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 City.

            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 psychiatrist.

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 adulthood.

            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.

This 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 life.

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 or emotionally.

Marvin

            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 like him.

            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 hasn't.

            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.

                        Jason: The ball is tossed.

                        Marvin: The pitcher's handsome.

                        Jason: And our team lost.

                        Marvin: Is that my problem? Should I be blamed for that?

Marvin's 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 and Whizzer

            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 far.

            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...

                        Marvin: Yes?

                        Mendel: Does he thrill you?

                        Marvin: Yes.

                        Mendel: Is he vicious?

                        Marvin: Yes.

                        Mendel: Would he kill you?

                        Marvin: Yes. I think he's sorta kinda mean.

Certainly 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

            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 Jason is.

            "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 exactly happy.

            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.

The Psychiatrist

            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 was Freud.").

            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.

The Kid

            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 this.

            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.

Other Resources

            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 Marvin Songs.

 

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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.