AIDS and the Theater: “Falsettos”

This is the second part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. The previous part looked at “Angels in America.” Other blog posts will examine “The Normal Heart” and “Rent.”

Something bad is happening.
Something very bad is happening.
Something that kills.
Something contagious.
Something that spreads
From one man to another.

-“Something Bad is Happening (Reprise)”

Some spoilers for the musical ahead

A musical by William Finn entitled “March of the Falsettos” opened in 1981 off-Broadway and told the story Marvin, a man who leaves his wife to be with his lover, Whizzer. In 1990, a follow-up entitled “Falsettoland” opened off-Broadway completing the story of Marvin and all of the other people in his life. In 1992, both musicals were put together to create “Falsettos,” which opened on Broadway to a rave review from Frank Rich in The New York Times.

In the context of Broadway history, “Falsettos” is interesting in that it follows “La Cage Aux Folles,” which is generally viewed of the first time a musical with two openly gay characters appeared. However, “La Cage Aux Folles” presented a butch/femme relationship–Albin fits the stereotype of the screaming, hysterical queen–that is very tame, as if not to offend anyone. “Falsettos” uses the word “dykeish,” has a character sing a song entitled “My Father’s a Homo” and features two male characters in post-coital bliss. (The phrase “homo baroque” is also employed at one point and I wish I could use that at some point in my life.) Additionally, none of the same-sex relationships are overtly butch/femme.

It’s also worth noting when the two acts of “Falsettos” take place. The first act takes place in 1979, before the horror of AIDS starts emerging and act two takes place in 1981 when cases begin emerging, but before anyone knows what it is.

The threat of the new disease is brought in the number “Something Bad is Happening,” where Charlotte, an internist and lesbian from next door, sings about a mysterious disease affecting bachelors that has no name. Then Whizzer collapses and is rushed to the hospital where everyone feigns not being worried. They tell Whizzer he’s looking better, but only Jason, Marvin’s son, has the guts to say the truth.

Still everyone, even though they are afraid of what will happen to Whizzer, tries to put on an optimistic mask. The idea that Whizzer could die is presented to us when Jason asks to wait to hold his Bar Mitzvah until after his father’s lover gets better. Mendel replies “We can’t be sure when/he’ll get better,/when or if/he’ll ever get better.” At this point the audience and the characters are actually presented with the idea that one of the characters is probably going to die. Then, in an excellent number, Whizzer accepts this and sings “You Gotta Die Sometime.”

But “You Gotta Die Sometime” is not a cheery, cheesy song about how it’s important to live life to its fullest because you’ll die soon. “You Gotta Die Sometime” is an almost acerbic and sardonic song that is still incredibly moving.

Ultimately, “Falsettos” is not a musical about AIDS or about gay people; it is a musical about a family dealing with various forms of turmoil. The main form of turmoil comes from Marvin leaving his wife and son for a male lover, but still wanting to have a “tight-knit family.” Marvin is perpetually self-absorbed and childish, something he is aware of at the beginning of act two when he sings about wishing to be as mature as his son, Jason.

Even today, the idea of a family where the mother remarries while the father is off with his male lover seems a bit odd, so imagine it back in the early ’90s and how odd it seemed. Ultimately, “La Cage Aux Folles” presented gay couples in a way people could maybe feel comfortable with. “Falsettos” does not do so and that and the fact that it’s ultimately a depressing musical might be why it hasn’t been revived on Broadway.

The musical also presents characters who are not archetypes. Yes, all but two of the characters are neurotic Jews, but they’re all fully realized characters with complex feelings. What’s more incredible is even though for a majority of the play he’s selfish and childish, Marvin does evolve as a character and by the end of the musical is not a schmuck. Unfortunately by the end of the musical it almost seems too late, which is one of the most sad aspects of the musical.

Marvin finally manages to be a man and he loses someone he can’t imagine not being in his life. And so the musical ends on a down note without a glimmer of hope because the audience can only begin to assume what fate will occur to Marvin.

(This and “The Normal Heart” are possibly the two most depressing works I’m writing about.)

“Falsettos,” although very moving and well-written is not a perfect musical. (My vote for the perfect musical goes to “My Fair Lady.”) The lyrical content would probably offend a lot of people today and some people would probably argue the lyrics just aren’t very good. I personally have a lot of feelings about the lyric “People might think/I’m very dykish,” but that’s another blog post. Still, it’s an effective musical that isn’t hokey about talking about AIDS or gay characters. In fact, how Marvin’s sexuality is treated still seems oddly revolutionary today.

Someone please do a production of this.

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