The Jewishness of Falsettos isn’t apparent in its summary: a man named Marvin leaves his wife, Trina, and son, Jason, to be with his male lover, Whizzer, even though he still wants everyone to have dinner together. It’s awkward. To help with the awkwardness, Marvin sees a psychiatrist, who then becomes Trina’s and Jason’s therapist, and later marries Trina. That’s also awkward, but not as awkward as you would think.
The current Broadway production is a revival of William Finn and James Lapine’s 1992 musical, and it still pulls no punches. The unabashed Jewishness first strikes with its opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” (actually five, counting Trina), a playfully self-deprecating celebration of Jewish neuroses. The men sport Biblical robes and beards before ripping off their costumes to reveal late 70’s-era attire. Lyrics include “Now we’re at the Red Sea/Pharaoh is behind us/Wanting us extinct-ed/And then the Red Sea/Split before us/No more tsouris!” and “I’m neurotic, he’s neurotic/They’re neurotic, we’re neurotic/Bitch bitch bitch bitch/Funny funny funny funny.”
Based on its opening number, you’d expect a cast of over-the-top, insufferable Jerry Seinfeld- and Woody Allen-types, but with the exception of Brandon Uranowitz, none of the cast members are Jewish. As the therapist Mendel Weisenbachfeld, Uranowitz both channels Chip Zien, the role’s originator, and adds his own distinct charm with his wry Jewish delivery of the book’s wry Jewish humor.
As for the others? Christian Borle isn’t Jewish—or gay, although he sure has a habit of getting cast as such. Whizzer is played by Andrew Rannells, a Midwestern Catholic schoolboy whose breakthrough role was a Mormon. (To be fair, Whizzer self-identifies as only “half-Jewish.”) Stephanie J. Block (Trina), was also raised Catholic and, despite his last name, Anthony Rosenthal is only a quarter Jewish.
Despite the opening number, the first act of Falsettos could be an ethnically generic family drama. It’s in the second act that Jewish references hit full-force—hard to avoid when a major plotline is planning a bar mitzvah.
For the first half of the second act, Judaism is treated with classic self-deprecating humor. One song is about “watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball.”
“It’s weird how he swings the bat,” Marvin moans, “and why does he have to throw like that?”
Mendel implores Jason to “Remember Sandy Koufax…take heart from Hank Greenberg/It’s not genetic.” With a little intervention from the half-Jewish Whizzer, Jason hits the ball and scores a strike, or some good baseball thing that I don’t understand.
But more important than baseball is Jason’s bar mitzvah, which Marvin and Trina contentiously plan. “It’s the last loving thing we’ll ever do together,” Trina says, but they argue over everything, from catering to the guest list.
Jason would rather cancel the bar mitzvah than hear his parents fight over it. It’s supposed to be a “celebration where [he gets] richer,” and his parents are ruining it. They treat him to the familiar guilt trip of “You are gonna kill your mother/Don’t feel guilty, kill your mother/Rather than humiliate her/Killing your mother is the merciful thing to do.”
It could just be confirmation bias, but Borle and Block don’t quite capture the Jewishness of the guilt trip, but Uranowitz more than makes up for it. It’s the distinctly Jewish Mendel who comforts Jason with “Everybody hates his parents—that’s in the Torah!” and who argues that Marvin and Trina should just “throw a simple party/Religion’s just a trap that ensnares the weak and the dumb/Stop with the prayers.”
“How can you stop with prayers at a bar mitzvah?” Trina counters, yet Trina and Marvin also seem to be more cultural and secular than religious. (Isn’t that always the case with Bar Mitzvah stories? 13 the musical is similarly areligious, despite the Bar Mitzvah plotline.)
Halfway through, the show takes a dark turn: Whizzer comes down with a mysterious illness. The disease is clearly HIV, but at the time the second act takes place, 1981, it’s a nameless killer.
With Whizzer dying, Trina and Marvin offer Jason the choice of canceling the bar mitzvah. Jason is naive enough to believe Whizzer will get better and he wants to wait until then. It’s the pragmatic Mendel who tells Jason: “We can’t be sure he’ll ever get better, when or if he’ll ever get better…so what we’ll do is your decision.” But Jason doesn’t want to decide and, distressed, he runs off.
Mendel asks Trina: “Why don’t we tell him that we don’t have the answers…Tell him things happen for no damn good reason/That his lack of control kills what’s best in his soul and that this is the start to his becoming a man.”
The bar mitzvah is no longer a sitcommy plotline, but a device to show Jason’s growth. For the first time in his life, Jason prays to God: “Hello, God, I don’t think we’ve ever really spoken.” He promises to have a bar mitzvah if God saves Whizzer.
Suffice it to say, that doesn’t happen, and Jason finally makes his decision: he will have his bar mitzvah in Whizzer’s hospital room. From a guest list of 200, the party is whittled down to seven. Jason is called to the Torah as “son of Marvin, son of Whizzer, son of Trina, and son of Mendel.” It’s an unconventional arrangement, especially for the time period, to say nothing of the fighting and heartache that led up to that moment. But their differences are put aside for a joyous celebration of life and family, devoid of the superficialities that so seemed important at first. Whizzer dies shortly after.
Heavy-handed? Yeah. Borderline emotionally manipulative? A bit. Did I sob anyway? You bet. Using a bar mitzvah to show a boy’s emotional maturation in the face of family tragedy might be too on the nose, but Falsettos—the book, the cast, and in particular Anthony Rosenthal’s performance—earns enough emotional currency to get away with it. And, to be fair, I doubt Falsettos was “heavy-handed” when it first premiered, an early show to deal with the AIDS crisis. If there are some moments that chafe on my cynicism, it’s more a mark on me than on a wholly beautiful, still-resonant show.
Plus, how often do you see a meaningful Bar Mitzvah in entertainment, really, beyond a symbolic shrug that a boy is reaching maturity, or a one-off joke? It doesn’t even have its own TV Tropes page.
Image by Joan Marcus