Marvin wants it all. Trina is breaking down. Whizzer is playing games, literally and emotionally. Mendel is having a professional crisis. And Jason is growing up quickly in a home which has fallen apart. We are in New York, in 1978.
These are the “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” we meet at the top of Falsettos, with a quick rush through when Marvin married Trina, Jason was born, and when Marvin left with his young and horny “friend” Whizzer to fracture his family home.
Mendel’s the psychiatrist who is counselling Marvin, then Trina, then Jason, who is super-smart and very perceptive (“My father says that love is the most wonderful thing in the world / I think chess is the most wonderful thing / Not love”).
In a set full of frames, some of which change time and place, some of which put the characters in little boxes (“wife and child”, “lover”), we start to get to know our characters. Marvin, an older man, is drawn to the selfish, fit and promiscuous Whizzer, the “pretty boy” who is a match physically, but not emotionally (“The Games I Play”).
Trina, struggling to raise a boy who is kicking against puberty and moving from browsing toy shops to thinking about girls, is falling apart, and in her big act one number (“Breaking Down”), Laura Pitt-Pulford raises the roof and receives the first prolonged piece of applause. By act two, she’s mellowed, playing house with Mendel, tolerating Marvin’s transgressions (“I don’t like Whizzer / but Marvin sure does”).
Originally written as two shows, Falsettos feels like two complementary halves rather than a linear narrative. Every performer in act one’s March of the Falsettos is superb: Pitt-Pulford, Daniel Boys and his middle-aged Marvin, Oliver Savile’s fun-loving Whizzer, Joel Montague’s sensible Mendel (once he’s moved on from wondering whether Trina “sleeps in the nude”), and on the night I was invited to view the show, George Kennedy in his stage debut as the precocious Jason.
There’s a dream sequence where Trina constructs her new family circle: by act two’s Falsettoland, and Jason’s bar mitzvah, he’s described as “son of Marvin, son of Trina, son of Whizzer, son of Mendel”, as the fun of the cooking attempts of the additional “lesbians next door” becomes the close, loving and forgiving space of an anonymous hospital room of 1981.
I found the score by William Finn and book by James Lapine sometimes very reminiscent of Sondheim in its melodies and complex lyrics, but beautifully performed throughout with memorable songs – I had only heard some of the music at the recent press launch but have been humming snatches since I saw the show on Friday.
As a performing unit, the tight-knit adult cast of six, plus four rotating Jasons, are easy and warm together in this piece which is ultimately about friends, family and all forms of love. This is the strength of Falsettos, a place where a boy moves through the rite of passage to a man, even if he will always fail at baseball.
The title of Falsettos, said my companion at the show, may refer to “false love”, or, as I prefer to think of it, a love that takes time to settle into a form where everyone loves each other in a way which is right for them.
By the end scenes, we haven’t doubted the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer for a moment, and we see Trina’s happiness shining through with Mendel: in turn, he teases Jason’s reticence out with that song about hating your parents (“God understands / because he / hated his”).
From its genesis in 1978 through to the previous UK performance of March of the Falsettos, this musical has been culturally relevant to an era of homophobia, intolerance and fear. Ultimately, as the tagline goes, “love can tell a million stories”, and that is what matters.
Falsettos is directed and choreographed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, designed by PJ McEvoy, and Richard John is the musical director. I feel it is an important revival with an emotional punch to the gut by the end. Welcome to Falsettoland.
Falsettos continues at The Other Palace until 23 November 2019. Photo credits The Standout Company.