It’s a few minutes after the end of the Sunday matinee, just days after the bitter presidential election, and people still seem to be walking around the city in a state of shock. (I actually get involved one evening in a discussion on the subway about the Electoral College, and afterward I realize: I never talk to people on the subway.)
A crowd has gathered at the stage door of the Walter Kerr Theatre, where a spellbinding performance of the revival of William Finn’s 1980s/90s masterpiece “Falsettos” has just left a rapt audience in emotional upheaval.
I slip to the front, give my name to the man with the clipboard and am escorted inside.
There are perks to knowing Visalia’s Betsy Wolfe, these days a well-known denizen of Broadway.
“It’s been quite a week,” Wolfe says, a warm smile on her face but a hint of weariness in her voice, as she greets me on the same stage where I’ve just watched her sing her heart out.
The not-so-subtle political message aside, she marvels at the emotional ride she’s had with the show: “I’m so excited you got a chance to be here.”
I wouldn’t have missed it.
There aren’t many Broadway titles I’d purposely plan an entire New York theater trip around, but ‘Falsettos’ is one of them.
There aren’t many Broadway titles I’d purposely plan an entire New York theater trip around, but “Falsettos” is one of them. Like many hardcore fans of the show, I’ve listened to William Finn’s beautiful music and crisp, knowing lyrics for a couple of decades now, but I’ve never gotten a chance to see it performed.
With Wolfe (whose Broadway shows include “Bullets Over Broadway” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) cast in a supporting but pivotal role, joined by a dream cast including Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells and Stephanie Block and directed by James Lapine (all names that make Broadway fans swoon), this became a destination show for me.
The production is actually two one-act plays titled “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland” performed together. When Finn wrote the music for both plays (and Lapine one of the books), the subject matter of both was controversial. You just weren’t expected at that time to write musicals about unconventional families (man with son divorces his wife for another man, but they all remain close) and the AIDS crisis. But Finn, who would go on to write such beloved shows as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” managed with his memorable score and beautifully drawn characters to add levity, warmth and a keen emotional resonance to his unlikely themes.
Wolfe plays Cordelia, one of two chipper, caring “lesbians from next door” who show up in “Falsettoland” to offer support to her beleaguered friends. She came to the role with fresh eyes.
“Going into it, all I knew about the show was that it was beloved by many, and it meant a lot to a lot of people during a certain time in their lives,” she says. “I felt a responsibility and curiosity of wondering whether or not it could mean as much to people (now) as it did then.”
At least for me, it sure does.
It’s about a month later, and I’m talking with Wolfe by phone from her dressing room before she goes on stage in the Wednesday matinee. She’s been quite busy the past few weeks, both career-wise and housing-wise. Is there anything harder than moving from one Manhattan apartment to another?
“I came to the theater in pajama pants because I literally forgot where I packed my jeans,” she says.
When rehearsals for “Falsettos” started, the subject matter almost seemed quaint, she says. Society thinks of HIV/AIDS in a much different way than 25 years ago, she points out. Gay rights and gay marriage are, for many, mainstream issues.
“The show seemed like a no-brainer, as in look at how much we’ve progressed,” she says.
The election upset that easy balance, and audiences have had visceral responses. (One lyric in the show goes, “I’m tired of all the happy men who rule the world,” which elicited an audible response from several people on the day I saw the show.)
Wolfe doesn’t want to dwell on the partisan angle, but she says there’s no denying that the energy of the show was completely changed Nov. 8.
You can’t help but realize that no matter what political party you’re in right now, people are hurting, people are scared.
Actress Betsy Wolfe of Visalia, who plays Cordelia in ‘Falsettos’
“You can’t help but realize that no matter what political party you’re in right now, people are hurting, people are scared,” she says.
At her apartment building, a longtime black doorman was the target of verbal abuse and election gloating by a white man who lived there, creating a big stir. (The New York Times reports that hate crimes have increased since the election.)
There’s been a noticeable increase of people waiting at the stage door after the show, some in tears, who just want to talk, Wolfe says. Some tell her they worry that, as a country, we could be moving backward in terms of civil rights, not the forward march that has always seemed inevitable.
“Now, more than ever, it feels as if this was an important story to be told,” she says. “It’s raised new questions about how far we’ve come.”
Because I know we have limited time, I interrupt our “Falsettos” discussion to check in with her on a topic we’ve discussed several times, most recently in August when Wolfe gave a benefit concert in Visalia: the Broadway adaptation of “Frozen,” which is scheduled to open for a pre-Broadway run Aug. 17 in Denver. Her name in the leading role of Elsa has been linked in the media with the show quite a lot this past year.
Here’s what I can tell you: Wolfe just spent a month playing Elsa in an extended workshop, or “lab,” as the musical’s creative team (which was shaken up when a new director, Michael Grandage, was brought in to replace Alex Timbers) prepares the show for its tryout. But no casting announcements for the Broadway production have been made.
We’ll wait and see. (And cross our fingers.)
Otherwise, I delight in asking Wolfe about some of the backstage secrets of “Falsettos,” much of which would likely bore anyone but the most ardent Broadway fan. Example: Along with the stirring performances (Borle, Rannells and Block are exquisite), I’m intrigued with the minimalist scenic design, in which the actors manipulate a set of large cubes – “It took a long time to figure out exactly where to put them,” she says – in ingenious ways.
We talk about my favorite line in the show, in which Cordelia, a caterer, laments that her partner, a physician, seems to have more of an impact on the world. (“You save lives and I save chicken fat; I can’t f------ deal with that.”)
And we talk about the fact that “Falsettos” is a limited run. Even though it received stellar reviews, has a small cast with lower overhead than other flashy musicals and is doing good box office, there are no plans to extend the run. When it closes Jan. 8, that’ll be it for this slice of theater history.
One that Wolfe will always be a part of. (And look for the newly recorded cast album with her on it, which will be released in January.)
“Perhaps some things should be just that: special, limited events,” she says. “I’m completely content with that.”