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In Like Finn

Date: Dec 13, 2007


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William Finn is not one to rest on his laurels (his Tony for Falsettos, for instance) or indeed to look back much at all.

“I never listen to the cast albums of my shows,” says Finn, currently represented on Broadway by the Tony-nominated score for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Off-Broadway by Make Me a Song, an acclaimed new revue of songs from his entire body of work, including Falsettos, Spelling Bee, A New Brain and Elegies, a song cycle inspired by 9/11. “Mostly because I think, ‘God, they’re not very good! I should have written them differently.’ All I’m hearing is what’s wrong.”

Self-criticism is at least one reason he told Hartford, Conn.-based director Rob Ruggiero not to bother fashioning a revue from his songs. “Revues are not something I usually like,” says Finn, who seems to relish the role of loveable curmudgeon. “But I was totally surprised by Make Me a Song. I thought, ‘This is a great show for people who know my work, and for people who aren’t familiar with my work, it’s a great introduction.’ I love it, surprisingly.”

One reason the show hangs together, despite the differing shows and situations for which the songs were written, is the stubborn persistence of Finn’s vision.

“The show is user-friendly but not dumbed down in any way,” Finn says. “It shows you what I’ve done, and it gives you kind of my view of the world. My point of view is pretty consistent, even as I try to do different things. It’s still me.”

Self-effacing to a fault, Finn continues, “Because I write kind of simpler stuff, or stuff that comes from the same place, you get a whole evening of one worldview, in a way you might not get from revues of other people’s work.”

Finn is selling himself short, of course: There’s a lot of range in his work, from bitter comedy to lighthearted rancor, from frolics to ferocity. But one of his unique attributes is a certain full-hearted emotional directness, whether his characters are smiling or raging.

This comes, in part, from his origins as a guitar-wielding singer/songwriter. A few of Finn’s guitar-based songs stopped the show at a revue when he was a freshman at Williams College (and why does he not like revues, exactly?). The director, Charlie Rubin, was impressed, and he had just two questions for the young writer, as Finn recalls: “Have you ever thought of writing musicals? And do you think maybe you can learn piano in a few months?”

Finn took up both challenges because, as he puts it, “I was young and an idiot and didn’t know any better. I started playing the piano three hours a day.” He now writes primarily on that instrument, though he doesn’t disavow the six-string approach. “I have a bunch of students at NYU who write on the guitar,” Finn notes of the classes he teaches in the university's musical theatre program. “It doesn’t disqualify them at all."

Mostly, he teaches his students how to play a more important instrument: themselves.

“I teach about writing from a certain place in yourself where the serious stuff is funny and the funny stuff is serious, and everything seems true,” Finn explains. “You can write from that place, but you have to write it with a light touch sometimes. It just has to be true.”

The emotional directness of his work has earned Finn ardent fans and rave reviews, but such unfettered honesty can belie the rigor of Finn’s craft.

“Reviews have been saying for years that my stuff sounds like I just wrote down the first thing that came to mind,” Finn says. Isn’t that a sort of tribute to the seamlessness of his songcraft? Well, that’s one way to take it. “I’ve gotten a lot of backhanded compliments over the years, because people didn’t get what I was doing,” Finn says. “I was trying to make the songs sound as fresh and spontaneous as I could, and maybe I succeeded too well.”

Finn says an anthology like Make Me a Song should help set that misconception straight. “I think you see that there’s enormous skill,” Finn says with a degree of well-earned pride. “They weren’t just written on the fly on the back of an envelope. The rhyme schemes are very intentional.”

While he’s not averse to complicated rhyme schemes, cleverness is not an end in itself for Finn.

“I like the puzzle aspect of lyric-writing, but I also like the expressive aspect. I’m not a classicist--I’m kind of a confessional poet. I never understood why musical theatre songs were always at a remove, at a distance. I always thought poetry was about the self, no matter where it went, no matter what it was about.”

And while he may not like to listen to his work on record, attentive audiences will sometimes spot him around the theatre at Spelling Bee or hanging out with the Make Me  a Song ensemble: “It’s a very congenial cast; they’re really fun to go out with after the show.”

He can also be spotted at the theatre several times year with a group of Open Doors students, as he mentors the high schoolers in theatregoing. Open Doors was founded by his good friend, the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and Finn has been a mentor ever since.

For more information about Make Me a Song, go here.