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Darlinghurst Theatre Co presents FALSETTOS. Book by William Finn and James Lapine. Music and Lyrics by William Finn. At the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst.

Being Jewish.
Being married, with a family.
Being bisexual.
Being heterosexual.
Being homosexual.
Being a kid and not being sexual at all, and in the midst of this.

Coming ‘out’, being ‘out’, going ‘out’ and growing ‘up’ and coping. All of this makes up the content matter of FALSETTOS, the new production landing on the new stage of Sydney’s latest theatre, The Eternity Playhouse, exploring, chasing, an answer to the question: What is “manliness”?, and, maybe, others.

This work pursues its interests, tells its story, entirely through song. There is no spoken dialogue. But, it is not an operetta, and it is definitely not a ‘rock opera’. It is a play guised as a musical! And in this production, directed by Stephen Colyer, a play with only a piano supporting the ‘song’, brilliantly executed by Nigel Ubrihien, and, without the aid of electronic instrument or voice support – all natural sound and voice! (and all the warmer, more telling for it), we have a most winning musical adventure – show.

In the dynamic era of the rise of gay agenda politics in the seventies, last century, on Broadway, although mostly, obliquely, gay ‘subtext’ began to become ‘text’, that could be easily read – no ‘code’ going on for sure, for the want-to-be-perceptive – and although they were not lead characters “and all still portrayed as sexless, ashamed, or the butt of humour” they were seen and heard, up-stage and often centre, at least for a little of the stage-show time. They were “There!”: in musicals like COCO, APPLAUSE, SEESAW and, of course, famously, A CHORUS LINE. Then in 1983, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, broke through some barriers and became the first Broadway musical to feature, centrally, a leading, two character relationship between the same sex – two men – that was dignified and truly ‘human’, and became a blockbuster hit. It was a musical in the Broadway tradition – that is, lots of set, costume, dance, jokes and out-pourings of sentimentality – and succeeded with mainstream audiences by ‘balancing two conflicting impulses: The show’s desire to ‘out’ the traditional musical, and its eagerness to be merely a ‘gay version’ of it.” Harvey Fierstein (author of TORCH SONG TRILOGY), who adapted a French farce for the Book to LA CAGE…, tells us:

Gay sensibility was always in the theatre. But whether we got seen by large groups of people or not, there’s a difference. This is America, and unless you can make money it don’t count. So LA CAGE AUX FOLLES: hardly the first gay musical on Broadway, but the first gay musical to make money. And that’s what makes it count.” (1)

William Finn, a songwriter-librettist, over some 12 years, wrote three one-act self contained works: IN TROUSERS (1979), MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS (1981), and FALSETTOLAND (1990), each of them produced separately Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizon. In contrast to the big Broadway musical, these were in a brave and undecorated format, and dealt with a few ordinary people in, slightly, extraordinary personal states.

Later, during 1991-92, collaboratively, with James Lapine the last two of these one-acters were joined to form the show FALSETTOES. MARCH OF THE FALSETTOES dealt with the breakup of  Marvin’s (Tamlyn Henderson)  marriage , and his new same-sex relationship with Whizzer (Ben Hall), and how all coped with it: wife, Trina (Katrina Retallick), son, Jason (Isaac Shaw), psychiatrist, Mendel (Stephen Anderson). There, this real but personally complex relevant-issue story rested. In the eighties, the “gay revolution” was shaken with the horrifying impact of AIDS. This became a late focus of FALSETTOLAND which appeared in 1991. Two new characters, Dr Charlotte (Margi de Ferranti) and Cordelia (Elise McCann), two lesbians, were introduced, to the quintet of characters, and the death of one of the characters led to a coming together of all the extended ‘family’, with a definite sense of all ‘growing-up’, maturing, under the duress of the ordinary realities of life, as a result.

The union of the two works by Mr Finn became FALSETTOS in 1992. The simple ordinariness of this Jewish family and some of their friends, dealing with the influences of a public gay liberation atmosphere, permeates the first act and a half of the play. Approximately, three quarters of the way in to the story, one of the characters becomes ill with a ‘mysterious’ disease and dies. AIDS is only inferred and the extended family move through the normal, although, traumatic loss of one of themselves. There is no sensationalism here – it is just a story about ordinary people. It ran for 487 performances in the John Golden Theatre on Broadway, and won the 1992 Tony Award for “Best Book of a Musical” and “Best Original Score”.

FALSETTOS is as unlike the usual Broadway musical as one could find (the recent show ONCE, is another, now on Broadway, is a contemporary musical play and production, pushing against the mega-stuff we have become used too seeing and hearing), it being a two act chamber musical without big sets, costumes, production numbers, show tunes or a happy ending, and unlike LA CAGE … represents a kind of gay anti-musical, presenting “… homosexuality not as a cause to defend but as a fact of life …” (1). Young, old, gay, straight, bi-sexual, all, Jewish or not, these characters are humanly flawed, and just trying to understand and solve the dilemmas of being part of the ordinary world.

