INSIDE "MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS"
an analysis by Scott Miller
William Finn wrote three one-act musicals about a man named Marvin. In
the first of the trilogy, In Trousers
(1979), Finn explored Marvin's crushes on teachers and other women, his
blossoming neuroses, and his eventual realization that he was really in love
with a man named Whizzer Brown (in a wonderfully unsubtle song called
"Whizzer Going Down"). In the second installment, March
of the Falsettos (1981), Marvin tries to force Whizzer, his wife Trina and
his pre-pubescent son Jason, into some kind of hybrid family. When that doesn't
work, Marvin leaves Trina for Whizzer, while Marvin's psychiatrist Mendel
romances and marries Trina. At the end of March
of the Falsettos, Marvin has lost Trina and Whizzer both, and in the last
song, he tries to reconcile with Jason. In the third chapter, Falsettoland
(1990), Marvin, Trina, and Mendel plan Jason's bar mitzvah while Whizzer comes
back into Marvin's life. But Marvin only gets a temporary Happily Ever After
because Whizzer has AIDS and by the end of the show, he has died. The third
installment is interesting because when Finn wrote the first two pieces, AIDS
didn't even exist yet, so Finn had no idea how Marvin's story would turn out.
After Falsettoland was produced in New York, theatres around the country
started putting March of the Falsettos
and Falsettoland into one evening as
companion pieces. In 1992, Finn and his collaborator, director James Lapine,
officially combined March of the Falsettos
and Falsettoland into a full-length
musical called Falsettos. They did a
fair amount of rewriting, adding and cutting things, reassigning lines, altering
music, even adding one full song, Trina's hilarious tour
de force show-stopper, "I'm Breaking Down." But once the
full-length version was available, the one-acts were rarely produced.
Still, some companies continue to produce the one-acts, and the question
is often asked, why do one of the shorter pieces when you could do the
full-length show? The answer is that the two one-acts are very different from
the two halves of Falsettos, not only in details but also in focus and in the themes
explored. In the full-length show, both acts are about Marvin and the
development of his relationship with Whizzer. The conflict is about whether or
not Marvin and Whizzer can build a life together without killing each other
first. But the one-act March of the
Falsettos is about Marvin and his son Jason. In fact, Jason is the heart of March
of the Falsettos, a boy who needs his father to guide him toward manhood and
yet fears becoming who his father is. The question is not whether Marvin and
Whizzer can stay together. Marvin can't sustain relationships with Whizzer, his
wife Trina, or his psychiatrist Mendel. Marvin's only salvation is in sustaining
his relationship with his son. The one-act isn't about romance; it's about
Marvin growing up enough to help Jason grow up. March
of the Falsettos is a more interesting show, a less conventional musical, a
show about deeper, more complicated issues, definitely a show that still
deserves to be seen in its original form.
Time and Place
March of the Falsettos was written in 1981 and that's when the story is set.
Because of the appearance of AIDS and the subsequent outing of gay celebrities
alongside the movement of gay issues into the center of the mainstream press,
America was very different in 1981 than it would be just a few short years
later, especially for gay men and women. Though there were gay clubs and bars at
that time in major cities, though there were gay newspapers and magazines, and
even a few movies with gay characters or stories, for most Americans
homosexuality was still a foreign, or in some cases utterly unknown, concept.
In 1981, when this story is set, a few gay men in New York, San
Francisco, and Los Angeles, were popping up with a rare form of cancer called
Kaposi sarcoma. No one knew why, but it seemed concentrated almost exclusively
in the gay communities of major cities. Soon, it was called gay cancer. Later,
it would be called GRID (gay related immune deficiency) and even later, AIDS.
But in 1981 most people knew nothing about it. Even those who did know about it
weren't sure if it was an epidemic, or if it was sexually transmitted. (And
let's not forget that while the AIDS epidemic was beginning, so were massive
increases in the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among heterosexuals
-- the sexual revolution was not exclusiively a gay phenomenon.)
During the sexual revolution of the late 60s and 70s, and the rise of the
gay rights movement at that same time, many gay men in large metropolitan
centers were finding a kind of sexual freedom and openness they had never known
before. After decades of having to hide, of being unable to meet, to date,
unable even to recognize who you could ask for a date, gay men celebrated this
new freedom with a sexual excess that isn't all that surprising. Whizzer Brown,
the character in Falsettos, comes from that culture, a culture in which sexual
freedom was a hard-won trophy to be enjoyed, in which the gay community had
adopted as its ideal a hyper-masculine image born in the gyms and gay bars of
the 1970s, an image exported to mainstream society in the form of the Village
People. The men who were a part of this hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual culture
could easily have a dozen or more sexual partners in a single night. The use of
drugs and alcohol were pervasive. It's easy from our current vantage point to
see this time and place as decadent, but to the people in the midst of it, this
was something they had fought for and won, something they were owed.
Also, in 1981, the Kinsey Institute published a new sex study which
concluded that homosexuality was probably biological. Being gay was no longer
viewed as a psychological problem, but instead as merely one variation of human
sexuality. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association had removed
homosexuality from its list of disorders, and the American Psychological
Association had done the same in 1975. Billie Jean King admitted in 1981 that
she was gay, and Martina Navratilova's relationship with lesbian author Rita Mae
Brown was reported in the mainstream press.
