A new production of the musical Falsettos is playing at the Eternity Playhouse by Darlinghurst Theatre for this year’s Mardi Gras season, and I hope they play to full houses. It’s an outstanding cast with amazing direction and staging, and raises what could be just an odd, historical musical to something very touching and universal.
Falsettos is one of those musicals you hear about, if you are profess enjoyment of musicals and are gay and are romantic or dramatically inclined. It is a musical that addressed AIDS, winning a Tony Award in 1992 and the prime achievement of William Finn, whose other hit was the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (the book was by James Lapine, who wrote the book for one of my favourite musicals, Sondheim’s Into the Woods). Falsettos also has two heart-stopping ballads, beautiful, tragic and romantic, ‘What more can I say?’ and ‘What would I do?’.
Still, these songs confused me a little. There are lines in the ‘What would I do’ that are so specific to the musical’s narrative that they sound strange sung outside of it, and the lines in ‘What more can I say?’ were uncomfortably frank and naff: ‘it’s hot, just like you read about’ and ‘I sing a rondelay, what more can I say?’ I wasn’t sure whether I ‘got’ Finn’s songs. A number of years ago, I saw a review of William Finn’s songs at the Sydney Theatre, and a few of the songs stuck with me by how over the top they were. They took the mellow out of melodrama. One was sung to a dying parent, who in this staging of the song, actually died during the song (in a wheelchair no less). Another, meant to be perhaps a version of ‘Someone to watch over me’ was sung by a parent who had died to their child, and was monstrous: No matter where you are and what you’ll do, I’ll be watching from my grave.
I say this because this production of Falsettos really made me appreciate Finn’s songs and songwriting. The songs in Falsettos are complex and somewhat operatic, too complex for me to appreciate from flipping through the show’s songbook on our shelves (S. is a real fan of it), and they also really need to be put into the context of the show. So when well-performed, the drama of them (and humour, of which there is much) is appropriate. Under Stephen Colyer’s direction, lines which seemed to me “cute” or too culturally and time-specific on the page were part of great songs sung by memorable, quirky characters.
I’ve seen many of the musicals Stephen Colyer has directed including Torch Song Trilogy and Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Two particular strengths never fail to impress me. One is that he gets outstanding performances from every one of his actors. In Falsettos, it feels that he had particularly strong actors to begin with! But there’s never a minor character. Everyone gets their chance to shine. Everyone is giving the most honest performances possible, and in a way that is engaging and impressive.
Margi de Ferranti is pitch-perfect as a lesbian doctor, Elise McCann adds the right subtlety to her caterer partner to be funny but not overblown. Ben Hall sings and acts as well as he is ridiculously handsome (I know that sentence doesn’t really work). Katrina Retallick’s ‘I’m Breaking Down’, sung while doing a step class is a tour de force. Stephen Anderson’s Mendel is perfectly sung and my partner S. particularly liked his acting. I’d forgotten what a monster the character Marvin is in the first act before Tamlyn Henderson shows his transition to a more mature and loving man in the second. Special mention to Anthony Garcia. Didn’t musicals and plays used to have much older actors playing child characters, since they couldn’t find someone of the right age with the requisite talent? Anthony never hit a bum note, showed huge acting shops and charisma, and is only 13 years old. We sat next to his proud papa at the preview, who was crying, even more than my partner, at the the musical’s end.
Colyer’s other strength is in his staging. His sets are always spare, where he employs simple but effective theatrical tricks to create the right environment and setting but keep the focus on the story and actors. But then he re-envisions and recreates songs and scenes to give them energy, bring them new life or even bring them up to date. He doesn’t allow any of the songs to be sung in a static way but I didn’t feel that he ever overcomplicated them either. A few of Falsettos’ numbers are particularly culturally specific (Four Jews in a Room Bitching) or stagy and it feels like Colyer is very technical in the way he dissects songs, deflects attention from weaker lyrics, and enhances the songs dramatically through his choreography and staging.
Years ago, I saw another production, an amateur one, at an unnamed theatre. Because Finn’s music is so complicated, in lesser hands, the music can seem awkward, even discordant. In a similar way, the characters can feel culturally unfamiliar (In Canada, I had far more friends than here in Australia that have had Bar Mitzvahs!), and dramatic notes too big. The staging of a final dramatic scene in this production allowed it be both poignant and powerful and yet understated, especially compared to the previous version I’d seen: a full-on hospital deathbed scene. In Colyer’s capable hands, he pulled out the emotional truth and universal themes of the musical to allow us to think about the way we create our complicated families of choice – all the while touched, entertained and entertained by outstanding actors (and the musical director, carrying the entire musical weight of the show on his grand piano). S., me and my niece-in-law and nephew-in-law from Perth were all really happy to have seen it.
Please go see it! Support local theatre and the amazing artists involved.
P.S. This was the first time we’ve seen a show in the new Eternity Playhouse. What a beautiful space and amazing job. Kudos, City of Sydney.