got more epic when the medley concluded with the whole cast performing "The Baseball Game" featuring the immortal lyric "We're sitting and watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball." The audience roared with laughter, on TV and on my couch.
This self-deprecating, knowingly neurotic kind of humor was at its peak with "Seinfeld," but it felt completely new in a musical. In my mind, musical theater suddenly took on a new relevance to the entire generation of kids I'd gone to camp with, gone to Hebrew School with, seen "Phantom" and "Les Miz" with. Shows and songs didn't have to take place in Paris hundreds of years ago, they could be about us--and not least of all me (with the weird gay father), but most of all me. Of course! This made total sense. Musicals should be about me!
I rushed out to get the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Falsettos. Only problem: it doesn't exist. I learned that Falsettos is the combination of two earlier one act musicals that had played Off-Broadway (March Of The Falsettos and Falsettoland, in 1981 and 1990, respectively), which fortunately were available. Some rewrites were made to the one-acts for the Broadway combination and there was no true Falsettos cast recording until the recent revival. So for decades, the Off Broadway recordings were all we had. The three male leads are the same on both albums as well as in the original 1992 Broadway cast, so it was sortakinda like having a proper cast recording. Furthermore, Michael Rupert as Marvin, Stephen Bogardus as Whizzer and Chip Zien as Mendel are all wonderful.
Michael Rupert is one the most distinctive male voices in musical theater, a singular hybrid of Anthony Newley's theatricality and Chet Baker's smoothness. He's done a ton of work over the more than five decades (!) since he was nominated for his first Tony for Kander and Ebb's 1968 musical The Happy Time. But he's never been better than he was in Falsettos and there will probably never be a better voice for this hard to love, harder to leave anti-hero who breaks up his family and then makes it worse by being an unbearable narcissist, only redeeming himself in the face of horrendous grief. The challenge of this role has attracted such heavyhitters as Mandy Patinkin, who replaced Rupert in the Broadway run, and Christian Borle, who was nominated for a Tony for the revival, but Rupert is in a class by himself. That said, Tony nominee and Broadway favorite Max von Essen is currently starring as Marvin in the National Tour (of the recent revival) and I'm dying to hear him wrap his luscious tones around the soaring melodies of "What Would I Do?" and "Unlikely Lovers."
If you're looking for luscious tones, you needn't look farther than Stephen Bogardus as Whizzer on the original recordings. Bogardus made his Broadway debut understudying Tony in the 1980 revival of West Side Story and that's what he serves up in Falsettos, high notes worthy of Leonard Bernstein. That's the mold the part has been cast in for the most part over the years, tall, handsome matinee idols types with glorious voices. However, the revival bent that just a bit casting Andrew Rannells, who is tall and handsome and certainly sings his face off, but is even more prominently a hilarious comedian, and for me this made the part. Perhaps it's a testament to our more liberated era, that gay men on stage don't have to be just nice and sweet, but can show some teeth that James Lapine and the producers felt comfortable letting Rannells's Whizzer have attitude, "throw shade" as the kids say. The almost wooden quality of Whizzers past flew out the window with Andrew making him funny and relatable. One particular little tidbit I'm obsessed with is after Trina sings, "He explains I've hepatitis too," and the other characters repeat "Hepatitis, hepatitis." It has always played like just a William Finn musical echo, a little flourish in the vocal arrangement, but Andrew Rannells made an acting choice that yielded comedy gold, by emphasizing the line as if there were italics on the first hepatitis, like to say "You mean THAT hepatitis?" It's brilliant, a delightful and pointed break in Whizzer's otherwise blasé exterior at this point in the show. These little things add up and by the time Rannells sings Whizzer's big Act One song, "The Games I Play," the song has new meaning as the expression of someone we've actually gotten to know.
