Falsettos Then and Now

Christina Knight | October 15, 2017

The musical comedy Falsettos arrived on Broadway in April 1992 to poke fun at neurotic New Yorkers, unpack an adolescent’s reaction to his gay father’s and straight mother’s divorce, and raise the specter of the deadly epidemic of AIDS. James Lapine delivered the book and direction, and William Finn wrote the music and lyrics.

As long as the definition of a “modern” family keeps evolving, Falsettos will always be relevant, win laughs, and require tissues. We take a look at what was happening, then and now, during Falsettos‘ two Broadway premieres. Live from Lincoln Center: Falsettos, filmed in 2016, airs on PBS Friday, October 27 at 9pm as part of #BroadwayonPBS.

THE MUSICAL

Then

Falsettos, a musical in two acts, is comprised of two related Off-Broadway productions: March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. Once slated for Broadway, it had a bit of a false start, switching theaters, and because of schedule conflicts, directors and cast, before landing at the John Golden Theatre on April 29, 1992. Fans of the Off-Broadway works were there from the start to support the first performances. The musical ran for more than a year, closing on June 27, 1993.

The show won two of its seven Tony Award nominations: Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score Written for the Theatre.

The cast: Michael Rupert (Marvin, Jason’s dad), Barbara Walsh (Trina, Jason’s mom), Jonathan Kaplan (Jason, Trina and Marvin’s 10-year-old son), Stephen Bogardus (Whizzer, Marvin’s boyfriend), Chip Zien (Mendel, the psychotherapist and later, Trina’s husband), Heather Mac Rae (Dr. Charlotte) and Carolee Carmello (Cordelia, the caterer).

In 2015, the original cast shared memories of making the musical and thoughts on its revival with Playbill.

Now

Anthony Rosenthal, Betsy Wolfe, Tracie Thoms, Christian Borle, Stephanie J. Block, Brandon Uranowitz, and Andrew Rannells in the 2016 revival of Falsettos

Anthony Rosenthal, Betsy Wolfe, Tracie Thoms, Christian Borle, Stephanie J. Block, Brandon Uranowitz, and Andrew Rannells in the 2016 revival of Falsettos. Photo: Joan Marcus.


Falsettos returned to the Great White Way again under Lapine’s direction in 2016 and was recorded for all to see on PBS on October 27, 2017. Nominated for Best Revival of a Musical, the Lincoln Center Theater production starred Christian Borle, Stephanie J. Block, Andrew Rannells, and Brandon Uranowitz, all of whom received Tony nominations for their respective performances.

Christopher Isherhood raved in his New York Times review, “There’s hardly a moment in the exhilarating, devastating revival of the musical “Falsettos” that doesn’t approach, or even achieve, perfection.”

Co-producer Jordan Roth and André Bishop, the Lincoln Center Theater producing director, were the ones who brought Falsettos back as a revival. One key tool to making their decision: the archives at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. They viewed a recording of the 1992 performance to consider whether it could still wow audiences today. “I went from feeling Hmm, I don’t know, to We have to do this,” said Bishop, according to Buzz Feed.

The Broadway revival Falsettos opened in previews at the Walter Kerr Theatre on September 29, 2016, and closed on January 8, 2017.

The cast: Christian Borle (Marvin, Jason’s dad; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Something Rotten!), Stephanie J. Block (Trina, Jason’s mom; The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Anthony Rosenthal (Jason, Trina and Marvin’s 10-year-old son), Andrew Rannells (Whizzer, Marvin’s boyfriend; Book of Mormon), Brandon Uranowitz (Mendel, the psychotherapist and later, Trina’s husband; An American in Paris), Tracie Thoms (Dr. Charlotte; Stick Fly, Rent), Betsy Wolfe (Cordelia, the caterer; Waitress).

Cast and William Finn on Theater Talk


William Finn, the 1992 Tony-winning Best Musical’s composer/lyricist and co-librettist, and the 2016 revival’s stars Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells talked about the production on Theater Talk. Finn’s wondered how the portrayal of gay relationships would be seen by today’s audiences. Rannells described seeing the original production win its Tony Awards when he was a child actor.