But gay Americans were not being completely accepted into mainstream
society. In 1978, openly gay San Francisco city councilman Harvey Milk was
assassinated by fellow councilman Dan White. But though White shot Milk and
Mayor Moscone at point blank range, though he confessed to the murders, he was
convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter and would be eligible for parole
in five years. In 1979, the Moral Majority had been formed by Jerry Falwell,
"to oppose gay rights, pornography, feminism, and communism." In 1980,
the film Cruising, was released that depicted the gay community in a very
negative light, focusing on drugs and murders in the leather bars of New York
In the America in which Marvin lived, gay bars were regularly raided by
police, and gay Americans had virtually no civil rights in most states. When gay
characters did appear in movies like Cruising,
The Day of the Jackal, The Eiger Sanction, The Fan, or The
Road Warrior, they were usually murdered, or committed suicide because they
couldn't live with themselves. It's not hard to see why Marvin married, why he
tried to live a heterosexual life, as millions of gay men did (and as many still
do today). It's not surprising that he's in psychotherapy, that he's been messed
up by a society that has forced him to be something he's not. But it is
interesting that despite his serious interpersonal problems, Marvin doesn't seem
to have a specific problem with being gay.
And it's not a surprise that Jason is so worried about turning out gay
himself. It's not a surprise that Jason thinks his father isn't a real man
because he's gay, that he can't bring himself to say "gay" or
"homosexual" when he talks to Mendel about Marvin. And it's not a
surprise that he can blithely declare that his father is a "homo."
Jason is growing up in a world that is less oppressive than the world in which
his father grew up, but it's still a world that makes it clear, whether
explicitly or implicitly, that being gay is a bad thing, something decadent,
something not right.
All in the Family
Though no one was using the word, "dysfunctional" in 1981, it
certainly describes Marvin's family. Marvin and Trina have been married at least
twelve years, probably exactly that long since there is the implication that
they married because Trina was pregnant ("My hands were tied. My father
cried: You'll marry."). During that time, Marvin has been having sex with
men, and Trina certainly knew he was fooling around, although we're not sure if
she knew it was with men. And now Whizzer shows up and Marvin tries to force his
gay relationship into the middle of his existing family, even though he's
already divorced Trina.
Like other wives of the time, Trina is thrown into orbit by all this. She
knows next to nothing about homosexuality. All she knows is that after twelve
years, her husband has left her for another man. She probably thinks she's
partly or entirely to blame. She finds herself without a man protecting her for
the first time in her life, so she turns to her ex-husband's psychiatrist, who
has a whole bag of his own dysfunctions. As Trina and Mendel try to re-establish
a family unit, Marvin tries to force Whizzer into the role of traditional wife.
Meanwhile, 12-year-old Jason has to act as father figure to Trina, asking Mendel
about his intentions, trying to protect and look out for Trina, since no one
else will. It's a strange, difficult situation, and through it all, Marvin
refuses to let go of Trina. He still refers to himself, Trina, and Jason as a
family, and he's furious when Trina announces she is remarrying, as if she's the
one betraying him.
The reliance of Marvin and Trina on psychotherapy is also a product of
their times. Psychotherapy had become not only relatively respectable; it was
even trendy. The 1970s had seen the first sitcom with a central character who's
a psychologist, The Bob Newhart Show. What's funny (and sad) is how crazy these
people are even though they're all going to a psychiatrist, and that Marvin and
Trina think Jason's problems can all be fixed by sending him to a psychiatrist.
Even the song title, "Everyone Tells Jason to See a Psychiatrist,"
says a lot. Trina refers to the other boys in Jason's school as "all those
guys who have not been analyzed yet."
She assumes that everyone eventually winds up in therapy. Maybe everyone she
knows does. Of course, the question is whether their psychotherapy is
ineffectual because they're just too nuts or because Mendel is a rotten
March of the Falsettos
At one time, William Finn was going to call this show The
Pettiness of Misogyny, but instead he settled on the less direct, more
ambiguous March of the Falsettos, one of those titles that causes arguments in
college dining halls. What does the title mean? What is the "march"
and who are the "falsettos"?
We have to look at the central action of the show to figure this out. The
show isn't about Marvin and Whizzer. If it was, it would end with the song
"I Never Wanted to Love You," because that's the end of Marvin and
Whizzer's story in this musical. Instead, the show ends with "Father to
Son," because this musical is about the fact that Marvin has to grow up in
order to be the father Jason needs, in order to be able to help Jason grow up.
He can't be a role model until he's made the journey himself. Throughout the
show, Jason's unchanged voice sings an octave higher than the other three men in
the show. Only in the title song do they all sing in the same register, with the
adult men all singing in falsetto. So it's reasonable to assume that a falsetto
voice is a symbol of childhood, of not yet being an adult. The march of the
falsettos is the journey of those who are still children, who have not yet
become adults. In this case, that doesn't just refer to Jason; it also refers to
Marvin and Mendel, and to a lesser extent, Whizzer. None of these men have grown
up yet; they are all still self-centered, self-involved, and prone to temper
tantrums when they don't get what they want. Finn tells us this by having the
adults all lose the symbol of manhood -- the changed voice -- for the title
song. The journey -- the march -- they take is the one from childhood to
But there are other journeys going on as well. All four of the adults
also take a journey from a world of fantasy and easy, black-and-white answers to
the more complex real world in which everything doesn't always make sense, in
which life isn't always fair. This is another journey that we all go through
when we grow up, when we finally have to confront and live in the real world.
