William Finn and James Lapine’s groundbreaking musical “Falsettos” chronicled a queer blended family before those terms were even a part of the lexicon.
Work on the production began in the late 1970s, but it premiered on Broadway in its final form in 1992. The musical follows the trials and tribulations of Marvin, who divorces his wife, comes out of the closet and commences a same-sex partnership with his friend, Whizzer. Marvin and Whizzer co-parent Marvin’s son, Jason, along with Marvin’s ex-wife Trina and her new husband Mendel. The show is notable for its frank examination of sexuality, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and what it means to be a family.
The material has remained relevant across the decades — a 2016 Broadway revival, featuring out actors Andrew Rannells and Brandon Uranowitz, was broadcast on public television. It returns to Philadelphia in a new production by 11th Hour Theatre Company, running from Oct. 12-20 as part of the Next Step Concert Series. Multi-talented out artist Jennie Eisenhower directs, and 11th Hour co-founder and associate artistic director Steve Pacek stars as Marvin.
PGN spoke with Eisenhower and Pacek about the musical’s enduring message and how the show intersects with their personal lives. Some responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
PGN: “Falsettos” is a show about family. What draws you to the theme of family in the show?
SP: I grew up in Philadelphia, and more and more, I’m shocked at how much of my extended family have started to come out and support the projects I’m involved in. It used to just be my nuclear family — my mom, my stepdad, my sister — but now my aunts and uncles have started coming. So extended family, and what that means, is a growing theme in my life. Also, my stepdad is Jewish, so that aspect of the show is something that’s really cool for me to start thinking about — how that part of my upbringing will be central to this piece, which is about a Jewish family.
JE: The definition of the American family is expanding and changing rapidly, and I think “Falsettos” was at the forefront of that. The piece feels so relevant right now, with the whole idea of a queer man who is raising his son with his ex-wife and her new partner, and the idea of a family as not just mom, dad, two kids and a white picket fence. It is two different houses and five sets of grandparents, or whatever the reality is. That is what my family is: I co-parent my child with my ex-husband and my current partner, who is a woman. “Falsettos” really explores the struggles and the beauty of a blended family, because when you’re trying to show up for your child and extra effort is involved, you’re more aware of how important it is that everyone is on the same road.
PGN: This musical has been around, in one form or another, for almost 40 years. As contemporary artists, what are some of the ways you’re approaching presenting this piece to a 2019 audience?
JE: I think the show can’t exist in any time other than when it was written, so I don’t have any plans to modernize it. That specific era so deeply impacted the queer community, and the broader acceptance of that community. I grew up in the ’90s, and if you said or thought anything about “gay,” people thought “AIDS.” It was attached to the word. This musical is on the precipice of that, with the first version of it coming right before the AIDS epidemic really came to light, and that’s such an important part of the piece. I definitely want to use our rehearsal time to talk with the cast about the history of the period, and of being gay in America.
SP: It’s crazy to think how much society’s thinking about AIDS has shifted from the early ’80s to today. That’s really an anchor point, because as we’ve said, so much of the rest of the story relates directly to what is still being figured out now.
JE: It is difficult for those of us who didn’t live through it to put ourselves into the position of a time when AIDS was viewed as a death sentence or with great uncertainty. The main thing that shifts between the first and the second acts of this show is that we go from everyone worrying about the minutiae of life into a life-or-death experience. And it really calls into question who your family is and what matters to you. I think we can all relate to that, even if the material hearkens back to a different era.
PGN: What are the elements that make you want to work on a project?
SP: If I can feel the heartbeat of a piece, I am drawn to that. I believe that actors are emotional warriors. When I’m teaching, I tell my students this all the time: It is our job to take on these larger emotional states so that we can help audiences for when they might be going through a similar journey in the present or the future. Any show that celebrates having to figure things out, where people are not afraid to dive into their hearts to find answers, is what I am very connected to.
JE: I love drama and I love story — usually one with a fair amount of adversity. I love a scrappy heroine. I love conflict and a fight, and I love great music too. William Finn is just such a beautiful composer, and his music just makes you feel things.
PGN: Steve, as a co-founder of 11th Hour, how do you view “Falsettos” in the trajectory of the musicals the company has presented in the past?
SP: The mission of 11th Hour has always been risky and cutting-edge musicals — not the stuff you would necessarily see in more “mainstream” venues. I think William Finn has always pushed the envelope, so his work is perfect for what we do. Also, part of the mission of our Next Step Concert Series is to highlight work that is new or seldom-seen. I think “Falsettos” has fallen off the radar somewhat. When I was in high school, everyone in my drama club knew “Falsettos,” but I’m not sure that’s true anymore. It excites me that we will be introducing an important work of the musical theater canon to the next generation. I’m really curious to see how they are going to react to the similarities and differences of life then and now.
JE: I agree. “Falsettos” takes place in 1978 and 1981. I’m in a queer family in 2019, and the forms my daughter gets at school still say “Mother” and “Father” as the options. There is still a father/daughter dance at her school. It’s interesting that things are becoming more fluid, but the societal expectations are still there. Anything that breaks from that is worth continuing to explore and discuss, because it’s happening more and more, but it’s not reflected in our culture as much as it could be.
“Falsettos” runs Oct. 12-20 at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City. For tickets and information, visit 11thhourtheatrecompany.org.