It's a swan song of the displaced type.
Before Theater Latté Da founder Peter Rothstein decamped for the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla., this past summer, he could not stop singing the praises of "Falsettos." The James Lapine-William Finn musical is one of the most impactful in his life, he said, and he was moved beyond words when he acted in it early in his career.
Well, Rothstein is not alone in his admiration for this sung-through show about newfound family against the backdrop of the 1980s AIDS crisis. Director Meredith McDonough, who staged "Emma" at the Guthrie and was tapped by Rothstein for "Falsettos," calls it her favorite musical. The production opens Saturday at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis.
"I encountered it in a precollege program at [New York City's] Barnard in the early '90s and saw it six times," said McDonough, who grew up in a small town in New Jersey. "We were young and the impact of AIDS was a big thing in our lives that wasn't being talked about by the grownups. The fact that 'Falsettos' and also 'Angels in America,' which I saw seven times around the same time, actively addressed this thing that was confusing to us made it deeply meaningful."
When it premiered 1992, "Falsettos" became one of the first shows to put gay characters at its center without them being oddball sidekicks or weird friends. The AIDS backdrop adds to the gravitas of the show, but its cult status has also come because of its compositions and clever lyrics. Here are seven of the best-known lines from the show:
- "I burst at the seams 'cause of you." Middle-aged Jewish man Marvin has left his wife, Trina, because he was in love with a young man, Whizzer. Marvin still cares for Trina, and for their son, Jason. And he sings these lines to show his pride as his son goes through his bar mitzvah.
- "Men in cufflinks make me forget my name." Whizzer, an openly gay Jewish man, speaks his truth. "You understand so quickly who he's attracted to and who he is, you just smile," McDonough said.
- "Slap my face or hold me till winter." Marvin sings that to Whizzer in "Unlikely Lovers." "Isn't that the most perfect relationship?" McDonough said. "You would expect it to sound like a jaunty or angry song. But, nope, it's incredibly slow, loving and visceral."
- "Let's be scared together." Also by Marvin from "Unlikely Lovers," this reflected a widespread sentiment in that decade. "A lot of men had that feeling in the '80s because AIDS was so alienating and so many men died alone," McDonough said. "We had so little information about it and there was all this stigma and shame spiraling around it. It's similar to the early days of COVID."
- "You save lives and I save chicken fat / I can't [expletive] deal with that." Cordelia and Charlotte, a lesbian couple, who live next door to Marvin and Whizzer, have a surprising frankness about their places in the relationship. Charlotte is a doctor; her partner has other skills.
- "Their toys are people's lives / They fight too hard / And play too rough / They sometimes love, but not enough." Deft lyrics are spread throughout the show. These are from Trina's song.
"It's sort of her nice way of saying I'm tired of all the happy men in the world," McDonough said. "Her life is incredibly dominated by men who're always peacocking for each other. And she's just like, I'm just so tired of it."
- "Who would I be / If I had not loved you?" This duet, between Marvin and Whizzer, closes the show. It summarizes "a relationship that brought a lot of pain and hurt and maybe some real danger," McDonough said. "It's really moving."
Who: Music and lyrics by William Finn. Book by Finn and James Lapin. Directed by Meredith McDonough with choreography by Emily Michaels King.
Where: Theater Latte Da at the Ritz, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed. & Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Thu. & Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 5.
Tickets: $45-$75. 612-339-3003 or latteda.org.
Protocol: Masks required for Sunday matinees.