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Inside the Broadway revival's choreography
You might not think of Falsettos as a choreographer's showcase. After all, William Finn's Tony Award-winning 1992 musical is an intimate portrait of a family whose lives are upended when Marvin leaves his wife Trina for a man named Whizzer. Soon enough, Trina is remarried to Mendel, Marvin's psychiatrist, and hoping for the best. Meanwhile, Trina and Marvin's son Jason is trying to prepare for his bar mitzvah, even though Whizzer is the only adult in his life that he actually wants to invite.
And then Whizzer gets sick. And because the story is set in the early 1980s, no one knows what to call his disease. But we know. And we know where it will lead.
This a devastating story, but Finn tells it so specifically that the show is not a manipulative downer. Because we know these people – because we can laugh with them and get irritated by them – we can believe in them. They might make us cry (or sob, really), but we can love them for it.
This raw emotion doesn't lend itself to dance breaks, but movement can weave through a show in other ways. Take Lincoln Center Theater's current Broadway revival, which plays at the Walter Kerr through January 8. Choreographer Spencer Liff has created a dance vocabulary that heightens the plot, physicalizing the inner lives of these flawed and wonderful people. I recently spoke with him about how he crafted his contribution.
Mark Blankenship: I was struck by how dance works in this production. Heightened movements seamlessly emerge from the scenes, so that when people are talking (or fighting or falling for each other), they might express that with a gesture as readily as a song. How did you and James Lapine – who directed this revival as well as the original production – work that out?
Spencer Liff: With a show like this, that's completely sung-through, there's almost no line between when it's James's time to work and when it's my time to work. We had to figure out an entire world together. It sounds a little cliché, but it all was very organic.
MB: Was the cast involved, too, or did you work out their movements in advance?
SL: We have such incredible actors in the room, and we really tailor-made this show for them. So when it came time for any of them to move, we went about it from a character standpoint. We played around with them and tried so many different things until I felt like I really got to know their characters well. And then at the end of the day you have to trust your actors because they also, obviously, know their characters. I'd come up with things for them and we'd talk. I'd say, "Does this feel right to you? What can we try?" And often I'd give three or four options in rehearsal. I'd say, "Tonight when you get on stage, I want you to do whatever comes to you. Pick one and try a different one tomorrow, and at the end of the week we'll talk and figure out which version we like best."
MB: That speaks to how personal the choreography felt. Sometimes I wasn't sure if I was watching "a dance move" or just an actor's natural gesture.
SL: I think I squeezed about every moment of movement and dance out of the show that we naturally could, but I don't ever want somebody to really be aware of a choreographer. It's just not what it's about. You're supposed to be falling in love with these characters.
MB: On that note, I really fell for Stephanie J. Block, who plays Trina, when she was dealing with stress through aerobics. Watching her flail around in that 80s leotard was amazing.
SL: I love a good workout class! In rehearsal we really played around a lot with that, and now it's honed down and set to music. She does the same thing every night, but when you're in rehearsal, it's the perfect time to say, "Try something different every time."
I did a lot of that for Hedwig with Neil [Patrick Harris]. We had worked for months in L.A. leading up to rehearsals in New York, so we had an entire repertoire of moves and tricks that we liked that throughout the preview process we just kept filtering through.
I like to work in that way. Then you get the actor's trust, so then I can go up to them and make adjustments. Like in [Trina's showstopping comedy song]"I'm Breaking Down," I can say, "Okay, you should do this here, and you were a little early when you put the bowl on your head tonight, and that's why it didn't land the same."
MB: I'd like to ask you about Mendel, who's played by Brandon Uranowitz. He has this great collection of kooky hand gestures that he uses when he's trying to drop psychiatric insights on people, and I noticed that when he starts working with Jason, the gestures get especially wild.
SL: Brandon was a crackpot rehearsal – in a good way – and kept trying so many different things. We wanted something to physically connect him with how he works with adults and works with the kid. And I love the moment when the kid does it back to him.
We honed in on that late in rehearsals. Brandon is very physical, and he's younger than a lot of Mendels have been. So I really wanted to play off that, especially when he has these great moments to bond with the kid. I wanted them to feel crazy and free and fun. I was very interested in the bonding of him and Jason. I was a child of divorce, and it's always really interesting trying to connect with your parents' new spouses or boyfriends or girlfriends.
Plus, we needed as many moments as possible in the show to have a big smile on our faces. I redid their little dance so many times in Jason's therapy until I felt like we were getting enough out if it. It's so short, so it has to be perfect. It's the same that [designer David] Rockwell says about our set: When you go minimal, every detail has to be perfect.
MB: Speaking of short moments: Can you talk to me about the transition scenes? Even when the actors are moving set pieces around, they're doing it in character and with lots of attitude.
SL: We've changed those transitions so many times! We've whittled them down to their bare minimum then fluffed them up to try to get a little more story out of them. One of my favorites is the transition into the chess game [that Marvin and Whizzer play near the end of Act I, when they're on the verge of splitting up]. The whole cast is part of it. Trina comes in and sets the chess board down and gives them a look like, "It's your turn now. Work it out boys!" Those are the moments where it's not in the text, but we found a way to add a little story.
MB: Because I've had this musical memorized since I was a freshman in college, I noticed that little changes had been made to the lyrics throughout the show.
SL: Oh yes. We changed bits here and there. There's no way you would believe Andrew Rannells has a bald spot.…
MB: Right! In the song "The Baseball Game," Marvin usually teases Whizzer about his bald spot. But this time, it was a joke about his receding hairline, which worked just as well.
SL: Yes! And everybody loves that bald spot line, but you just wouldn't buy it with Andrew Rannells. And James and Bill Finn are not precious about this work. It was never, "Well, that's how I wrote it, so we're not changing it!" James would say, "We need something different there," and Bill would go off and then come back with something new. To have the authors in the room and be that willing to play was really a freeing process.
Note: This conversation has been edited for lengthy and clarity.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Christian Borle (left) as Marvin and Andrew Rannells as Whizzer.
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