James Lapine was, as he puts it, a “young and stupid” 32-year-old directing his first musical when he helmed “March of the Falsettos” off-Broadway in 1981. It was a makeshift show about misfit characters, with a set made of whatever was plucked from the theater’s basement and music that was only half-written when rehearsals began.
“We did it in a little 90-seat attic theater with absolutely no expectations,” Lapine says. “Ignorance is bliss.”
“March of the Falsettos” was the first of two one-act shows that eventually merged into the 1992 smash “Falsettos,” which featured a score by William Finn and book penned by Lapine and Finn. That musical explores the life of middle-aged father Marvin, who leaves his wife for a promiscuous younger man and finds himself trying to untangle messy family dynamics.
In the second act — originally the 1990 one-acter “Falsettoland” — the witty musical takes a gut-wrenching turn toward life at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. When Lapine and Finn were approached about the possibility of a “Falsettos” revival several years back, that heavy plot line weighed on their minds.
“It was a time frame in our past that has somewhat been forgotten,” Lapine says. “Both Bill and I felt we had lost a lot of people to HIV, and being gay at that time period in the ’80s was so different. … I just thought, ‘You know what? We really need to keep that history alive.’ ”
Lapine directed the Broadway revival of “Falsettos” in 2016 as a limited three-month engagement. On Tuesday, the revival’s touring production begins a two-week stint at the Kennedy Center.
“I’ve gone back to things when I should not have gone back to them, and I’ve gone back to things I’m thrilled to revisit, reinvent and rethink,” says Lapine, now 70. While “Falsettos” is a show pitched to its own register, with a distinctly manic tone and an idiosyncratic cast of characters, he believes the themes of familial bonds and self-exploration endure.
“Every family has their own story, but they can relate to this one, even if it’s not theirs,” Lapine says. “It just has a spirit about it that remains pretty sui generis, and I think theatrically it’s unique enough that any audience, whether they’ve seen it [before] or not, will take pleasure in it.”
The original Broadway run of “Falsettos” earned Lapine one of his three Tony Awards for best book of a musical (he also won for “Into the Woods” and “Passion”), as well as a nomination for directing. When Lapine returned to direct the revival, he arrived with a “new solution” in mind that would define the visual language of the production: a cube, composed of building blocks, that sits onstage when the shows begins. The blocks are then pulled apart by the cast and rearranged throughout the show, building the set for each scene.
“I loved the children’s aspect of building blocks,” Lapine says. “I also loved the idea of whether an audience could come in and not realize that the entire set they’re about to see is staring them right in the face.”
That set constructs a tidy metaphor for characters constantly trying to rebuild and rearrange their complicated lives. And it harks back to the show’s roots in that attic theater, nearly four decades ago, when “March of the Falsettos” humbly began with a minimalist set of its own.
“The thing about the theater is it’s short-lived — there are very few shows that run all that long,” Lapine says. “But if they become part of the culture, that’s the greatest compliment you can have as an author: to have your work resonate and be, in a way, untimely, so it really can be revisited and discovered by new generations.”
By Thomas Floyd