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Why ‘Falsettos’ is An Underappreciated Musical

Falsettos follows the story of Marvin and Trina, a formerly married Jewish couple who are now divorced because Marvin left Trina to be with his lover, Whizzer. Trina blames herself for not being a perfect wife and feels increasingly shut out as Jason, Trina and Marvin’s son, becomes closer to Whizzer and worries that he is going to turn out to be gay as well. The musical follows the group as Trina and Marvin’s psychiatrist begin a tentative relationship, planning for Jason’s bar mitzvah.  

For this article, I am focusing on the most recent revival of the musical. Warning, there are spoilers!

The Cast:

What can I not say about the cast? You’ve got Andrew Rannels of Book of Mormon fame, Christian Borle who played William Shakespeare in Something Rotten, Tracie Thomas who played Joanne in the movie adaptation of RENT, Betsy Wolfe from The Last Five Years, Stephanie J. Block from Wicked and Drood, Brandon Uranowitz from An American in Paris, and Anthony Rosenthal from A Christmas Story. Everyone in the cast is amazingly talented and brings such power to their roles. 

‘You Gotta Die Sometime:’

This song breaks my heart every time and is a true reflection of what it meant to have HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s. As Whizzer says himself, he was a man who didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs, and a man in his prime and he still is dying. This ballad reflects on being terminally ill in a new way because it is unafraid to tap into the fear and anger at how unfair terminal illness is. It shows a reflection of what death is like and what it might be like.

There is no glory here. There is no cheer.

Jason:

The development of Jason’s character over the story is truly remarkable. He is one of the most jarring, sarcastic, and unlikable characters, but as his personality unfolds, you see where he is coming from and he becomes a heartfelt and truly compassionate individual. He is a kid who is caught in a web he wants no part in and is exerting himself in the only way he can: acting out. He is also rightfully angry about the situation his parents are going through and how much it is affecting his life, seemingly without care to how it is messing with him. The entire Bar Mitzvah conflict stems from it no longer being his Bar Mitzvah and his parents taking over and decided what he wanted. No kid wants to deal with that. It also gives the viewer a picture of what it is like to be a weapon in your parents’ rivalry. 

Confrontation of Gender Roles:

When Marvin and Whizzer break up, a large part of the conflict is that Marvin has been trying to pigeonhole Whizzer into a more feminine role as a home-maker which he doesn’t want to be. Trina also complains about Marvin’s pushing for her to be a perfect wife and homebody which is one of the few things that she is okay with now that she is out of the relationship. The entire song ‘March of the Falsettos’ talks about masculinity and discusses it in a very modern viewpoint and displays how immature the men in the story are. 

The Song Titles:

This musical takes the Rick Riordan approach to have some of the most creative and humorous song titles. Some highlights include:

  1. ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching’
  2. ‘Marvin Slaps Trina’
  3. ‘My Father’s a Homo/Everyone Tells Jason to See a Psychiatrist’
  4. ‘Everyone Hates His Parents’

Need I say more?

It is miles better than RENT:

I have a feeling this is going to be the really touchy part of the article, so let me elaborate.

The reason I say this is because unlike in RENT, we see the true raw breakdown that stems from the crisis within the main character who is dying. It doesn’t just cut to a funeral or show small moments where there are meetings with others who have the disease and those people dying. It shows the way things progress and how other people are caught in the crossfire of the diagnosis. This musical takes no prisoners. It doesn’t revel in the new political movement or glorify characters’ poverty because the point of the story is that all the crazy plot things can happen in middle class, white, seemingly straight America.

It also criticizes the new conservatism of the 1980’s following the election of Ronald Reagan instead of following Mark on his journey to document poverty from a still privileged point of entry into inner-city New York from what is the precursor of the hipster movement. It doesn’t turn into some kind of social justice porn about the inner cities because there is no need for it. The characters make or break themselves and even though the characters mostly come from a place of white privilege, they are still able to be sympathized with because they are so much more than that. They are actual people, not plot points or a token diverse character.

They don’t need a setting like a new Bohemia or their sexual identity to be the personality of their characters. The characters are unlikable for the most part and yet you can truly empathize with their struggles and what they understand about the world. Their dysfunction and struggles aren’t their entire character and everyone in the story is actively taking control of their own story to try and get better. They lash out at each other, they have moments of tenderness, they’re jealous, and they acknowledge their short-comings like actual people. The relationships are dysfunctional in a way that shows how things are not working and how problematic certain relationships are without glorifying them as normal. The vast majority of relationships in the musical are actually secure and don’t descend into almost abusive behavior that steps on the valid feelings of the partners involved. 

Another great thing is that the HIV/AIDS subplot doesn’t enter the story until the second act, which gives us ample opportunity to learn to love the characters before jumping straight into that aspect plot. This also makes it so much harder to lose Whizzer. It gives them character outside of their illness, which RENT fails to do with their characters who are HIV positive. It feels less like a serious diagnosis and more like a plot point to try and earn them sympathy. Falsettos also shows how intensely it affected the doctors who were fighting the disease in the first years of the crisis when they could do nothing for their patients. 

Also, all of the characters actually seem like friends. 

Fun fact: RENT came out in 1996, four years after Falsettos first premired as a full musical and almost thirty years after the first installment of the collection of one-act plays that would become Falsettos, so who is actually the ‘ground-breaking’ musical about LGBT characters dealing with HIV/AIDS in New York City?

Rebekah Grimes

Gettysburg '20

Originally from Southern California, Rebekah is a senior History major and Classics minor (And former Co-Campus Correspondent) at Gettysburg College. She loves the theater, electroswing, unique teas, the Fallout franchise, red lipstick, DMing Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, experimenting in the kitchen, her partner, and is working on her first novel. She has interned at Gettysburg National Military Park and at the Seminary Ridge Museum as a Brian C. Pohanka Fellow. She is also a Ravenclaw! You can check out her chapter's profile on her here!
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