YORK company Black Sheep Theatre Productions is running a list of Eight Reasons Not To Miss Falsettos in emphatic block capitals on Facebook ahead of next week’s York premiere at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre.
One reason: the limited availability. “Falsettos is a show that is not available for licence in the United Kingdom for normal theatre companies to perform,” it reads. “Falsettos is only available by special agreement with the composer, William Finn, and Concord Theatricals for production by Black Sheep Theatre Productions and is very unlikely to be done in the UK any time soon.
“If you miss this production, you won’t be able to find another one any time soon,” it re-emphasises.
For a barrier-breaking LGBTQ+ American musical where “love can tell a million stories”, that statement only tells half the story. Let director Matthew Clare fill in the rest as Black Sheep stick to their mission of making “Art with a point”.
“It’s been done only once before in the UK by a semi-pro company, off-West End, in London. It lasted for a week – there was a big backlash against it as a very gay and very Jewish musical,” he says.
“No-one in the cast was Jewish and lot of the Hebrew in it was pronounced wrongly, leading to a letter being signed by prominent members of the Jewish community and published in the Guardian. Miriam Margolyes and David Baddiel spoke on the matter, and in the light of that letter, pressure was put on to close the production. That’s what happened.
“Subsequently, the performing right were not available in the UK and that’s still the case, but now I have attained exclusive rights for Falsettos in the UK.”
How come? “Concord Theatricals have the rights in America, so I contacted them. That was nearly three years, during Covid, saying when everything gets back to normal, how could I make a production happen?” recalls Matthew.
“They initially said, ‘No, there are no rights in the UK’, but I kept pushing and through thatI got in touch with William Finn, the composer.”
First by email, then in conversation. “I talked openly with him, saying I wanted to be faithful to the piece. He’s Jewish, and we have Jewish representation on the production team,” says Matthew.
“My vision for our production was discussed by Concord with William, and they then said, ‘that’s fine, we agree for you to do it’.”
Permission was granted in spring 2022, a rights fee was agreed and paid, and Matthew then dealt directly with Concord in the UK. “It’s still heavily managed by them,” he says. “I’ve talked to them about twice a month, as I also did Elegies For Angels, Punks And Raging Queens through them, and because of that they’ve now kind of backed off over the last two months.
“They did stipulate that the child in the show – Jason – has to be male and there could be flexibility with other casting, though it all has to be as stated for gender. The cast also has to have an understanding of Jewish customs, such as bar mitzvahs, and we made sure the cast was au fait with everything by day one of rehearsals.”
Written by Finn and James Lapine, Falsettos is a Tony Award-winning sung-through musical that combines 1981’s March Of The Falsettos and 1990’s Falsettoland in its late-Seventies, early-Eighties story of Marvin (played by Chris Mooney), who has left his wife, Trina (Nicola Holliday) and 12-year-old son, Jason (Matthew Warry), to be with his male lover, Whizzer (Dan Crawfurd-Porter), and struggles to keep his Jewish family together in the way he has idealised.
“It’s a beautiful and heart-breaking story that explores the definitions of maturity and masculinity through this non-traditional family, and via a character who is immature at the start, as the AIDS pandemic comes to light,” says Matthew.
The cast of seven is completed by James Robert Ball as psychiatrist Mendel Weisenbachfeld, Helen Spencer as Dr Charlotte and Rachel Higgs as her girlfriend Cordelia. Together they must “bring their characters to life and present them in the most realistic and emotionally impactful ways”, as championed in another of the aforementioned eight reasons to see Falsettos.
“In this show, we have a fairly large representation of LGBTQ+ people in the cast and production team, and that brings with it an understanding of the roles and how to play them,” says Matthew of a musical whose characters and roles have played “a significant role in promoting diversity and inclusivity in the theatre community”.
“It’s important that these characters are presented in a realistic and sensitive manner, hooking audiences and ensuring the best possible show for you to watch!
“The themes are timeless, delving into the importance of acceptance, the strength of chosen families, defining masculinity and maturity, and the resilience needed to face life’s challenges. Its messages of love, compassion and unity resonate across the generations and continue to be relevant in our ever-changing world.
“That’s why we did Elegies For Angels, Punks And Raging Queens too. Theatre with a point is the best kind of theatre, and I want people to think and reflect on what they’ve just seen after the show.”
Black Sheep Theatre Productions in Falsettos, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, August 9 to 12, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Copyright of The Press, York
In profile: James Robert Ball, who is playing Mendel Weisenbachfeld
SUMMING up his role in Falsettos, James Robert Ball says: “Mendel is a middle-aged Jewish psychiatrist, an intellectual, but he’s a nervous wreck, trying to solve his own problems by solving everyone else’s.
“He’s treating the main character, Marvin, who has left his wife, Trina, because he’s gay and has stopped the charade of living a married life with a woman. Mendel starts treating Trina too, meddles his way into the family, then marries her and becomes the new father figure to Marvin and Trina’s son, Jason.”
Assessing Falsettos’ characters, James says: “They’re all very fleshed out. No-one is the hero. No-one is the villain. They each have their own neuroses and manipulate someone else but they all have heart too.
“The show is kind of a close observation of family dynamics and messy modern dynamics at that.”
James is a musical theatre composer and lyricist, musical director, actor, author, piano and singing teacher, pianist, accompanist and “Sondheim obsessive”. “I’m a freelance professional musician,” says the piano, trombone and clarinet player. “When I’m in shows as a musician, I’m a professional; when I’m doing a show like this, I’m an amateur.”
Director Matthew Clare originally had James in mind to be the rehearsal pianist, but his performances for York Stage as Mr Mushnik in Little Shop Of Horrors in July 2022 and Baron Bomburst’s spy Goran in a Vulgarian double act with Jack Hooper’s Boris in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in April demanded further roles. Step forward James’s Mendel Weisenbachfeld.
“The core of what I’m good at as an actor is that there isn’t much acting required, because Mendel is quite like me, and it’s a ‘schticky’ character again, having done Mr Mushnik with a similar vibe and similar characteristics,” he says.
Broad, physical humour marked out his double act with Jack Hooper in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “We put a lot of work into that partnership, and particularly for the kids in the audience, it was perfect old-time vaudeville humour,” says James.
“I had a great time working with Jack – it takes loads of effort to look that silly and get that beat going.”
Humour of a different dynamic is at play in Finn and Lapine’s “emotionally truthful” musical, one rooted in verbal volleyball before gradually turning into “hospital/deathbed humour” (or gallows humour, to use a more familiar term). “It’s all about the awkwardness in the moment, like in Woody Allen’s films,” says James.
“Stephen Sondheim is a useful reference here. It’s similar to Into The Woods in how the patter of chatter is translated into song, and how there’s a contrast in song styles with the ballads being more melodic.”
Did you know?
JAMES Robert Ball’s debut novel, A Botanical Daughter, will be published in March 2024. He teaches singing and performance at York Stage School.
Did you know too?
JAMES Lapine has collaborated frequently with Stephen Sondheim, as well as William Finn, in his career as a stage director, playwright, screenwriter and librettist, not least on Into The Woods.