Robert McQueen, who lived in NYC during the AIDS crisis, says William Finn registered the changes as they were happening.
FALSETTOS by William Finn and James Lapine, directed by Robert McQueen, with Darrin Baker, Sara Jeanne-Hosie, Michael Levinson and Sarah Gibbons. Presented by Acting Up Stage in association with Harold Green Jewish Theatre at Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas East). Previews from Tuesday (April 23), opens April 25, 7 pm, and runs to May 12, Tuesday and Sunday 7 pm, Wednesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Sunday 2 pm, Wednesday (except April 24) noon. $39-$55, previews $35. 1-800-838-3006, actingupstage.com.
Angels In America and Rent are often credited with bringing the tragic reality of HIV and AIDS to mainstream theatre, but in 1992 it was the musical Falsettos that first put a stark, honest look at the epidemic in front of Broadway audiences.
That Broadway version was actually two older one-acts (March Of The Falsettos and Falsettoland) that composer William Finn wrote 10 years apart and then combined. In this unique remount, Dora Award-winning director Robert McQueen undoes that Broadway fusion to present both of the original one-acts together in sequence.
"I was really struck by the differences in their composition," says McQueen of the two halves that together document a New York City family's emotional struggles after Marvin leaves his wife for another man.
"Act one was written in the late 1970s, and it was considered complete, with no further story - it just ended the way it ended. It wasn't until 10 years later, in the late 1980s, that Finn picked up those characters again and wrote the second act."
Part of McQueen's motivation for returning to the source material is to highlight how the original texts captured Finn's maturation as a writer.
"The music of the first act is quite neurotic. It's fast-paced and moves from scene to scene very quickly," says McQueen, who directed Acting Up's production of Caroline, Or Change last season. "The language is almost stream-of-consciousness; it's the characters throwing out images or ideas that may not follow a logical line of thought but still make complete emotional sense. By the second act, Finn's writing is more cohesive and the narrative is easier to follow scene by scene."
McQueen makes use of two different sets to show visually how Finn's shift in styles also reflects important social changes in New York over the 1980s.
"Right from the get-go we realized we needed two different environments - two different designs - for the acts. In the first, we play up this feeling of separation and distance between the audience and the cast, while in act two we open up the flow to give a heightened sense of community."
McQueen, who went to school in New York City in the turbulent 1980s, says the best way to revisit this important historical era is through the words of someone who was there writing at the time.
"Angels In America and The Normal Heart keep coming back because people want to reflect on this time," he says. "It was so chaotic when we were all living in it - it was like a war zone. Things were changing so fast, literally day by day. And writers and composers like Finn were there registering these changes while they were happening."
That said, McQueen thinks Falsettos isn't simply a history; he sees a lot of the problems that Finn wrote into his high-strung, self-important characters as persisting today.
"Humans are an incredible species. We can go through something that literally alters us, changes us, and yet years later we're still as narcissistic as we were back then. Falsettos offers us a look at what's changed, but also at what hasn't."
"Bill Finn's work is centred in the heart. It's not an academic exercise; it's not an intellectual pursuit. His work reveals the heart in all its colours and aspects."