For many of us, we take that step in our late teens or early twenties. Marvin,
Trina, and Whizzer get there a lot later. At the end of March
of the Falsettos, they have only begun that journey. These journeys prove
particularly painful and difficult for these people because they're not equipped
to handle them, but these are journeys we all must take at some point in our
lives. We must all, whether or not we have children, grow up and become adults
so that we can nurture the next generation. Even those of us who aren't parents
still have a responsibility to the future. The "march of the
falsettos" is a march we all have to go on, one that many of us are still
on, in some ways.
At the end of the show, Marvin says to Jason to sing for them all, to
speak for them, and to live the life the adults should have lived, as he makes
his way in the world. Marvin, Trina, Mendel, and Whizzer have all made messes of
their lives, to various extents, but Jason is just starting out and he still has
a chance to make the right choices and take the right paths, and as he does,
maybe find some redemption for those who've gone before him.
But this song also explores some other issues, most importantly the idea
of what it means to be a man. The concept of marching conjures images of the
military, of fighting and war and heroism, of John Wayne and General Patton. One
part of the lyric goes:
Four men marching in one long column,
Never touching but always solemn.
Four men marching but never mincing,
Four men marching is so convincing.
passage begins with military images and then reminds us that real men don't
touch other men, that physical displays of affection are unmanly, that real men
don't show emotion. The reference to "never mincing" brings up the
stereotype of the effeminate gay man, a behavior to be avoided at all costs. And
in the last line quoted here, the lyric comments on the belief that the
appearance of manliness is enough, that gay men are acceptable as long as they
act "normal" and traditionally masculine (and stay in the closet),
that if you can appear to be a real man on the outside, that if you avoid
"mincing," then nobody really cares, or wants to know, what's on the
inside. By presenting these accepted social ideas in such a ridiculous context,
Finn suggests that they are ridiculous in and of themselves.
Later in this song, Mendel says that Marvin is always wary of things. He
sees that Marvin believes in society's restrictions, that he is preoccupied with
appearing manly, that he must keep himself in the "masculine" role by
forcing Whizzer into what he thinks is the "feminine" role (as cook
and housewife). Marvin can't show emotion. He can't allow himself to be
vulnerable because that's not manly. It's important that Jason not grow up with
this same fear, but with Marvin as his father, it's likely that he will.
Whizzer tells Jason to relax, to stop being scared of whether or not he's
going to grow up gay. Whizzer sings, "Asses bared. My delight. Shared with
four young men alone in the night." Whizzer like sex, and he likes sex with
men. Whizzer thinks anything between consenting adults should not be judged. In
fact, even though Whizzer has come of age in an era of multiple sex partners,
unprotected sexual activity, and an overuse of drugs and alcohol, he may have
the healthiest attitude about sex of any character in the show. Even though
Whizzer is in a pretty unhealthy relationship with Marvin, Whizzer knows that
it's okay to be gay. He's telling Jason two things: that Marvin being gay
doesn't mean Jason will be gay, and that if Jason turns out to be gay, there's
nothing wrong with that. Earlier in the show, Jason won't listen to his parents,
but he will listen to Whizzer. He chooses Whizzer as a role model because
perhaps he senses that Whizzer is the least screwed up of the adults in his
Four Jews in a Room Bitching
There is an accepted rule that you can do anything you want in a musical,
as long as you do it within the first ten minutes, to make it clear to the
audience what the ground rules are for the evening. The opening number of March
of the Falsettos does that brilliantly. It sets the musical style (frenetic
and insistent), establishes the vocabulary (intellectual, absurdist, and
sometimes shocking), introduces the characters, and to an extent sets up the
relationships. The first line of the song, which is also its title, "Four
Jews in a Room Bitching," immediately tells the audience that this show is
irreverent and aggressively in-your-face. No punches will be pulled. No feelings
will be spared.
The lyric to this song gives us a lot of information. Mendel asks, "Wadda
they do for love?" Indeed, that's
the central question of the show. What do
they do for love? How far will they go? How much will they give? What will they
sacrifice? They admit that they sometimes lie, and that's good to know. It
prepares us for the fact that what characters say in this show is not
necessarily the truth. They tell us they're "mad" (i.e., insane) and
they couldn't be more right. These people are nuts. They don't care about right
and wrong; they only care about what they want. Marvin says they are
manipulative, also good to know. In the middle of the song, Jason says, "In
case of smoke, please call our mothers on the phone and say their sons are all
on fire." They are all on the brink of disaster. They are each in a
dangerous place in their lives, a place where the choices they make could mean
life or death, at least in an emotional sense. This may also be a reference to
the old adage, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." It may also be a
reference to the term "flaming" as a description of a gay man. Another
section in the middle of the song centers on "the bed." This tells us
at the outset that these four men are obsessed with sex and sexuality. Jason
can't stop thinking about Marvin's homosexuality and his own as yet unknown
sexuality. Marvin and Whizzer are both utterly preoccupied with sex. Mendel
can't see or talk about Trina without getting all hot and bothered. Sex has an
importance to all four of them that borders on the obsessive.