Mr Colyer’s production is set pragmatically against, and ‘winged’ by blue/grey walls, and in the centre of the back wall there is a window/picture frame, that nestles an untreated wooden sound-dynamic box, containing a shining black grand piano, that will provide the accompaniment to all of the show. Production Designer, and that includes costume, is by the modest, but theatrically practical, Gez Xavier Mansfield. The furniture for the production are six (or seven) open oblong boxes that become tables, beds, walls and coffins, add some simple, portable, collapsible black chairs – all very serviceable to the economic scene dynamics/changes of the storytelling. The design focus is to serve the story, the play. The lighting Design by Hartley T A Kemp appeared to be underprepared.

There is quite a lot of physical movement going on to support the songs and story with only an occasional glimpse of what we would call dance choreography. There is no accreditation for this work, but because of Mr Colyer’s dance background, mentioned in the program notes, I assume it is his work. This work is beautifully and confidently accomplished by all, and sometimes with jaw-dropping spectacle, as all is done, often, while the performers are singing – a very big demand: Ms Retallick has a very difficult story to tell in one of her songs whilst, as well, participating in a step-board aerobics class – this is almost worth the price of the ticket alone! One remembers her turn in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, fondly, and tick the KPI boxes, that it was no accident – Ms Rettalick is a fairly amazing talent.

Besides the expert and sympathetic direction of Mr Colyer, the musical preparation by Co-Musical Directors, Chris King and Nigel Ubrihien, is a major achievement. Mr Ubrihien’s non-stop , and enormously empathetic, accompaniment during the show is, maybe, the best performance in the experience of FALSETTOS.

The piano and the singers are not micro-phoned, the piano and the voices are ‘unplugged’, and there is, resultantly, a real sense of intimacy that is required from all in the theatre for the work to develop. It is an uncommon experience in musical theatre experiences today (in the straight theatre, alarmingly, as well, the Sydney Theatre demanding it, and/or director’s using it, willy-nilly – in, even, small spaces: MACHINAL, in Wharf 2 for instance, last year. Is voice work still taught in the major drama schools, in Australia, or is it just too ‘old-school’ a skill?). This artistic decision by this company thus ‘asks’ us, the audience, to participate, actively, inviting us to ‘lean in’ to the performers , and so, to the characters, to bring the work to nuanced life. We identify, maybe, even adopt the characters as part of our extended family, more intimately. All of us become, so much more, finely, responsible for the appreciation of the dilemmas of this play-production, the ‘circle’ of communication being an active live give-and-take one, that asks us to be more than the passive, possibly semi-comatose listener, being swamped and ‘abused’ by the power of electronic sound levels which we have become so used to in the commercial theatres (a lot of my recent Broadway experiences, for instance: NEXT TO NORMAL, just one such endurance test). We become uncommonly involved in a very subjective way.

In the first act of FALSETTOS, Tamlyn Henderson and Ben Hall, construct a believable relationship, that intrudes, explodes, into the traditional ‘family’ structures, wonderfully played by Katrina Retallick in states of endearing bewilderment, and a young Isaac Shaw, who alternates the role of Jason with Anthony Garcia. Mr Shaw, a thirteen year old, is extraordinarily gifted and winning, and is clearly an equal, in this case (credit to the director) to the seasoned performers about him. Stephen Anderson, as the psychiatrist, is equally as committed and perceptive about the opportunities of his character. Margi di Ferranti and Elise McCann extend the ‘family’ dynamics of the work in a very delightful way. All the performers, both, as an ensemble and stand-out soloists, are convincing and expert. There is real clarity of text and truth of situation going on. Vocal work married to the physical work, seamlessly, to elucidate the story in the lyrics. One smiles, laughs at some of the acerbic comedy of Mr Finn’s lyrics in songs like: “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” or “Everyone Hates His Parents”, because of the prepared detail of these performers in their work, and we are moved not to maudlin states in the emotional journey, but to appreciative acceptance of truths, because of the controlled direction and acting, of very honest responders to the words and music of William Finn and James Lapine.

This is billed as a Mardi Gras event, but this production is a show that all lovers of musical theatre will enjoy, and even some that are not. It is accumulatively impressive and satisfying. Stephen Colyer, has, in his usual once a year production, organised another experience of a high order. Seeing his work more regularly would continue to enhance what goes on, on our stages – for there appears to be much detailed preparation, a clear empathetic vision, and a very able technique of the craftsman to serve the works he chooses to bring it to fruition with a high sense of integrity and “love.’ Check out his resume – it is becoming a very, impressive body of work – e.g. TORCH SONG TRILOGY; NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY; KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.

Other work by William Finn includes THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM SPELLING BEE (2005) and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2011-13), recently, opening Off Broadway, at the Second Stage Theatre.

Go. Enjoy FALSETTOS and spread the word.

P.S. One of my regular moans: There is no biographical information about the writer in the program. I guess this work just sprang from the ether. I would have thought, no writer = no work to direct, design, act in. The writer is the SOURCE, the INSPIRATION for the project, and yet is mostly unacknowledged by most Sydney Theatre Companies in their programs – a lot about the creative team, walking around the rehearsal room: that is the director, the designers and the actors, but not much, if ANYTHING, about the WRITER!!!! Usually because he/she is either dead or living somewhere else.


1. SHOWTIME -A History of the Broadway Musical Theater by Larry Stempel. W.W, Norton & Company -2010.