Falsettos Then and Now

Christina Knight | May 8, 2019

Updated May 8, 2019


Live from Lincoln Center: Falsettos receives an encore broadcast on Friday, June 7, 9–11:30 p.m.

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 how some of the play’s issues were addressed in 1992, the year Falsettos premiered, and where the issues stand today.

Live from Lincoln Center: Falsettos, filmed in 2016, receives an encore broadcast on Friday, June 7, 9–11:30 p.m. in honor of LGBT Pride Month as part of “THIRTEEN Celebrates the Summer of ’69: 50 Years Later,” which celebrates the golden anniversaries of pivotal moments in U.S. history, such as the Stonewall uprising.

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. It switched theaters, and because of schedule conflicts, changed up 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 musical 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).

The original cast shared memories of making the musical and thoughts on the 2016 Broadway 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 in the PBS broadcast premiere 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. A key tool that helped 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 of 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 Cher Show), 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).

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 character Dr. Charlotte. By the ’90s, audiences understood the illness that plagued 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 was shocked by 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.

According to hiv.gov and the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), in 2017, 38,739 people received an HIV diagnosis in the United States. Approximately 14 percent of the estimated 1.1 million people with HIV in the U.S. don’t know they have it.

Individuals who got HIV infection through heterosexual sex made up 24 percent of all HIV diagnoses in 2017. See more of the CDC’s basic facts on HIV and fact sheets on risk behaviors, prevention tools, testing, and more.

In 2019, the second successful treatment of HIV with stem-cell replacement was reported, but as medical journals and science reporters have pointed out, it is not a cure.

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 Falsettos 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.

Particularly for young people today, there’s less discussion on who you love, and more surrounding who you are and what pronouns you use. Gender identity terms like cisgender, transgender, gender dysphoria and asexual are becoming part of discussions about inclusion. Current debates include who can use which bathroom, and the de facto ban on transgender service members in the military as of April 12, 2019.

Watch First Person, a PBS Digital Studios production by THIRTEEN, for episodes 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 in Falsettos.

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, Friday, June 7, 9–11:30 p.m.


Fans of Andrew Rannells, acclaimed for his standout performances in Broadway’s The Book of Mormon and Lena Dunham’s Girls, take note! Live From Lincoln Center Presents – Stars in Concert: Andrew Rannells receives an encore on Friday, May 10, 10 p.m. He shows he can do just about anything in a daringly diverse set of songs.