The last lines of the song sum it all up. "Can't lose" tells us
that the stakes are very high here, and we will see that they are, for all the
characters. (Marvin will later tell us that "winning is everything.")
"Loose screws" reminds us that nobody here is real healthy, mentally
Marvin is an unlikely hero for a musical. He's childish, neurotic, almost
annoyingly intellectual, self-centered and self-absorbed, overly competitive,
and sex-obsessed. But he certainly makes a fascinating character study, and
somehow, despite his more despicable characteristics, we do care about him and
In the liner notes for the cast album of the first Marvin musical, In
Trousers, William Finn wrote, "So Marvin grows up (after a fashion),
says goodbye to ladies (more to the point), and learns to live with always
getting what he wants." And it's true that Marvin has always gotten what he
wants -- until now. As March of the
Falsettos begins, what Marvin wants
is to make Whizzer his spouse, but also keep Trina. And he finds out that he
just can't have that. He can have one or the other, but not both. He's not even
sure he's going to get to keep Jason in his life. For the first time in his
life, he's not getting what he wants, and he goes ballistic. Trina describes him
as a baby who's been denied. Exactly.
We know Marvin's been in therapy with Mendel for a long time. It's
interesting to wonder if he started seeing Mendel before or after he figured out
he's gay, and whether that realization triggered his need for psychotherapy.
Surely, even before he knew he was gay, he was still childish, self-centered,
and competitive. He says he thinks love is boring. He calls it debris and
compares it to a bad biography. This is not a healthy guy. And yet, he's quite
the romantic in many ways. He's told Jason that love is the most beautiful thing
in the world. He talks about love often, particularly in reference to Whizzer.
He wants Whizzer to love him, but apparently thinks Whizzer does not. Still, his
relationship with Whizzer is marred by Marvin's incessant competitiveness.
Marvin says he's best when he cheats, so he's going to cheat to win, because, he
tells us, winning is everything. Even more so than being in love? Possibly.
Marvin and Whizzer fight about everything. They even fight about how long
they've been together. For Marvin, the longer they've been together the greater
the commitment is and the greater chance that they'll stay together, so Marvin
rounds up, and says it's been ten months. For Whizzer, the shorter time
they've been together, the less permanent it feels, the easier it will be for
Whizzer to leave when he wants to, so Whizzer rounds down, and says it's been nine months.
Marvin's relationship with Trina is also a complicated one. Even after
he's left her for Whizzer, he doesn't want to let go of her. He gets insanely
jealous when he finds out that Mendel is courting her. Marvin has been cheating
on Trina for quite a while, he gave her syphilis and hepatitis, he admits that
she's a good woman, and despite all he's done to her, he still resents the fact
that she's found someone else to love her. Maybe this goes back to Marvin's
competitiveness. Maybe he can't stand that she's found a new spouse and he
His relationship with his son, Jason, is a complicated one, too. Perhaps
we can assume that Jason really does love his father. But Marvin's realization
of his gayness has thrown the family into chaos, and Jason is angry at Marvin
for disrupting what was a basically happy (though still neurotic) family. Also,
in 1981, a 12-year-old kid isn't going to be real open-minded about
homosexuality, particularly when it's his father who's gay. But the blame Jason
lays on Marvin isn't entirely fair. True, Marvin has thrown the family into
turmoil. But not admitting his gayness would probably be even worse for them all
in the long run. One of the most interesting passages in the show is in
"Marvin at the Psychiatrist."
Marvin: We go to ball games.
The ball is tossed.
Marvin: The pitcher's handsome.
And our team lost.
Marvin: Is that my problem? Should I be blamed for that?
right. His attraction to the pitcher did not cause the team to lose, but Jason
is only twelve and as far as he's concerned the two things are directly related.
Jason invokes some kind of hyper-morality that this perceived perversion by his
father is so far-reaching that it actually causes the ball team to lose the
game. Marvin can't talk to Jason, because Marvin's excels only in the realm of
words and ideas, while Jason is in an exclusively emotional place. Marvin is at
a loss, and he asks Mendel how to reach Jason, what to do about this situation.
He cannot reach his son, and he knows deep down, that Jason is his only
salvation. As noted earlier, the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer is not
the heart of this show; the relationship between Marvin and Jason is.
Marvin's relationship with Whizzer is one of the most dysfunctional ever
depicted in a musical (right up there with Passion).
One of the most striking characteristics of their relationship is the constant
threats and bluffs about leaving or breaking up. They're constantly telling each
other the current outrage had better be the end. At the end of "The Chess
Game," Marvin goes and gets Whizzer's suitcase and sets it down in front of
him. Marvin is probably bluffing again -- he's used to being able to push people
pretty far and they never seem to break -- but in this case, Whizzer calls his
bluff. He actually packs the suitcase and leaves. And Marvin is devastated.