The original Mendel was none other than the truly iconic Chip Zien. This guy was the original Baker in Into The Woods on Broadway, on the album and on the video we all know by heart. He was the voice of Howard the Duck for crying out loud. If you were born after 1968 and you like musicals (or if you're just weird), then Chip is your guy. He actually played Marvin in William Finn's earlier musical In Trousers (kind of an impressionist prequel to Falsettos) and maybe they felt he was too strange for the leading man, switching him to Mendel for March Of The Falsettos and everything onward. His billing's loss is our gain as no one could ever bring the warmth and wisdom and sheer humanity to the role that Chip does. The genius of him having played Howard The Duck is that Chip's voice is so sympathetic and personable. Every word he speaks conveys a thought we can share. That he is able to extend this into his singing voice is all the more impressive. It's why his Baker was such an effective anchor for Into The Woods and it makes Mendel the anchor Trina and Jason in Falsettos need to create their new family.
I can't believe how far I am into this piece without yet mentioning the women who have played Trina. It's a large group and their saga is somewhat complex due to the jagged production history of Falsettos. That said, the only thing you really need to know is Alison Fraser. Alison Fraser was nominated for Tony Awards for her performances in Romance, Romance and The Secret Garden and has delighted audiences for decades in a robust complement of both musicals and plays including her chilling turn in last season's Squeamish, for which she was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle Solo Performance Award.
She was the very first to sing Trina in Falsettos, going back to March Of The Falsettos, In Trousers and, legendarily, many times back in the 70s when she and Mary Testa would clean up Bill Finn's apartment, set out snacks and drinks and showcase his emergent new material. Cause ya got to have friends.
Alison was the first to sing Trina and she may as well have been the last. No one sings it like her and no one ever will. The original vocal score of Falsettos was littered with penciled in "alternate notes" for Trinas who weren't Alison because hers is a freak voice. From her highest belt down to her smokiest lows, she sounds exclusively like Alison Fraser from the village of Alison Fraser on the planet of Alison Fraser in the galaxy of Alison Fraser, and she makes Trina a star. Whether Marvin is leaving her stranded or her kid is driving her crazy, she's never a victim, the harangue is always met with brash Broadway confidence and good humor. And when she opens up her heart (and lungs), Falsettos becomes a show about a woman. Forget Marvin and Whizzer, this is Funny Girl or Evita or Cabaret. When Alison Fraser sings a ballad, it stays sung. In most renditions, "Trinas's Song" is far from being Bill Finn's most distinguished composition. Alison, however, makes it the very heart of Act One and you wonder why it didn't get released as a pop single. With every other Trina (and they're a distinguished group) you're always only ever getting a pupu platter of some of the gifts Alison delivered in the role. If for no other reason, In Trousers is a must-listen to hear Alison tackle "I'm Breaking Down," which was transplanted to Falsettos for Broadway and remains a staple of the show. Equally stunning are "Your Lips And Me" and the harrowing "Love Me For What I Am." Just listen to the whole score. It doesn't quite make sense as a narrative album and the more I read about it, the less I understand. BUT. But, but, but, it is some of Bill Finn's most ravishing and engrossing music and truly hypnotic as a strange piece of almost psychedelic rock theater. And Alison's vocals... my god.
The original Dr. Charlotte, Heather MacRae, also stayed with the show from Off-Broadway through Broadway and was the gold standard until Tracie Thoms brought new sexiness and vocal prowess to the part in the revival. Every single one of the women who has played her lover Cordelia has been a fierce high belter with comedic chops from Janet Metz on the original Off-Broadway recording to the luxuriously cast (about to become a star) Carolee Carmello in 1992 (and her replacement the underutilized Maureen Moore) to everybody's girl, Betsy Wolfe in the revival. The Jasons have also been great across the board forever, but special mention must be made of Jonathan Kaplan who deserved his adolescent Tony nomination and Anthony Rosenthal who really stood out in the revival.
In closing, I'm thrilled to have both the original Off-Broadway recordings of both halves of Falsettos and the revival cast of the whole. And I highly recommend everyone head over to Broadway HD/Amazon Prime for James Lapine's flawless film capture of his stage production of the revival. While we wait and pray for an actual movie version, James Lapine is a filmmaker and he wrote and directed this musical and knows it inside and out and gave us a more than worthwhile permanent public record of the work. No matter how close the camera gets to Christian Borle, Stephanie J. Block, Andrew Rannells or Brandon Uranowitz, their work rings true, if anything more so than in the theater. And I found myself immediately "rewinding" to watch Andrew's song over again a second time. Don't miss it. And if the Falsettos tour is playing near you, by all means, go!