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A fan revisits Falsettos after 24 years
Although last season's Tony-nominated revival of Falsettos closed back in January, a recording of the production is airing on PBS this Friday, October 27. In honor of the broadcast, a longtime fan of William Finn and James Lapine's groundbreaking musical ruminates on how her relationship with the show has changed over the past quarter century.
I was 17 the first time I saw Falsettos in August 1992. I grew up in a small Pennsylvania town and, all through high school, my parents took me and my three younger brothers on frequent "theatre weekends" to New York City. We would stay at a Howard Johnson's and cram in four shows -- two evenings and two matinees -- before driving our van home on Sunday night, exhausted and exhilarated. Falsettos was part of my very last theatre weekend.
It was a transitional moment for me. At the end of the trip, instead of returning home, my parents were dropping me off at Barnard. Just like that, I was expected to be an independent grown-up, figuring out college and navigating the subway. This last theatre weekend was the dividing line between one life and the next, between my leafy suburban childhood and whatever came next.
A combination of two Off-Broadway one-act musicals written almost a decade apart, Falsettos chronicles a group of intimately intertwined, deeply neurotic Jewish characters. The first act takes place in 1979, as prickly Marvin leaves his distraught wife Trina and precocious preteen son Jason to pursue a romance with pretty boy Whizzer. Meanwhile Trina falls for Marvin's psychiatrist Mendel. Act II is set in 1981 as AIDS changed everything.
Although I loved the whole cast (Barbara Walsh! Chip Zien! Stephen Bogardus!), and the show's wit and bite, music and energy, the character I most identified with was soon-to-be bar mitzvah boy Jason. Although our situations were entirely different, we were both products of dysfunctional Jewish families, and his despair reminded me a lot of my own. At 17, I remembered acutely what it was like to be a preteen. Ages 10 to 12 were very hard for me. At school I was a superstar student in the classroom, but in the hallways I was barked at and punched, told that I was ugly and smelled. "You have no friends!" was a familiar refrain, and I was repeatedly informed that the world would be a better place without me in it. I don't think my parents were very aware of what was happening, and I was lost in the chaos of a busy household complete with younger siblings and an unstable live-in aunt vying for attention.
Jason retreats from the clueless adults around him by playing chess, asserting that games are "the most beautiful thing in the world." I spent a lot of time alone in my room, listening to Simon and Garfunkel's greatest hits on repeat, imagining I was "The Boxer." When Jason proclaims himself "too smart for my own good, and I'm too good for my sorry little life," I knew exactly how he felt.
At 17, I was relieved to have left my preteen self behind. I discovered theatre at 14 and threw myself into it. Performing was a balm -- it made me feel valuable and important. So I knew Jason's life would improve with age, with finding the thing that made him happy. I rooted for Jason. After all, here I was on the brink of living in New York City, away from my stifling family, studying theatre just a stone's throw from Broadway where I hoped to perform one day.
Nearly 25 years later, Falsettos was back on Broadway. The cast (Christian Borle! Stephanie J. Block! Brandon Uranowitz! Andrew Rannells!) was terrific. And though some theatre lovers wondered whether the show would seem dated in 2016, post-gay marriage, I couldn't wait to revisit it.
My parents bought me a ticket for my 42nd birthday. By that point, I'd been a resident of Harlem for 20 years, and a stay-at-home mom for 11. Yet it was another transitional moment in my life. It had been half a year since my husband had moved out, six long months of court appearances, custody battles, financial struggles, and single parenting three children ages 11, 7, and 3. I was very, very happy to be seeing a Broadway show on a weekend when my ex had the kids. It seemed like an impossible luxury, and yet so comfortingly familiar at a time when I felt figuratively and literally deprived.
I expected to be entertained by the show as I remembered the wonderful music and humor. But I didn't anticipate being so deeply moved, disturbed, and uncomfortable. Sure, there had been many nights when I sang Trina's "Chop chop chop chop chop/I chopped it/I served his food/The asshole forced me" inside my head while waiting for my husband who was, yet again, late for dinner. But I had forgotten that the line was capped with, "And still the bastard divorced me," and the surprise gravity of it took my breath away.
I was shocked by how much I identified with Trina -- not Jason -- the whole way through this time. We both had similar-age sons who saw psychiatrists, and I related to her difficulty as the single mother of an ornery boy. Her breakdown. Her questioning of the way things turned out versus the way she had grown up believing they would be. "I was sure growing up I would live the life/My mother assumed I'd live/Very Jewish, very middle-class and very straight/Where healthy men stayed healthy men/And marriages were long and great." I knew just what she meant -- life throws some really strange curve balls.
I think that what really took me by surprise was that I suddenly understood why Trina tries to hold on to Marvin, even though it is very clear that the marriage is already over when the show begins. The first time I saw the musical and every time I listened to the original cast recording, I thought Trina was silly and deluded. Marvin is gay, Marvin doesn't belong with her, why is she so reluctant to accept that?
When my own marriage ended, I didn't miss the man all that much. But I missed the marriage terribly, with all its respectable outer trappings, like wearing rings. I loved the idea of a partnership, and I loved being a family: a mother, a father, and three kids. There is something in Judaism that exalts the family -- that perfect, smiling, greeting-card image. It's a mitzvah to have a family. It was very, very hard for me to let go of that. Trina (and Marvin) mourn that loss, too. Something ruptures and becomes irreparable when a mother and father don't stay together to raise their children -- even when there are wonderful new additions like Mendel and Whizzer.
Life is a process, time heals, people and perspectives change. Sometimes you lose sight of where and who you are. Slowly, you find equilibrium. That's what Falsettos is all about. I still find it astonishing that I used to identify with the little boy, and now I identify with his mother.
This year my oldest son turned 12. My difficult, beautiful, brilliant, video-game-loving boy now has a tutor coming to our apartment once a week to prepare him for his bar mitzvah. (And yes, I've been singing, "This is the year/of Asher's bar mitzvah!" in my head.) I love my kid in all his prickly preteen glory. Maybe when Falsettos airs this Friday, I can get him out of his room long enough to entice him to watch it with me. If I'm successful, I bet I know which character he'll relate to.
Roseanne Benjamin is an erstwhile actress, sometime writer, and overscheduled mom.
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Top image: Christian Borle, Anthony Rosenthal, and Stephanie J. Block in the 2016 revival of Falsettos; photo by Joan Marcus.