Marvin and Whizzer are actually proud
of the fact that they refuse to agree on anything. In "The Thrill of First
Love," they say that of all the lesser passions, they like fighting the
most. To both of them, genuine emotional intimacy is a foreign and frightening
concept, so the only way for them to express their passion is through fighting.
There is always the danger, though, that one of them will push the other too
Yet Marvin is always pushing commitment on Whizzer. In "The Thrill
of First Love," Marvin complains that Whizzer doesn't understand the joy of
monogamy. But is this love or is this just Marvin's desire for someone to be
committed to him, the desire to have someone cook and clean for him? When Mendel
asks Marvin if he loves Whizzer, Marvin says, "Sorta kinda." Whizzer
is undoubtedly a former boy toy, probably used to being "kept" by
older men, but Whizzer is getting older, enough so that his days as a boy toy
are probably over. So Marvin figures Whizzer will be happy to take on Trina's
role. Marvin doesn't want to give up having a wife and he clearly intends to put
Whizzer in that role.
Yet at times, it's a little unsettling how hard Marvin is working at
making Whizzer into Trina. In "The Thrill of First Love," Marvin tells
Whizzer to shave his legs. He tells us that Whizzer makes him smile --
especially at meal time. He says Whizzer role is to make dinner. (In an
interesting juxtaposition, Trina says elsewhere in the show that she
was supposed to make dinner.) Even after Marvin has left Trina for Whizzer,
Marvin says that he wants a wife who knows what love is, an interesting
statement since he clearly doesn't
want a wife -- he wants a man. He acts as if nothing has changed, like the fact
that he now wants to be with a man doesn't change the dynamics of the
relationship at all. He wants Whizzer to happily slide into Trina's role and he
wants nothing to be upset in the transition. Marvin says to Whizzer, "Hate
me or need me, just make sure you feed me." It sure sounds like Marvin
doesn't really care that much about love. Or maybe it's just that Marvin doesn't
think Whizzer loves him, so he figures he won't even try. Unfortunately for them
both, Marvin is wrong; Whizzer does love him, even if he wishes he didn't.
The most frightening (and one of the funniest) moments is in Marvin's
therapy session, talking about Whizzer:
Mendel: When he's naked...
Mendel: Does he thrill you?
Mendel: Is he vicious?
Mendel: Would he kill you?
Marvin: Yes. I think he's sorta kinda mean.
this is an overstatement on Marvinís part. Itís doubtful Whizzer would kill
Marvin, but this is not a relationship built on trust. There is love and there
is lust, but there is also suspicion and deceit and lots of mind games.
Whizzer Going Down
In a lot of ways, Whizzer is probably the least neurotic, least screwed
up of all the characters in the show. His past as a boy toy peeks through all
throughout the show. Certainly, Marvin is comfortable financially, but he's
hardly wealthy, so why is Whizzer with him? Has Whizzer changed his priorities?
Whizzer says that what he loves he devours. He uses men and then discards them
after he's got what he wants from them. But he could have left Marvin long ago.
Why is he still here? Does he love Marvin after all? He doesn't want
to love Marvin. He even goes so far as denying it a number of times, but his
actions belie his words. Whizzer is obviously scared of feeling what he's
feeling for Marvin. Like Marvin, Whizzer knows that passion eventually dies, but
he mistakenly thinks that that means love dies, too, which is not usually the
case. Love lives on long after the passion is gone, after the honeymoon, the
thrill of first love, is over. Marvin and Whizzer are expecting too much, asking
for too much from their hearts and from their relationship. Whizzer has probably
never stayed after the passion was gone until now, so he's in uncharted
territory, and he's understandably scared. And it doesn't help that the man he
loves is such a jerk.
Whizzer does begin to take on the role of wife, as Marvin wants, but we
have to ask if Whizzer is also taking on a role when it comes to intelligence.
Is Whizzer really smarter than he seems? Has he figured out that Marvin is
threatened by anyone as smart as he is? We know that Whizzer plays games just
like the others, and perhaps this is just one more game, one more role-playing
opportunity to give Marvin what he wants, the dumb but pretty houseboy who can
be put down, to whom Marvin can feel superior, just as he did to Trina. We have
to wonder if, for instance, Whizzer already knows how to play chess when Marvin
"teaches" him in "The Chess Game."
Whizzer's win over Marvin in the chess game is fascinating. He gets
Marvin to take his hand, knowing how horny Marvin is, knowing how that will
distract him. Then Whizzer takes his hand away, interrupting Marvin's turn-on to
even further distract him. And Whizzer turns the tables -- now it's Whizzer
telling Marvin which piece to move,
instead of the other way around. He tells Marvin to move the pawn and Marvin listens to him, which is a big surprise. There are very
specific chess moves in the March of the
Falsettos script, and they describe a fascinating game that raises some
interesting questions. Marvin almost makes the move that will prevent Whizzer's
win, but Whizzer stops him from moving his knight and gets him to move a pawn
instead. Then in very few moves, Whizzer sets up two checkmate opportunities,
one with a bishop, one with the queen. The scenario Whizzer creates is called a
"Fool's Mate," a comically appropriate label in this case. Marvin
cheats to prevent the first checkmate, but Whizzer has a second checkmate
waiting, and he wins. So what has happened here? Did Whizzer make all this
happen by accident? It doesn't seem likely. Whizzer knew more than Marvin -- or
any of us -- thought he did.
