Midway through my interview with Ira Weitzman, the Mindich Musical Theater Associate Producer at Lincoln Center Theater, he mentioned the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical, Pal Joey. The context isn’t important. What matters is that the title triggered in my mind a song from the show: “I Could Write A Book.” By the time Weitzman and I had finished speaking, during a tech rehearsal for Falsettos, I thought: about this William Finn/James Lapine musical, Weitzman could write a book.
Here’s his short-form version:
“I got to Playwrights Horizons, off-Broadway, in January of 1977,” Weitzman said. “We were located on far west 42nd street. I am a born-and-raised New Yorker, but I was still a little wary of venturing too far west at that time.” One day in late 1977, Andre Bishop, then the artistic director of PH and now the producing artistic director of LCT, handed Weitzman a phone number. “Andre said, ‘This guy’s been contacting me. Call him and see what he wants.’” Then a young man (all the real-life characters in this story were young men then),Weitzman got in touch with Finn, and, soon after, found himself in the living room of Finn’s New York apartment. “Chairs had been set up, as if it were a small theater,” Weitzman remembered.
Finn’s home theater was presenting In Trousers, the show that introduced some of the characters from Falsettos. “Playwrights was poised to expand its mission of producing new American plays to include new American musicals,” Weitzman said. “And In Trousers was what we needed at that point.” He continued: “The show was witty, quirky, and completely engaging, with grown-up ideas and concerns.” In Trousers had a 1978 run in Playwrights’ 74-seat upstairs theater. “We rehearsed from 11 pm to 3 am,” Weitzman said. “Bill Finn directed and played the role of Marvin.” In 1979, the piece was done at Playwrights’ larger, downstairs space. According to Weitzman, In Trousers was significant not only to the expansion of Playwrights Horizon’s programming but to his own personal development. “It was vital to me as someone who had a lifelong passion for musicals and who wanted to translate that passion into the production of new work. In Trousers ratified that goal.”
Finn became a key in-house presence as Playwrights moved more deeply into musicals. He continued writing for the Marvin character, and eventually had a version of the one-act March of the Falsettos. “Initially,” Weitzman said, “he called it ‘The Pettiness of Misogyny.’ Then it became ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching.’” Lapine, who had come to Playwrights with his play Table Settings, began working with Finn. “He helped Bill to devise a more coherent plot,” Weitzman said. “And Bill was persuaded to change the title. “
March of the Falsettos premiered at Playwrights on May 20, 1981. “It was exactly what I dreamt of when I first encountered Bill and Marvin in Bill’s living room,” Weitzman said. He added that his goal at Playwrights and at LCT “is to find at least one show a year that excites me. I’m very lucky. That has happened to me in almost every year of my career.”
Falsettoland, the next installment of the story, bowed at Playwrights on June 28, 1990. It was combined with March of the Falsettos to form Falsettos, and was done at Hartford Stage, directed by Graciela Daniele, in 1991, and the following year, on Broadway, in a staging directed by Lapine and rewarded with two Tonys (Best Book and Best Original Score).
When plans for the current revival began, Weitzman admitted: “I had no problem with the show being done. But I was extremely ambivalent about working on it again. I was scared to go back to something I had worked on several times.” (Including a concert reunion of the original cast, in 2003, to celebrate Playwrights Horizons’ new building on west 42nd street.) Weitzman said: “Everybody ran to the library to watch and listen to past performances of Falsettos. I didn’t do any of that. I decided that if I was going to work on the show again, I wanted to treat it as something new.”
Weitzman’s ambivalence has disappeared. “I’m having a ball,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I could still have a strong reaction to a show I know so well. But by the 3rd or 4th rehearsal, I was laughing and crying.” Falsettos has helped Weitzman achieve another goal: “It has reaffirmed my commitment to musical theater. And to my job as a producer, which is to make all the effort involved in doing a musical look effortless.”
Weitzman said he is struck “by how contemporary the show still feels. Years ago, its definition of what a family is was unconventional to some people. Now, the story reaffirms the idea of family. It’s a story about our primal need to connect.” Weitzman added: “The business of creating musicals has changed a lot since Marvin first made an appearance. But musicals can still affect us deeply.” By way of explanation, shortly after our interview Weitzman emailed me a quotation from E.Y (“Yip”) Harburg, the lyricist of such standards as “Over the Rainbow.” It’s a saying that has informed Weitzman’s career.
“Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel feelings. Songs make you feel thoughts.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.