By: Susan Hasho
After a first song, “And They’re Off” (sung by Taylor Trensch & Quartet) from the show A New Brain, host Sean Hartley introduced Mr. William Finn, Broadway composer and lyricist extraordinaire–and Mr. Finn ambled on. Wearing a professorial tweed jacket, seeming slightly shy, he sat in a leather armchair opposite Hartley and was the soul of authenticity. Sean Hartley asked him if it was true that his father was a gambler. In fact, one of the persistent questions of the evening was, how autobiographical was Finn’s material? Yes, his father was a gambler—the horses it would seem. Then “Change” from A New Brain was performed by Alysha Umphress. (“We live in perilous times.”) And yes, Finn had had a “brain thing” two weeks after winning the Tony for the Broadway musical Falsettos—inoperable “brain thing” it turns out. Finn seems matter of fact about his medical history and surely he’s really not. Change and anger and endings and honesty run all through his work, as does enormous humor about it all. He has been a man who broke new ground from the beginning of his career. From necessity, he says, nobody would produce his work. So he produced the beginnings of In Trousers in his living room. And then, Playwrights Horizons changed his life. In Trousers was done there as well as Falsettos. He credits Andre Bishop, artistic director of Playwrights, with putting him on the map. The evening was full of conversation and performances by those who had history with Finn and an obvious love of his work.
Highlights were: “I Went Fishing with My Dad” from Songs of Innocence and Experience sung by Desmond Green, and deeply, humorously moving. Stephen De Rosa sang “The Baseball Game” (Falsettos) mimicking all the actors that performed it in East Milford—each actor distinctly rendered—indescribably delicious. Betty Buckley sang several songs; she ended the first Act with “Venice” from Elegies, and sang “14 Dwight Avenue, Natick, Massachusetts” (Elegies) toward the end of the second Act. The brilliance of the lyrics and the obvious delight Ms. Buckley had in performing the songs made her stunning performance especially touching. William Finn performed “Stupid Things” from The Royal Family of Broadway in the way he imagined Elaine Stritch would have sung it; and it is hard to capture how true and wildly funny it was. Norm Lewis ended the evening with “Infinite Joy” from Elegies and, by special request, did an impromptu “I’d Rather Be Sailing” from A New Brain—both show stoppers.
When asked about musical theater today. Finn paused, and said that when he started, a whole generation of writers had been wiped out by AIDS. And now, his advice is that you have to do your own thing. In your living room, wherever you can make it happen, you have to make it happen yourself. Never mind, that at the Barrington Stage Company’s Musical Theatre Lab he is teaching to help make it happen for young talent the way it happened for him—with help from angels like Andre Bishop and James Lapine. A lot of talent and a lot of heart were expressed in this Broadway Close Up of William Finn.