Despite the fact that Whizzer is probably less messed up than Marvin, he
still has some unresolved issues in his life. Marvin tells us early on that
Whizzer drinks a lot. Is that because he's trying to escape something, his past
maybe? Or is it merely because he has lived in the 70s gay club scene for a long
time? We can safely assume that Whizzer was a happily successful boy toy once,
but now he's getting older, losing his looks, no longer able to be a cute young
thing. So what can he do? He probably has no job experience, no marketable
skills. Maybe Whizzer needs to be "married" as much as Trina does.
Maybe he doesn't see any other option. Maybe that's why he puts up with Marvin,
just as Trina did for so many years.
Trina is one of those women who was brought up to believe that marriage
is the primary goal for any woman. She followed all the rules; she found and
married a man. She stayed with him for twelve years. She gave him a son. She put
up with all his abuses and neuroses. She might have even known that he was
unfaithful but decided it didn't matter. Later in the show, after she's agreed
to marry Mendel, she tells us that she won't care if he cheats on her. This is a
woman who has no self-respect, no sense of self-worth. While Marvin and Trina
are still married, Marvin starts coming home with diseases that he passes on to
Trina, diseases he could have only contracted by sleeping with other people (but
remember, this is pre-AIDS), and yet she stays with him. Finally, Marvin tells
her he's gay and he's leaving her for a man. What does she do? The carpet's been
pulled out from under her. The rules no longer apply. She is adrift in a sea
that is completely foreign to her. She is a stranger in a strange land, just as
Marvin and Whizzer are, just as Mendel will be when he proposes to her, just as
"Trina's Song" is a wonderful glimpse into what makes Trina
tick. And often, what is left unsaid, or what is lied about tells us more than
what is said honestly. Trina has never been in control of her life. Men have
always controlled her, first her father, then Marvin, and now Mendel. She
doesn't like it, but it's familiar, it's safe, and though she may complain, she
won't take any steps to change things. That would be even scarier. Her life is a
mess of contradictions. In the beginning of the song she says that she's happy
but not completely at ease, then later in the same song, she says she's not
Her relationship with Mendel comes into harsh light in "Trina's
Song." She says, "I need those crass, indulgent stares." This
says as much about Mendel as it does about her. What about that could she
possibly "need"? She says, "He pats my ass and says he
cares." Does she think this is the only way she can keep Mendel, to be a
sexual object for him, a toy, a child, rather than an articulate adult woman?
It's interesting that from her perspective he only says
he cares. Does she doubt his love just as Marvin doubts Whizzer's love? Has
Marvin's betrayal, both real and perceived, made her distrust all men? Still,
despite it all, she just continues to pretend that everything's fine, that she's
happy and contented. She only requires the appearance of love. She asks only
that he make it seem like he finds her attractive. Their whole relationship is
based on surface lies, on the appearance of happiness to make up for the lack of
real happiness. She says in the reprise of her song that if she has doubts,
she'll just ignore them. How sad. She needs to be married. She sees no other
options (just like Whizzer). She only has an identity, a sense of self, in
relation to the man in her life. She says in the reprise, "I will practice
to resemble him in all important ways."
Trina has always wanted to be a Jewish June Cleaver, but she can't seem
to get it right, perhaps because June Cleaver was not
a real woman, because Trina has set up for herself a goal that is impossible
to reach. She thinks her role is to clip the coupons, check for specials, and
show Marvin love. (Isn't it interesting that she equates loving him with her
other chores?) She can't handle problems. She wants to be baking cookies for
Jason and vacuuming in a dress and pearls. When she calls Mendel in "Please
Come to Our House," she says that they'll all act like nothing's wrong --
the only way she can get through the day. Even the seemingly innocuous lyric,
"Late for Dinner" underscores Trina's inability to get her role as
cook and housekeeper right. She can't even have dinner ready on time. June
Cleaver would have.
Trina only knows how to be a wife and mother. She even mothers Whizzer
from time to time (perhaps she feels a kinship with him because their
predicaments are so similar). She comforts Whizzer after his fight with Marvin
(just imagine comforting the lover of your ex-spouse, the person for whom you
were left). Does she need to be needed that badly? Or does she just know what a
son-of-a-bitch Marvin is? Her advice to Whizzer is interesting. She tells him
just to forget about it, to pretend it didn't happen. Is this how she dealt with
Marvin? She always thought Marvin's abuses didn't matter, but she was wrong. Her
life is now in shambles.
The other disturbing detail is the valentine notes Jason leaves for
Trina. There's something very weird about that, something a bit too Oedipal. Is
this the only romance she can get? At that point, it probably is. It's
interesting that this adult-child romance is echoed in Marvin and Whizzer's
relationship. Is William Finn intentionally setting these two pairs as parallel?
Is Whizzer the kid to Marvin's father figure? Trina's comment that
"Daddy" (Marvin) is kissing boys takes on new meaning in that context.
Marvin's comment that one of Whizzer's jobs is to check for acne seems to
indicate that Marvin sees them that way as well.
