The genesis of Falsettos over 12 years as William Finn developed his original story In Trousers in1979, to create March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland in the early 1980s, before finally bringing them together as Falsettos (with James Lapine as book writer) in 1991. This impacts the work both in terms of Finn’s writing and the context in which it was being created, with one impacting the other over that decade. As a writer, and as a person Finn naturally changed and evolved over that decade, and while there is no harsh divide in the work between the older story and the later work (in part thanks to Lapine’s work as book writer uniting the two), there’s a clear evolution as a writer present in the work. Something is rarely seen within the space of one piece, the music naturally evolves with Marvin and his family. It’s imperfect- but the natural cohesion lost in hemming together the works and decades serve the subject. Meanwhile, the backdrop to Finn’s writing was the shift in the lives of Gay men. When Finn/Marvin’s story starts, we are riding the wave of liberation, the world feels full of hope and possibility. And although for Marvin this also causes anxiety and a crisis of identity, it’s ultimately a moment of optimism. For the second act, we enter the 1980s and the shadow of AIDS is immediately apparent. When Mendel says ‘this story needs an ending’ an audience can already guess what it might be, as the world had shifted in the interim of Finn’s writing. All of this makes Falsettos a fascinating work. Long-form in its writing it has a certain reflective quality that embeds in the characters that isn’t often seen.
Added to this is the fact that this is the premiere London production. Somewhere in the shadow of the more prominent ‘AIDS dramas’ like The Normal Heart and Angels in America Finn’s musical family drama got a bit ‘lost to history’. Despite success in New York- winning multiple Tony awards- it never made the transition to a more mainstream or universal success that others, like Jonathan Larson’s Rent, did several years later.
And this production may have been two decades in the making, but sometimes the right moment is worth waiting for. The cultural and theatrical distance has allowed the team to create Falsettos on their terms- honouring the history it depicts, the community it is talking to, but giving it a new voice.
Tara Overfield-Wilkinson has approached the play with sensitivity and intimacy. Her direction and the performances she elicits from the tightly formed ensemble offers clarity and focus that is often missing from sung-through musicals. Gone is any approach to be showy or ‘Broadway’ instead the focus is on storytelling through song. That’s not to misconstrue Overfield-Wilkinson’s direction as bound to naturalism- quite the opposite with the surreal moments of songs like ‘March of the Falsettos’ and narrative setting numbers like ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching’ are accompanied by similarly abstract moments of staging. The design by PJ McEvoy, with a backdrop of framed pictures, filled with projections and actors periodically, allows Overfield-Wilkinson to open up the narrative to incorporate the nuances- and surrealist moments- of Finn and Lapine’s musical, and make sense of them.
It is, as above a musical of two halves. But Overfield-Wilkinson has crafted a version of the musical in which the first half truly heightens the emotion, of the second, while the second retrospectively opens up the storytelling of the first- and explains much more about the characters than is immediately obvious. The first act focuses on Marvin’s struggles with his new life as a gay man and the conflict with still wanting his old life. It’s a classic struggle between the idea of ‘normal’ life and being who you are. Made more interesting decades later, when marriage and children are far easier for gay couples, that there is much to identify with still in Marvin’s struggles still. This production leans into its history and the idea that much has changed, and nothing has changed looms large in the conflicts the characters have- not least that the lesbians don’t appear until Act 2. But the bravery of the direction is not to shy away from the less likable elements of the characters- particularly Marvin, whose behaviour, however much it might be understandable is at times reprehensible. Equally the rest of the family- and interlopers Mendal and Whizzer have presented flaws on show, with little gloss. And that’s what makes the coming together of the ‘tight-knit family’ in Act 2 all the more powerful.
