I read with interest the recent concerns expressed by twenty Jewish actors and creatives about this production of Falsettos. “It contains characters, story beats, events, humour and references that don’t just reference Judaism but rely upon it. Its opening number is named ‘Four Jews In A Room Bitching’. It contains lines such as, ‘we’re watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball [not the opening number, but one called ‘The Baseball Game’], lampooning the stereotype that Jews are weak and not sporty. The plot is centred around a boy’s bar mitzvah.” I don’t think it is, really: it’s more about Marvin (Daniel Boys), a family man who leaves his wife Trina (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and their son Jason (Albert Atack at the performance I attended, sharing the role with George Kennedy, Eliot Morris and James Williams) in favour of a same-sex relationship with Whizzer (Oliver Savile).
I recall a Jewish student when I was an undergraduate telling me (and others) that it was quite impossible for a homosexual to be Jewish in the proper sense. Referencing the book of Vayikra (or Leviticus to those with familiarity with the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible), sexual intercourse between males is a ‘to’eviah’, or an abomination. That said, there are, particularly amongst reformed Jewish denominations, gay rabbis, so clearly not everybody that is part of the Jewish community thinks the same way on the matter. That, however, is not the focus of the open letter published in the Jewish Chronicle, addressed to Selladoor Worldwide, producers for Falsettos, which does not wish to assert that “every actor has to share the same religion, background or heritage as the role they are cast to play”.
The concern is instead with the rehearsal process: “Falsettos needs Jewish representation within the rehearsal room in order to be made with the respect and consultation of those whose stories it seeks to tell and whose cultural heritage it looks to portray.” Rehearsals are not something I often consider when evaluating a production, except where it is blindingly obvious that there simply wasn’t enough rehearsal time, and something has been put in front of paying audiences as a finished show when further workshopping and development is required. This isn’t the case here.
The music doesn’t sound especially Yiddish (compared to, for instance, some of the melodies in Fiddler on the Roof), and frankly had it not been drummed into the audience that these characters were Jewish, one could well be forgiven for not having picked up on it until there is talk of Jason’s bar mitzvah. The Sabbath, as far as I can recall, is not mentioned let alone ‘represented’, and one song in the second half contains the lyric, “It’s days like this I almost believe in God” – that is, these are people who don’t believe in God. So why do they identify as Jewish then?
The production itself is a heart-warming one, and then a heart-breaking one after the interval – the first half is a bit of a hard slog, but the audience’s patience is rewarded and then some in Act Two. Marvin has a psychiatrist, Mendel (Joel Montague), and completing the set of on-stage characters are Marvin’s neighbours, a lesbian couple (their choice of description), Charlotte (Gemma Knight-Jones), a doctor, and Cordelia (Natasha J Barnes). Charlotte and Cordelia don’t even appear until after the interval: I wonder if this leaves the production open to accusations of anti-lesbianism.
Interestingly, the audience applause ramped up at the end of solo numbers rather than larger ensemble tunes. Trina’s ‘I’m Breaking Down’ raised the roof in the first half, as does Whizzer’s ‘The Games I Play’. The first half begins in 1979, and the second begins in 1981. A game of racquetball between Whizzer and Marvin demonstrates that, in fact, the show is capable of portraying decent sportsmanship amongst Jews after all. The show’s critical incident sees Whizzer suddenly keeling over and being admitted to hospital. No prizes for working out what he gets diagnosed with.
James Lapine contributes to the book, but the music and lyrics are entirely the domain of William Finn. Overall, I prefer Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, though there’s no denying the poignancy, without melodrama, of the show’s closing scenes. The melodies are generally so wordy they rarely soar, but the story is a compelling one, and underlines the adage attributed to Alfred Lord Tennyson: “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Looking around after the show, there were a significant number of audience members who had shed tears, such was the depth of feelings being expressed. Bring tissues if you are prone to react accordingly to emotionally charged shows. Every cast member puts their heart and soul into their respective roles, and the result is a beautiful and highly engaging piece of theatre.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.