As a huge Falsettos fan, such as I am, it's challenging to review a new interpretation of the perfect original cast recordings of March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, that later became the full Broadway production titled Falsettos, revived for the first time last year. Those recordings shaped a lot of people's perspectives of modern musical theater, and this new 2016 recording will likely do the same thing for another generation. In the same way that every generation has their own Batman, I can only hope that every generation gets their own Falsettos.
So what is Falsettos for those among the uninitiated? Falsettos is the back two thirds of a trilogy. William Finn started his trilogy with a smaller off-Broadway musical titled In Trousers, which introduced married couple Marvin and Trina, and the story of In Trousers leads to the story of Falsettos. Marvin leaves Trina for his lover Whizzer, and as a consequence leaves his young son Jason. This is a collective of neurotic Jewish people, set firmly in the early 1980s, who deal with complex family and mental wellness issues. Along the way, their family expands to include their psychiatrist Mendel, and in the second act, Cordelia and Charlotte, the lesbians from next door. Falsettos is a masterpiece of comedy and drama and a significant work of queer musical theater, fans are fortunate to have something this rarefied, which is both grounded and larger than life. It represents a specific time in queer history, tackles the AIDS crisis, represents self-made family, and examines two of the most beautiful queer relationships in musical theater history that haven't even come close to being repeated. And it has one of the strongest scores in musical theater, now presented in an expanded and deeply nuanced version with the 2016 revival recording.
The cast of Falsettos at Jason's baseball game.
The big standout in this recording is Andrew Rannells as Whizzer. In the original recording, Whizzer is beautifully played by the handsome Stephen Bogardus, but his depiction doesn't have as much depth as Rannells brings to it. Rannells's performance is not a rehash of the pretty boy that Whizzer could be. Instead he connects solidly with Christian Borle's Marvin, the main character (although in this version the "main" of it all seems more equally distributed), with a chemistry difficult to measure. Rannells is reason enough to pick this up. I've admired him in Book of Mormon and Girls, but this should be the role that cements him in his audience's mind. Try getting to the end of Falsettos without crying because of his interpretation.
The rest of the cast works well. Stephanie Block as Trina, a challenging character to pull off, delivers a charming performance. I'm pleased to see her outside of her expected "operatic" context represented in Wicked and The Pirate Queen, and showing her comedic chops. Christian Borle is the next MVP, but sadly can't live up to the absurdist quirkiness of the original Marvin, the delightful and sexy (even in voice) Michael Rupert. The rest of the cast is amiable and proves effective without erasing the original recording's cast. Tracie Thoms as Dr. Charlotte, however, fills out her songs with extraordinary vigor and emotion. I've been a fan of hers since the short-lived Fox series Wonderfalls, and would love to see (and hear) more of her.
Betsy Wolfe as Cordelia, and Tracie Thoms as Dr. Charlotte.
Michael Starobin crafted the most perfect orchestrations for the original cast recordings, and returns for this production. Oddly, this time around, he makes orchestrations that almost sound like the karaoke version of Falsettos. His work lacks the dimension of his previous work. Perhaps he was trying to make them less noticeable, and more "theatrical," but they cannot compare to his original which ring with rock and theater music in equal measure. Still, the score sounds beautiful and everyone is in fine voice. Ghostlight has produced an exciting recording that should defy comparison. (I'm just that kind of nerd.)
Some of the lyrics have also been changed. And for hardcore fans of, it's odd to hear so many! In the original production we hear Marvin and Trina arguing about what kind of tables should be at Jason's bar-mitzvah. Round tables? Square tables? In this production they argue about inviting the Applebaums. There are many changes like this that diminish the specific characterization of the ensemble, and there is censoring of adult content, like swearing, which is particularly concerning. I've read we will see these same adjustments in the PBS airing of the production later this year, and that's unfortunate, because the language is so much of what makes it relatable. But the text is largely intact, with the most important lyrics coming through. Besides the central couple Marvin and Whizzer, the show has two lesbian neighbors Charlotte and Cordelia ("the lesbians from next door"), a doctor and kosher caterer, respectively. Their expressive quartet with Marvin and Whizzer, "Unlikely Lovers," is one of the most heartbreaking and moving pieces of music you are ever likely to hear, with some of the most stunning lyrics, and is perhaps the one interpretation that is stronger than the original. I cried. And I don't think I've ever cried at the original.
Christian Borle as Marvin, Anthony Rosenthal as Jason, and Stephanie Block as Trina
Yes, this is a very personal review. There's no way around it. In high school, I talked to my friend that if I could have written one thing in my life, it would be Falsettos. I was deep in the closet at the time, but the love story of Marvin and Whizzer spoke to me as the rare representation of a queer relationship filled with complications, affection, and messy love. It still resonates, and seems like the truest love story in musical theater history. For this alone, the 2016 Falsettos cast recording is highly recommended. But, you should also track down the original DRG recording because that remains irreplaceable. This recording's greatest strength, at least from a production standpoint, is that it is the full show, and can be seen almost as a radio play. The original recordings have gaps, but anyone introduced to the show through the new recording will understand the full rich story.
Christian Borle as Marvin and Andrew Rannells as Whizzer
The Falsettos 2016 revival recording can be purchased on CD and digital format through Ghostlight. Purchasing your copy of the CD through their site will donate 10% of your order total to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.