Exposing Oneself for Musicals
Off-B’way revue celebrates lyricist/composer William Finn
Friday, November 16, 2007
William Finn, known for his richly emotional and idiosyncratic musicals, is a master at evoking both shocked guffaws and choked-up sobs from audiences. A new revue of songs by the composer/lyricist of the beloved “Falsettos” trilogy—about a gay male couple facing intimacy and AIDS—was presented two summers ago in Hartford, Conn., by Finn’s frequent director Rob Ruggiero, and the revue, titled “Make Me a Song,” is now at New World Stages. Five cast members make their way through more than 20 of Finn’s quirky, insightful songs.
Finn, 55, splits his time between the Upper West Side and a place in his home state of Massachusetts with his partner of over a quarter of a century, Arthur Salvadore. He’s riding high from the ongoing success of his latest Broadway show, the lighthearted “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” while plans are still murky concerning “The Royal Family of Broadway” a collaboration between Finn, playwright Richard Greenberg and director Jerry Zaks. He spoke about the new revue and the way in which his identity as a gay man shapes the stories he tells.
How did “Make Me a Song” come about?
[Director] Rob Ruggiero asked if I wanted a revue and I said, “Absolutely not!” Since he’s a dog with bone, he just did it. I saw it, and I loved it.Why do people respond so viscerally and emotionally to your work? I try to write from a place that demands a certain response. I can’t predict what that will be, but it’s a place I find interesting.
You’ve defined your writer’s voice as that of a “New York gay Jewish man.” How is your sexual orientation reflected in your work now, as opposed to when you were—what? 23—and wrote “In Trousers,” the first part of the “Falsettos” trilogy?
In order to find a voice, I used to read four or five poems of [gay New York School poet] Frank O’Hara. I liked his slangy, hip chatter. Then I’d forget that and find something in my voice. It’s a weird thing, finding a voice.
O’Hara was big on the idea that poetry should have the immediacy of an emergency midnight phone call between intimates. Your writing has that charge. Do you see your work in a gay literary tradition?
It starts for me with Walt Whitman. I used to musicalize him all the time. I welcome being included in that tradition. I always thought that theater music lyrics were very conservative and a little classical. They rarely referred to oneself; they rarely were about the writer. There was all this confessional poetry going on at that time—O’Hara and Robert Lowell, all these guys, exposing themselves. I thought it was time that started happening in the theater.
Much of your work has had grief and loss as a major part of its subject.
I don’t think most of my stuff is predicated on grief and loss. It’s predicated on what happens in life. Of course, with AIDS and as a gay man, that’s all I saw back then. The question was how could I find something life affirming? How can I write about this and not be Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm but also not say, “This is the end of our world”? That sort of nihilism doesn’t appeal to me.
Does it frustrate you that some people view you as a writer solely about grief?
It makes me a little crazy. It’s not how I see myself at all. It’s convenient for people to think of me that way, but it’s also a way to dismiss my work.
Which songwriters do you admire?
Apart from some of my wonderful students? I teach down at N.Y.U. and it’s funny, some classes are like gay bars, others are straight, straight, straight. Both have a lot to recommend them. I always liked Randy Newman and Paul Simon as songwriters. The Wainwright guy, that Rufus, I enjoy listening to him, too, but not because he’s gay, particularly, but because he has an open heart.
Do you ever blanch at the overlap between the intimate and the artistic?
I remember when I wrote “Whizzer Going Down,” a song about a guy giving a blowjob. Andre Bishop [artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater] thought it was about a guy going down to Florida. I thought, “This is the end of your non-existent career. How could you possible write this?” But I also thought. “Have a little balls.” Apart from the fact that a lot of people didn’t know it was about a blowjob, which makes it okay, I was looked at a little differently by some.
You’ve been with your partner more than 27 years. Do you find that unique in the gay male world?
Not at all. Lots of people have been together ridiculously long times.
Does it inform your work?
It must somehow. I don’t know how.
What’s one of your favorite things about the nexus of homosexuality and musical theater?
Just the fact that it exists.
“Make Me a Song,” at New World Stages, 340 W, 50th St, for more info and tickets, visit makemeasongthemusical.com.