AIDS

Then

When the curtain lifted in April 1992, audiences turned their clocks back a decade to the play’s setting in the late 70s and 1981, when AIDS was still a mystery to even medical professionals like the play’s Dr. Charlotte. By the ‘90s, audiences understood the illness plaguing Whizzer, but the characters did not. By the time Falsettos opened, Liberace, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Halston, Freddie Mercury were among the famous to have died of the auto-immune disease. At the end of 1992, 254,147 cases of AIDS and 194,476 deaths had been reported to-date in the U.S.

Now

The theater world is reeling from the sudden death of young composer-lyricist Michael Friedman (age 41) on September 9, 2017. Best known for Broadway’s Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, Friedman was working on several projects when he died of AIDS, just nine weeks after he was diagnosed with HIV. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that each year in the U.S., as many as 50,000 people become infected with HIV, and nearly 13,000 people with AIDS die annually. While HIV infection has been in decline, the rate for 14-to-23-year-olds has not fallen as much as it has in other age groups. According to the CDC, only about half of teens with HIV don’t know they have it, and teens are the least likely to get treatment.

The CDC warns that Americans have become complacent about HIV and AIDS, not recognizing that it remains a deadly disease.

Political and Cultural Debates

Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in the 2016 revival of Falsettos

Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in the 2016 revival of Falsettos. Photo: Joan Marcus

Then

“Family values” was part of the culture wars of the early 1990s and a buzzword at the Republican Convention in August 1992. In his convention speech, candidate Pat Buchanan used someone’s praise of the Clinton-Gore campaign as “the most pro lesbian and gay ticket in history” to deride it for the same reason.

In his re-election campaign, President George Bush, Sr., backed away from such conservative messaging. White House speech writers were told to link “family values” to child care and education and not to people’s personal lives and marriages.

Now

The Falsetto characters Marvin and Whizzer and lesbian neighbors Charlotte and Cordelia didn’t have the option to legally marry since no state would allow it. Falsettos returned to the stage in 2016, just more than a year after marriage equality for same-sex couples became the law of the land on June 26, 2015.

In these times, there’s less discussion on who you love, and more surrounding who you are. Gender identity terms like cisgender, transgender and asexual are frequently discussed. Political debates have ranged from who can use which bathroom, to whether someone who is transgender can serve in the military.

First Person, a PBS Digital Studios production by THIRTEEN, has completed its second season centered around gender identity, sexuality and queer community.

Other Notable Broadway Shows

Then

Two Pulitzer Prize-winning works were on stage at the same time as Falsettos. Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers focuses on two boys and their extended, imperfect family in 1942. The play was on Broadway from February 21, 1991 to January 3, 1993.

Somewhat like Falsetto’s two-part origins, playwright Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes was comprised of two plays—Millennium Approaches and Perestroika—performed in repertory, beginning with previews April 13, 1993 and ending on Dec 04, 1994.

Now

The Broadway revival Falsettos opened on September 29, 2016 in previews, hot on the heels of the musical Fun Home, which closed September 10, 2016. That wildly successful musical also began Off-Broadway. Based on the graphic novel memoir of a woman looking back at her childhood and sexual awakening, the Broadway production (2015) was the first musical to feature a lesbian protagonist, and, guess what, she had a gay father, too, just like the character Jason.

Pop Culture

Then

America was watching the network television comedies Roseanne and Married… With Children, which threw away the cookie-cutter template of perfect families led by strong father figures that was formerly recommended by 7 out of 10 advertisers.

Now

Representation of diverse families has not only blossomed, but grown into a fecund garden of material on network, cable, and cut-the-cord television, with hits like Modern Family (gay dads), Big Love (Mormon polygamy) and Transparent (transgender father).

Sit back in the comfort of your own home —— with your family by birth or choice — to enjoy the 2016 Broadway production of Falsettos via Live from Lincoln Center: Falsettos, premiering October 27, 2017, at 9pm on PBS.

How to Watch

Watch Falsettos on-air or online anywhere you watch PBS programming, including Thirteen.org and THIRTEEN Explore apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV. Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #BroadwayonPBS. See what other musicals, comedies and drama are part of Thirteen on Broadway between October 20 and December 1.