What's funniest about Mendel (and there's lots about him that's funny) is
that he's far more messed up than any of his patients. Marvin, Trina, and Jason
look to Mendel for answers, for guidance, but he's nuts. He asks Trina a
question, then stops her before she can answer and says, "Don't -- that's a
question with no answer." So why did he ask? He says later, "I've
never married. Work, work is my passion. Or perhaps that's an alibi. I don't
care to discuss it." He hides his fear of intimacy behind being a
workaholic, then he calls himself on it, and still manages to avoid addressing
the issue altogether. He tells Trina that love is blind, then later agrees with
Jason that love is not blind. Does he just agree with whatever his patients say?
He tells Trina he's frightened of questions. He's a psychiatrist and he's afraid
of questions? When Marvin asks Mendel in "Marvin at the Psychiatrist"
what he should do about Jason, what he should do to reach his son, Mendel looks
at his watch and ends the session rather than have to answer a question. When
Mendel comes to their house to see Jason, he says that they'll talk if they are
able to, but probably they won't be able to. He can't communicate with anyone.
The whole purpose of the visit is to talk to Jason and yet he admits he probably
won't be able to. And he later defends his neurosis by equating himself with
geniuses of the past ("Yes I feel guilt. Yes I'm annoyed. So was Jung. So
When the chips are down, Mendel is completely inarticulate and
ineffectual. When he proposes to Trina, he babbles hopelessly about her wrist
and thigh, about Biblical siblings, about horses and zebras. In fact, he rarely
escapes being completely crass and inappropriate. He says he thinks Trina is
"eager" to fool around. He says to Marvin, "It's queer, Mr.
Marvin," and if it isn't enough that he's used that phrase to his gay
patient, he then makes it worse by calling attention to it. He speaks to Marvin
of Trina's "meager glories," a left-handed compliment if ever there
was one. He says about taking Marvin's wife and son, "My acts of theft are
incredibly perverse. It's embarrassing but I've got a nice tight family."
He acknowledges his amorality, finds it merely embarrassing, and then goes to on
to gloat about the fruits of his act. He says just a few lines later that he's
"bought" a family. He bought
them??? While Marvin and Mendel discuss Trina during Marvin's session, all it
takes is for Marvin to use the word "breast" and Mendel actually has
an orgasm in his chair. He asks Marvin if Trina sleeps in the nude when they're
supposed to be talking about Marvin and Whizzer, or at least about Jason. When
Mendel comes to see Jason, he sees the dinner table as romantic because all he
can think about is seducing Trina.
He's the worst psychiatrist we've ever met. And unfortunately, his
patients are more in need of real guidance than most people we know. It's a
combination that can only mean disaster.
Jason is an angry, bitter kid, and can we really blame him? His mother's
a neurotic, dependent mess of a woman with chronically low self-esteem. His
father is a neurotic, childish man who's just figured out at age forty that he's
gay and so tries to force his lover to be assimilated into his (barely)
traditional family unit. And his psychiatrist is a lunatic.
Jason declares early on that love is not all that it's cracked up to be.
This isn't a surprise since the only love he's ever witnessed is the love
between Marvin and Trina, which has gone down in flames, the love between Marvin
and Whizzer, which is combative and distrustful, and the love between Trina and
Mendel, which is loaded with time bombs. Love hurts everyone around him. He
wants no part of it. Beyond that, he also has a genuine fear that he may grow up
gay like his father, so denouncing love altogether may seem like a safe move for
him, taking him out of the action entirely. Instead of love, he invests his
energy into games. It's interesting that he chooses that which Marvin loves as
well. Marvin's games are mind games, while Jason's are board games, but the
connection is still a real one.
He decides he will blame Marvin for all this chaos, but not Trina. He
says that Marvin is snide, morbid, and dissatisfied, all of which is true. He
sings and dances to "My Father's a Homo," doing anything at all to
hurt his parents. Being mean is the only way he knows how to interact with
people, and he no doubt learned that from Marvin. This surfaces when Mendel's
due and Jason asks how to behave, whether he should be mean to Mendel. Being
mean is all he knows.
The therapy Mendel offers Jason seems silly on the surface, and we're
used to Mendel spouting nonsense, but it makes more sense than it might appear.
Mendel is telling Jason to stop thinking
so much, to ignore all the nastiness and mind games going on around him. He's
trying to tell Jason to just be a kid. Mendel says, "You can add and
subtract at will," in other words, Jason controls how he perceives things
and how he reacts to them. Jason keeps starting a sentence with "I
hate..." and Mendel keeps stopping him and telling him to forget it, to
forget the hate, the bitterness, all the energy expended in being angry.
The truth is that Jason is right when he says he's too smart for his own
good. No kid should have to deal with all the things he has to deal with. Most
kids would be unable to discern all that Jason can understand, and that's how it
should be. No kid is equipped to handle this kind of intensity, this kind of
emotional complexity, but Jason's intelligence and insight throws him into the
middle of the fray. In a very funny and significant moment, Jason turns the
tables and throws Mendel's therapy back at him, using Mendel's tactics, even
some of his own words. Jason knows more than the adults do. Though the adults
all think love is blind, Jason disagrees. He tells Mendel that love isn't blind.
Love doesn't have to close its eyes to abuse and disloyalty. Love can be honest.
