A Tight Knit Family- why Falsettos matters still (and to me)

‘Love can tell a million stories’ or why Falsettos means so much
This isn’t a review- that’ll come later. Some shows you have to put down on a page what they mean, or at least try and make sense of it. Falsettos is one of those.
Falsettos is important because it’s both a record of history, and an honest, and open account that resonates today. While it’s second act and its relationship to the AIDS crisis is what its legacy has become the first act is so important. The story of a gay man- or indeed a bisexual man- wrestling with his identity remains a powerful one. Marvin has come out the other side of the Liberation era, the post- Stonewall New York, and discovered he can ‘come out’. But Marvin isn’t a teenager, he’s been living this life for so long he can’t just walk away. More to the point, he’s got a family- and he still wants a family. In that Falsettos wrestles with a set of questions rarely seen in historical liberation era ‘gay plays’- the idea that a man is torn between the life he had and the life he can have. And the idea of a man realising he’s gay but still loving his family, still wanting one, at this time.
And in this the first act is difficult, often challenging watch. Marvin isn’t always sympathetic, but we can sympathise. He behaves horribly- to his ex-wife, even to his boyfriend. But its behaviour derived of everything he’s been through. Gay men and women didn’t simply just leap out of the closet and suddenly live entirely new lives. And Falsettos addresses that in ways other works still haven’t.
Indeed, the whole idea of a ‘Tight-knit family’ that is unconventional was decades ahead of its time. It’s something we still struggle with- both as a society and personally- the idea of being LGBTQ and having a ‘family’ that may or may not look ‘traditional’ and that is one of the most heart-warming and important lessons Falsettos teaches- the idea that family looks like many things, and can still be as significant as a ‘traditional’ one. Crucially also, it also teaches, that families can go through hard times, and still come together even if, again they don’t look traditional from the outside. So whether it’s your ex-husband’s ex-lover at the baseball game or the ‘lesbians from next door’ family is who you choose, and that’s an important lesson still to learn.
That lesson took me by surprise this time around. How touching the ballad ‘Father to Son’ is. That striving to be both a good father  and what society expects, while being true to yourself was heart-wrenching. Because Falsettos is about family and being who you are. And that touches something very innate, and also primal and personal in all of us. Particularly those who are LGBTQ.
And then there’s Act 2. Rightly so given the way the piece evolved- over 10 years or more- it feels musically and theatrically like two very different pieces. And that works. And when the inevitable hits us- the impact of the AIDS crisis on this community, on this family, it is devastating.
Falsettos doesn’t dress it up in politics or activism, it’s closer to William Hoffman’s As Is in that respect. It just gives us that family’s story. It just gives us that family’s devastation. And after Marvin builds up this tight-knit family it is torn apart. And it doesn’t matter really whether it’s AIDS or any other illness in some respects, we understand that on a base, emotional level, that feeling of being ripped apart.
But it’s important it’s AIDS, it\’s important that it’s this story, told this way. It’s political in its very existence but important that it’s divorced from the direct politics of the era. It’s stripped back and shown for what AIDS was- the devastation that ripped apart lives. Ripped apart , families. And that, even though you can see the ending coming is what makes it so devastating.
And yet, it’s still a piece that takes me by surprise in the force of it. It’s such a strange thing on many levels, but there’s not a show, other than perhaps Rent and not even then in the same way, that I have such a visceral reaction to. And it took me totally by surprise. I knew the score, the book, inside and out thanks to my research into ‘AIDS theatre’ which was the subject of my PhD. I know Falsettos, it’s that lesser done ‘AIDS musical’ one of those significant but not world-famous pieces around the topic. It’s important but not one I used to be as attached to.
Then I saw the Broadway revival. And somehow somewhere, I was crying more than I’d cried at anything in the theatre, maybe ever. It was from nowhere, this kind of visceral connection with the music and characters that come from only seeing it live.
And so as much as I knew what I was letting myself in for when returning to the production at The Other Palace I wasn’t quite prepared for it, the force of it. I’d especially thought having spent a few weeks with my head ‘in it’ writing two programme essays for it (yes that’s a shameless brag) and writing several articles on it (that’s another one). Part of me though I’d maybe immunised myself.
What began as an (I like to think) artistic Michelle-Williams-in-Fosse-Verdun tears down the cheeks cry…quickly evolved somewhere beyond ugly-crying.
And why?
What is it about this piece, above all others that gets me? And I think it’s just the humanity, and the honesty of Finn and Lapine’s writing. The characters are deeply flawed. Deeply human. And that’s what makes it all the more devastating. We see fractions of ourselves across them all. And in spite of their flaws, feel their pain.
Something in the writing connects on a visceral level like few others. Something as an LGBTQ person about that struggle to find a place in the world. Something about reaching back and connecting with our history. And something about being human, and loving and losing. And not just partners or lovers. When the four sing ‘Unlikely Lovers’ or Marvin asks ‘what would I do if you had not been my friend?’ it connects, like a knife to the heart, to everyone we’ve loved and lost. But especially I think anyone who has had to fight to love, to be loved, and be who they are.
Falsettos ultimately is our greatest wish and our greatest fear-family and losing that family. It’s a desire to be loved, and be who we are. And the battles we go through to get there. And it’s losing the one thing you longed for most in the world, seconds after finally getting there. And that’s devastating. 
And Falsettos is history. It’s a lesson in where we’ve come from, what a community went through. Told through one tight-knit but unconventional family.
And so that\’s why, even after all this time, this jaded \’Doctor of AIDS theatre\’ has to sit biting her hand to stop from sobbing aloud at the end of this show. That\’s why the tears stream down my face long after, it\’s something both past and present that I still connect to so powerfully. And I\’m so grateful to have it back. 

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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