William Finn’s songs are edgy, liberal and very gay — what’s not to like?
If Woody Allen were gay and into musical theater, his work would probably sound a lot like William Finn’s. Finn is a boutique taste: unapologetically Jewish, gay, urban, liberal and esoteric —all of which has, of course, always limited his commercial appeal.
Several of his one-act musicals about his alter ego — who tries to balance a male lover, ex-wife and son — were combined into the modest Broadway hit "Falsettos," and a follow-up — the two-acter "A New Brain" — has received regional play (including by Uptown Players five years ago) but you couldn’t say he’d had a major breakthrough until "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which despite a healthy New York run still seems very Off-Broadway-ish.
So you could argue that "Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn" is an unlikely jukebox musical: a cabaret-style collection of two-dozen of Finn’s infectiously hummable tunes … and none from "Spelling Bee" (what’s up with that?!). That means lots of songs trashing Republicans, extolling gay relationships and chronicling Jewish angst, all told with no banter or dialogue, just the songs holding everything together musically. Talk about a niche!
If "Make Me a Song" faces an uphill marketing challenge, the good news is, the cast performing this local premiere in WaterTower Theatre’s studio space turn this "gaybaret" into a fine night out.
It helps that, subject matter aside, Finn’s compositional style is the opposite of Adam Guettel’s music (currently represented at Theatre Three in "The Light in the Piazza"): Sing-songy, Disney-fied little delights; "Heart & Music" is such an impossibly catchy ditty, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head all week.
But let’s face it: The subject matter is a selling point for audiences like me, especially in the post-Obama era. Paul J. Williams, perfectly droll and well-suited for delivering the anti-Right Wing rants in the four "Republican" songs gets huge laughs from the gays in the theater, still, polite applause from their stuffier seat-mates. When he pitches a queeny fit during "Stupid Things To Do," I was rolling as the retirees next me looked on in horror.
Acts 2 is almost a concentrated concert version of "Falsettos," with tender romantic ballads between gay men that no doubt surprised some of the older attendees. And when Christopher Deaton sings in "Hitchhiking Across America" that "I like boys," it turns a wistful, sentimental melody into a slightly dirty, homoerotic tale of on-the-road romances. It’s a great dichotomy, and genuinely reflective of a segment of the population often lacking even in musical theater.
True, Finn’s internal rhymes can get grating and a little too self-congratulatory (calling Passover "the feast of no yeast," observing "Why is the smart son always the gay son?" in "Billy’s Law of Genetics"); and you can imagine a number like "Sailing" serving as a theme song from a bad 1980s romantic comedy.
But the content allows the singers to really act the lyrics, which Williams and Amy Stevenson do particularly well but the entire cast manages, too.
So what if the platform stage looks like the "Match Game" set as painted by Dr. Seuss, or that the sound in the opening number was ungodly, or that the final three songs drag on a bit? These edgy songs speak for themselves… and speak to us.
Addison Conference and Theatre Centre’s Studio Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison. Through Nov. 23. Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridaysâ€“Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $20. 972-450-6232.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 7, 2008.