Overfield-Wilkinson’s direction is brought to life by a group of remarkable performers, who work flawlessly as an ensemble but also individually shed new light on these characters. Note should be made first to the four young actors tasked with the role of Jason (Albert Atack, George Kennedy, Elliott Morris, and James Williams). This is not your usual child’s role in musical theatre- Jason has to contend with both a lot of solo stage time, as well as weighty subject matter. And Albert Atack who took on the role for the opening night did so with confidence and understanding of the role beyond his years. Falsettos requires a tight-knit ensemble, all aware of their part in the storytelling to truly work and in the smaller, but significant roles of Cordelia and Charlotte ‘the lesbians from next door’ Natasha J Barnes and Gemma Knight-Jones embody this. Barnes makes good use of the comedy inherent in her role, with a charming engaging performance. While Knight-Jones in the more serious role of a Doctor during the AIDS crisis, gives dramatic weight to her part in that story, along with soaring vocals in her solo numbers.
Alongside Marvin’s family, his ex-wife Trina is played in a masterclass performance by Laura Pitt-Pulford and Joel Montague as psychiatrist Mendel. Montague brings out the ‘master of ceremonies’ element in Mendel’s role. As something of an observer to the proceedings, he acts as storyteller and it’s one that Montague adapts to well. A natural comedian as well, his acts much needed levity. And while the knowing, broad comedy he imbues Mendel with might seem at odds with the subject matter, it is exactly what the piece needs- a light to the dark of the undertones. Montague also hits the right note in the relationship between Mendel and Jason- the jokey-friend-step-Dad particularly in the first act is contrast the strained relationship between Jason and Marvin. Alongside Montague’s comedic turn, Pitt-Pulford slowly unravels and rebuilds Trina with subtly and sensitivity. Although ‘I’m Breaking Down’ is the powerhouse song for Trina- and one that Pitt-Pulford raises the roof on, balancing comedy, heartbreak, and vocals with deceptive ease. It is, however, Act 2’s ‘Holding Onto the Ground’ that is her masterclass performance. A ballad of what she as a part of, and part bystander to, with a raw sense of heartbreak.
Oliver Savile’s Whizzer is understated and less showy than the role as written might suggest. He also gets to the elements underneath the character- a sense of slight discontent with his status as ‘pretty boy’ and ‘substitute wife’ in Marvin’s life. And in his hands ‘The Games I Play’ is a searching reflective piece. We see the ‘trophy boyfriend’ searching and struggling for his place in the world, as much as his partner Marvin. His struggles may be less obvious- as the ‘young free and single’ man, but Savile’s performance reflects Whizzer’s longing for a deeper connection. Savile balances the first and second act contrasts beautifully- his change is more nuanced than Marvin’s but the shift and vulnerability he brings to Whizzer mirrors the change in Marvin. The ending is heartbreaking not just for the connection with Marvin, but for Whizzer too, who Savile embodied with more personality, more nuanced than the character often gets credit for.
Although this is a true ensemble piece, the weight of the play rests on Daniel Boys as Marvin and its one that he carries off with sensitivity and intelligence. His feels like a re-written Marvin. He’s unafraid of the unlikeable elements of the character. Indeed, he embraces them to give a more honest performance- Marvin in act one behaves selfishly often, terribly at times. And nothing in Boys’ performance glosses over that. And with it, the conflict of his identity comes through. And for that, by the time we reach ‘Father to Son’ at the end of act one, you understand why he behaves that way. Perhaps for many identify too. And this approach- the embracing the less likable, makes the tragedy of Boys’ performance all the more powerful- when his Marvin allows himself to be who he is and opens up to love, the tragedy of loss that accompanies it is palpable. And Boys plays that with a mix of anger, regret and still a hint of humour that flows through his whole performance. And it’s one that makes it very real. While there’s no denying the vocal talent-and the beauty of Boys voice- it’s the gut-wrenching honesty with which he sings the final numbers that cement the entire piece.
The piece is filled with masterful performances. And there is much to unpick about the political and historical place of the musical. But really what Falsettos comes down to is the unraveling of Marvin-and the audience at the end. It\’s the sitting in quiet grief together having been moved so utterly by a story and a performance. That admist poltics, history and noise is what matters. The love at the heart of the story is what matters.
I said in my last blog that there\’s something about Falsettos that connects on a viseral level. And this production has cut to the very heart of it- love telling a million stories.
I rarely give star ratings on this blog. But this one is a whole hearted 5 * for the kind of production never to be bettered.
Falsettos runs at The Other Palace until 23rd November.
Yours truly will be giving a post-show talk on 14th October.