Outside the LCT large rehearsal room the other morning, I meant to talk to William Finn about Falsettos. And we did. He told me that the original title of the show was the same as its opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” but James Lapine, the book writer and director, prevailed upon Finn to change it. He told me that he used to go to parties and Jewish women would voice their disapproval of the song: “They didn’t know I was Jewish.” He said that the number was the first song from the show he wrote. “I got the title when I was walking across Central Park to see a friend on 68th Street on the East Side. I wrote much of the song that day at her piano.”
Much of our conversation, though, was about the music Finn grew up with. “I met Leonard Bernstein at a performance of In Trousers” – the first of the three shows that use the characters in Falsettos. “I love his music unbelievably. I told him that ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ is my favorite song. The a capella part is just breathtaking. He said, ‘Careful what you like.’ I’m not sure it was his favorite song.”
Finn, who grew up in Natick, Massachusetts, said one of the first shows he knew well was Guys and Dolls. “I did it in camp. I was Nicely Nicely. I was five years younger than all the rest of the leads so they thought I was an adorable little tyke, which I was. I was really young, around 8.” He added: “During my second year at camp, we did Hello, Dolly! I sang ‘Put On Your Sunday Clothes.’” Finn said that in his youth “I loved every Broadway show, unlike today. It’s not the fault of the musicals. It’s that all of a sudden I feel I know too much. I wish I could go back to those times when I was enthralled.”
Even more central to Finn’s musical formation than Broadway was popular music. “When I was growing up I loved the singer-songwriters – Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro. What they did was what I wanted to do. But I didn’t have a good enough voice and I didn’t play the piano well enough.” (Finn also mentioned a 1972 album, “American Gothic,” by the singer-songwriter David Ackles, that I didn’t know but do now: buy it!)
What Finn did superbly well was compose for the theater. At Williams College, in the early 1970s, he wrote three musicals and studied the work of Stephen Sondheim, who had also attended Williams. “Between my freshman and sophomore years,” Finn said, “I was living in New York, trying to teach myself piano. I looked up Sondheim’s name in the alumni directory and went to his home on East 49th street – I just showed up outside and announced myself. He didn’t let me in, so I just kept on walking.” But that appearance had a follow-up: Finn saw Follies, which was running at the time on Broadway, thanks to Sondheim. “He called up the theater," Finn said, "and someone walked me in.”
Finn had already seen Company six or seven times. He saw it in Boston, where, in the program, he noticed that Sondheim’s bio mentioned that he, Sondheim, had won the Hutchinson Fellowship at Williams. Finn went on to win the same award, as well as later, like Sondheim, find a collaborator in Lapine.
After touching on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Finn’s most popular show) and A New Brain (which premiered at LCT and, last year, had a revised bow at City Center, a version that may have future life), Finn and I found our way back to Falsettos. For the show, he won the Tony for Best Original Score and he and Lapine won for Best Book of a Musical.
I told Finn that although most people I know are excited about seeing the show for the first or second or fifth time, there are a few who’ve asked: “Why should I go back to that period, which I lived through and which was so painful?”
Finn responded: “I understand that. Why do we need to go back there? I hope it’s a show that will rise above the horribleness of the time. Do you not want to see Angels in America again because it’s about a horrible time?”
Finn reminded me that the late 1970s (when In Trousers is set), and even the early 1980s, before AIDS became so devastating, wasn’t unrelievedly difficult. “It was a riotous time. The city was teetering out of control. But that was part of the fun – if you were young.” Finn said that, prior to preparation for the LCT Falsettos revival, he hadn’t listened to the show at all. “But when I hear the music now, it isn’t just the loss of the time I’m hearing. It’s also the energy and excitement.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.