First Nighter: William Finn's "Falsettos" is Back and Bold and Bountiful

William Finn introduced the first of his irresistible autobiographical--or at least semi-autobiographical--musicals 37 years ago with In Trousers, during which married Marvin, who must be a version of the bookwriter-songwriter, ruminates about his sexuality.

Still obsessed with the subject--as anyone driven to get to the bottom of his soul would be--Finn reworked Marvin, his wife Trina, son Jason and lover Whizzer Brown into March of the Falsettos. In the expansion and now explicitly in 1979, not only does Marvin agitate about balancing his feelings for Trina and Jason with the complicated Whizzer relationship, but he also looks closely at his psychiatrist Mendel, who, when the shrink meets Trina, falls for and eventually marries her.

And still, Marvin rolls around in Finn's head. Wouldn't any character who's become an emblem of oneself? This time the result is Falsettoland, which takes place two years later, and into which Finn puts his huge gifts toward following the family. plus Whizzer and neighbors Dr. Charlotte and lesbian lover-caterer Cordelia in a storyline involving early AIDS days.

In 1992 Finn--having earlier added director James Lapine to the mix--put March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland together for a Broadway revival under the umbrella title Falsettos. That spicy combo is again on Broadway, at the Walter Kerr, with Christian Borle as Marvin, Stephanie J. Block as Trina, Andrew Rannells at Whizzer, Brandon Uranowitz as Jason, Tracie Thoms as Dr. Charlotte and Betsy Wolfe as Cordelia--and all of them having the fun and frustration of the psychological paces Finn and Lapine put them through.

How does Falsettos look nearly 25 years on? Just great--with only the merest reservations that certainly don't have anything to do with the several brilliant Finn songs. They begin with the outrageous (particularly in Jennifer Caprio's Biblical costumes) opening number, "Four Jews in a Room Bitching" and include Trina's "I'm Breaking Down," Marvin's "What More Can I Say?" and Whizzer's "The Games I Play."

While it was ostensibly a smart impulse to join March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland (and paid off in Tonys for best musical and best score), the connection could be viewed as ever-so-slightly misleading. The two one-acts are to some extent different enterprises.

As March of the Falsettos explores the give-and-take between and among five characters--three men, a women and a child--as they attempt to accommodate themselves to their conflicting desires, the play becomes something more on a deeper level, as the title tangentially suggests.

What Finn and Lapine are really talking about--and Trina expresses in a comment about the males surrounding her not being men, yet not being boys--is manhood, maturity. Whether the creators intend it or not, implied in the first Falsettos act is the notion that men are attracted to each other because they're not quite ready to engage fully with a woman. And in this piece Trina, while she may be breaking down, is a mature woman contending with aging boys.

Whether the undercurrent holds up to any medical view isn't clear. Nor is it clear that Mendel's manner of practicing psychiatry is completely ethical, courting and marrying a patient's wife, as he does, and leaving the patient therapist-less. The subject is never raised.

Falsettoland can give the impression of continuing the Finn-Lapine examination of Marvin et al, but it's really a one-act of a slightly different stripe. Instead of probing an issue relating to gender politics, as March of the Falsettos does, it takes a serious look at a pivotal moment in recent social history.

Fresh from the headlines, it deals with the terrifying AIDS encroachment--focusing on Whizzer's sudden illness as well as on now 13-year-old Jason. About to be a bar mitzvah boy, Jason is reluctant to go through with the ritual, insisting that he'll only agree to it when Whizzer is well enough to attend. Eventually Marvin, Trina and Mendel come up with a solution that won't be revealed here.

When it debuted, Falsettoland was bluntly of the moment, but today its impact has shifted. It's an unflinching look back. Nevertheless, as it plays, it retains emotional pangs, especially for Marvin. Indeed, at the fade-out, Finn and Lapine indicate that in Falsettos, while it's concerned with a family, the central figure has been Marvin (or Finn's own struggle with a satisfying identity), and no easy resolution is accorded him.

So Falsettos is a work (two works?) of personal searching. This is something Finn has been compelled to do throughout his career. (He wrote A New Brain as a response to a near-death experience.) Sometimes, however, when authors are so invested in self-examinations, eliminating excesses can be tough. It is here, and maybe more so when the co-bookwriter is also the director. Though Falsettoland, or act two, is basically taut, March of the Falsettos, or act one, is marred by too often repeating points already effectively made.

A master tunesmith, Finn risks undermining himself in the virtually sung-though enterprise. That occurs when, despite Michael Starobin's tasty arrangements, his freer-form numbers begin to sound alike. The saving graces are the stand-alone songs that pack a wallop. Moreover, Finn's rhymes are something to wait for. Has anyone ever matched "story" with "a priori"? What about "adolescence" with 'phosphorescence"? Or "canasta" with the first syllable in "disastrously."

Because of its cast size--but not because of the subjects and themes it tackles, Falsettos is a chamber musical, and Lapine treats it that way. So does set designer David Rockwell, who erects a Manhattan skyline behind the players (it's still 1979 and 1981, and the Twin Towers are there). For the actors to work with, Rockwell has made a large block of many interlocking parts that when removed serve as tables, chairs, posts and lintels, et cetera.

The inspiration here is that the block is a visual pun. It represents the blocks and buildings filling in the rest of that famous skyline--with the implication that families on other blocks throughout the city are living their own similar, vastly dissimilar stories.

Last but hardly least in this wholly sincere recommendation are the cast members who understand the Finn and Lapine paean to humanity and bring it movingly to the stage.