Why can't his parents learn this lesson? And once Marvin is gone, Jason must act
as father figure to Trina, screening Mendel, asking him about his intentions.
Trina needs someone to watch out for her. If it's not Jason, who will it be? But
he's not comfortable in this role. It's not his role. He shouldn't have to do
Jason's fear that he might grow up gay is an important aspect of his
personality. This is a real fear for him, and in 1981 that fear is a lot greater
than it might be for a kid today. Jason has no gay role models except Marvin and
Whizzer, so if he did turn out gay, who could he turn to for guidance? His fear
stems from the fact that he really can see himself in Marvin. This is also
probably part of why Jason turns against Marvin. He blames Marvin for
everything. Interestingly, he doesn't blame Whizzer at all. He chooses Whizzer
for advice. In the third chapter of the Marvin Trilogy, Falsettoland,
Whizzer and Jason become even closer. Jason does love Marvin, but Marvin is a
threat to him in many ways. It's only at the end of the show, when Jason finally
realizes that he is indeed heterosexual, that Jason allows Marvin to come close,
and only then is there finally the possibility of salvaging their relationship.
Into the Words
The lyrics of March of the Falsettos are very unusual in a lot of ways. Finn's
voice is unlike those of any other writer working in the theatre. The words he
chooses are so often just weird. In the opening number, the men sing that they
"stoop" to pray. Generally, a person is said to "stoop" to
an amoral or underhanded act, not usually praying. Mendel says that Trina moves
him in "unreported" ways. Marvin, Trina and Jason sing that
photographs can't capture their "magic." Mendel says to Trina in his
marriage proposal, "I want you by my side to take my place, if I get sick
or detained," as if she's accepting a role as his vice-president.
Throughout the show, the characters use overly intellectual vocabulary.
They use words and phrases like "a priori," "impetus,"
"vis Š vis," and "apoplexy," not your standard musical
comedy vocabulary. Trina makes a Shakespeare reference when she says to Jason,
"Get thee to a psychiatrist." Does she realize she's paraphrasing a
line from Hamlet that's spoken to
Ophelia, who will later go insane? If Trina doesn't know it, Finn sure does.
That's no accident. This vocabulary is important since intelligence is such a
major issue throughout the show, especially for Marvin, Whizzer, and Jason. And
on top of that, Marvin and Whizzer constantly indulge in double entendres.
Whizzer says "...while I put the steak in," a reference to both
cooking and sex. Marvin and Whizzer later say, "We're too busy mounting a
display of our affection..." The use of the word "mounting" is,
again, no accident.
There are also a number of textual themes running throughout the show,
including God, music, food, love, and other things. There are dozens of
references to games, the show's central metaphor. There's "can't lose"
in the opening number, "winning is everything" and also "I intend
to upset this regrettable game" in "The Thrill of First Love,"
there's Whizzer's song "The Games I Play," Jason's several song
fragments about games, and lots more.
There are references to death and dying throughout the show. Trina talks
about death all the time. She says in "Love in Blind" that Marvin and
Jason acted dead. She tells Mendel she's got a scalpel up her sleeve, and later
that she's got rope and that she may be hanging from a chandelier by the time
Mendel gets to their house. Her "romantic" dinner table has knives in
place but no reference to other utensils, only those that are also instruments
of murder. Perhaps they're the only ones she notices. In "Making a
Home," Trina and Mendel sing, "Forging ahead, taking our lives, making
a home." But Finn uses the music to separate the phrase "taking our
lives," by putting a hold on the last note of the phrase and a big break
right after it, possibly to give that line added emphasis, possibly to underline
it's double meaning. After all, Trina has been talking about taking her life
through the whole show. Early in the show, Marvin and Whizzer say they would
"kill for the thrill of first love." Later in the same song, it's no
longer "would kill;" now it's definite -- "I'll kill for the
thrill of first love." Mendel asks Marvin if Whizzer would kill him. Marvin
says yes, he might.
Reviewing the Situation
March of the Falsettos is a complicated, difficult show. And it becomes even
more so when it's presented along with Falsettoland
as a full evening. The music is fast and frenetic. It rarely slows down and
almost never stops. The language zooms by, full of Latin phrases, literary
references, bizarre phraseology, and hundreds of inside jokes and double
entendres. And Finn's music frequently breaks up sentences in places other than
where the punctuation breaks them, and that makes things even harder to
understand. This is a show that demands an enormous effort from an audience,
tremendous concentration, complete focus, and a quick mind. It never
condescends. It never under-estimates its audiences intelligence. Even after
months of studying it, after fifteen years of listening to the cast album, I'm
still discovering new jokes, new details, different nuances that I hadn't seen
before. And maybe that's why so many people love it. In Trousers and Falsettoland
are both great shows, but they don't have half of the complexity or labyrinthine
brilliance of March of the Falsettos.
This show packs more into fifty minutes than most shows can get into two and a
half hours. Some people will find that exhausting and unsatisfying. Others will
find it exhilarating.
The full score for March of the
Falsettos has not been published but vocal selections have. The original
cast albums for all three parts of the trilogy are on CD, and the entire trilogy
has been published in one volume as The
Excerpt from Deconstructing Harold Hill by Scott Miller (Heinemann Publishing, 1999). All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.