Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Feature: Robert McQueen on directing Falsettos

The Bright, Dark Chaos of Family
by Robert McQueen

For Acting Up Stage Company Robert McQueen has directed Caroline, or Change and The Light in the Piazza. His other recent work includes productions of Capriccio for Pacific Opera Victoria, The Magic Flute for Vancouver Opera and La Bohème for the Canadian Opera Company. Internationally Mr. McQueen directed Carousel at the Galaxy Theatre, Tokyo and the world premiere of Where Elephants Weep in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He has worked in the development of new musicals and operas in Canada, the US and internationally for companies including COC, Vancouver Opera, The O’Neill Centre and Cambodian Living Arts, in Phnom Penh.  Most recently Mr. McQueen directed a workshop of Leslie Uyeda and Rachel Rose’s new opera When the Sun Comes Out, which will have it’s premiere production next summer as part of the Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver. 

Mitchell Marcus’s invitation to join Acting Up Stage to create a production of William Finn’s musical Falsettos has been a gift. Composed of March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990), Falsettos tells the story of a man who leaves his wife and son for his male lover against the backdrop of the very chaotic social and political climate that was 1980s New York City.  The special permission granted by Finn himself to revert to the original versions of these one acts, rather than the combined product which appeared on Broadway in 1992, has proven to be an infinite source of inspiration, as we have been able to craft our own piece which mines the way an original audience would have felt upon first seeing these one-acts in 1981 and 1990. 

It was one of the first musicals to seriously examine the consequences of a family coming apart when the Father comes out.

I was studying theatre in New York City when March of the Falsettos premiered at Playwrights Horizon and I can still clearly remember its impact. At that time, Off-Broadway was a vibrant and more risky alternative to the commercial theatre, and the musical theatre community embraced this innovative and heartfelt piece. At its heart, March of the Falsettos is about a man, Marvin, whose world spins out of control after he decides to leave his wife, Trina, and their son, Jason, for his lover, Whizzer.  March of the Falsettos was one of the first musicals to seriously examine the consequences of a family coming apart when the Father comes out.

Set in Manhattan in 1979, the characters in March of the Falsettos are not yet touched by the mysterious and undefined illness that had already begun its rampage when the piece premiered in 1981. However, it was not until 1990 when the sequel, Falsettoland, set in 1981, hit Playwrights Horizon; and, with it, that the illness, still unnamed in the piece, suddenly took on a central and definitive role in the narrative of the character’s lives.

Having been in New York at the height of the epidemic, this chaos surrounding the mysterious illness (which, of course, we now know to be AIDS) is captured perfectly in the second act of what is now Falsettos. Unfortunately, I remember starting to lose friends – fairly immediately – and what is clearest in my memory is the confusion around what was going on. I was not, and I still am not, an overtly political person: so, I wasn’t involved in Act Up, but I was so deeply involved with my friends who were dying. I can still feel the shock associated with that time. I had one classmate who came to New York, who got sick, and who claimed to have only ever slept with one man. It’s the bizarre randomness of the illness and the way it would strike which still haunts me – and remains one of the primary reasons why these stories, and this piece in particular, continues to remain an important, beating heart for an audience to feel and reflect upon. 

...what I find so fascinating is the way in which the original material just is what it is.

When Falsettos opened on Broadway in 1992, Finn and playwright James Lapine made certain changes to the text to unite them under one cohesive, and more commercial, vision.  But for a show which is about its inconsistencies and its inner turmoil, what I find so fascinating is the way in which the original material just is what it is. I love the way in which the acts hover on their own, capturing the true spirit of this time of chaos and change. 

Early in my consideration of the production, I became interested in the possibility of returning to these one act versions.  I was attracted to the history of the works - that they were each written as complete, self-contained one acts, and that there was a separation of almost 10 years between their creation.  Moreover, each act marks the development of William Finn’s compositional style.  The fast-paced and chaotic composition of March of the Falsettos bumps up against the more melodic and linear writing of Falsettoland, allowing us to excavate fundamental aspects of the evolution of the characters. Whereas Marvin is neurotic, funny and narcissistic in Act I, he begins to reveal a capacity to see beyond his own wants and fears in Act II. Though in Act I, Marvin tries desperately and ultimately fails at creating a “tight knit family,” he actualizes, much to his surprise, this desire in the second half.  Only by bumping the rawness of Marvin in March of the Falsettos against the Marvin who has realized that it’s time to grow up in Falsettoland, do we experience his journey towards becoming a nurturing and loving husband, father and friend. 

everyone has a Marvin or Trina or Jason in their lives

These compositional and textual differences led to the creation of our physical production and creation of a different design for each act. This has allowed us to further explore how the characters in Finn’s works relate to each other and move through the space of their lives. The rectangular, confined setting of Act I allows for characters to move quickly between three primary locations with the action at times focusing on only one area of the stage, and at other times creating a sense that the characters are able to peer into secret spaces and witness the others from a distance. Act I, with its 1979 setting, is linear and locked. Our Act II set, though, is comprised of a giant hovering disk platform, with entrances both from backstage and through the audience. This allows us to alter the space, giving the characters a chance to bisect the action in a more free-flowing manner. Whereas Act I feels constrained, Act II provides wonderful opportunities for primary and secondary action to tumble and glide, thereby capturing the very spirit of 1981. 

Ultimately, I hope that audiences who come will find themselves in this piece – because when an audience finds themselves, they find their heart and the affect of the show. I am always drawn to work which draws on heart, like last year’s Caroline, or Change, and Falsettos is no exception. Everyone can find a part of themselves in Marvin or Trina or Jason, because everyone has a Marvin or Trina or Jason in their lives. And these characters are the reason for its importance today. This is certainly a play about AIDS and New York, but it is, at its core, a musical about what it means to be a family. And what is more chaotic than that? 

Falsettos runs from April 23-May 12

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