Emily Garside looks ahead to the London premiere of this important musical and asks why lesbians have been left out of Aids narratives in popular culture

BY EMILY GARSIDE

William Finn premiered his one-act musical Trousers off-Broadway in 1979. Two years later, collaborating with James Lapine, Finn created two additional one-acts, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, exploring the lives of Marvin and his family and friends.

These premiered off-Broadway in 1982 and 1990, respectively, and the three became known as the Marvin trilogy. It is at once a musical born of the Gay Liberation movement and the Aids crisis, and one that captures a slice of LGBTQI+ community life at this key tipping point. And this Autumn, it sees its London premiere at The Other Palace

Finn and Lapine’s musical at once capture a moment of liberation – the emerging freedom of gay relationships –and tragedy, in the impact of the Aids crisis. Both of these elements are important in understanding the cultural backdrop against which they were created.

Gemma Knight-Jones (Charlotte) and Natasha J Barnes (Cordelia) in rehearsal
Photo by Matthew Walker

What is unusual for plays documenting the Aids crisis is the role women –and specifically lesbian women – are given in Finn/Lapine’s work. It is well documented, but underreported, that lesbian women were as much at the forefront of the Aids crisis as gay men. Often in the role of caregivers for their male friends, in the absence of family, and with so many gay men also suffering, it was a natural role to fall into.

More than this, however, lesbians were at the forefront of activism from the very start. Although the first well-known activist group was Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), from the early days of this, and its counterpart ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), women and men held equal positions of power from the start. 

Interestingly, the Aids crisis brought the LGBTQI+ community together, but it is an often-overlooked fact that women were at the centre of the fight along with their gay male counterparts. 

In the narratives of Aids, why do we see so few representations of the women involved? Particularly in the theatre. In two of the most famous pieces – Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels In America – women are present, but as nurses and doctors; in a professional capacity. Their sexuality goes unmentioned (although actors who have played Emily in Angels have mentioned her being gay in their eyes). These women seem to be an attempt by their gay male authors to acknowledge the women of the Aids crisis, but they are a step short of embracing the “other half” of the community which supported them. 

These early plays reflected the confusion, grief, and anger of the community at this point in history – when Aids was still a mystery to even medical professionals, like Falsettos character Dr. Charlotte.

By the 90s, when Falsettos in its entirety premiered, audiences understood the illness that plagued Whizzer, but the characters did not. By then, Liberace, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Halston and Freddie Mercury were among the famous to have died of the auto-immune disease. At the end of 1992, 254,147 cases of Aids and 194,476 deaths had been reported to date in the US. In Falsettos, unlike many of the other “Aids plays” of the era, it falls to a woman – and an openly lesbian woman – to have the answers in the form of Dr. Charlotte. A neat nod to the central role lesbians had in both activism and caring by Finn/Lapine. 

While considering the women of the play, it would also be remiss to gloss over Trina. The ex-wife of Marvin, Trina – like many female friends and relatives of the time – found herself an inadvertent part of the crisis. Marvin in Finn/Lapine’s imagining is far from the only man who was in a heterosexual relationship who then came out. 

Laura Pitt-Pulford who plays Trina
Photo by Matthew Walker

There were many “Trinas” out there; women who had found themselves married to a gay man. In including Trina in Marvin’s life – linked primarily by their son Jason – Finn/Lapine also recognise the importance of the women in gay men’s lives, and the unusual/unconventional family set ups, particularly the early post-liberation days had. Trina is a woman in her own right, not a side point in the musical, and it’s to their credit that Finn/Lapine don’t fall into the trap of assuming gay men exist in a vacuum. 

Falsettos holds a unique position not only in “Aids theatre” but more broadly in musical theatre, and indeed theatre and popular culture. It offers the audience rounded, interesting and (heaven forbid) happy lesbian characters. Charlotte is to some degree included for a link to the medical and broader Aids crisis, in what is elsewhere a fairly domestic look at the crisis. But the “lesbians from next door”, as the lyrics dub them, are fully rounded characters in their own right. A particularly unusual element in “gay drama” of the era. 

Charlotte and Cordelia have the unique musical theatre privilege of being a part of “secondary romantic couples”, an incredibly rare occurrence in itself for a musical to place a lesbian couple as one of its trio of romances. And in lesbian narratives, another rarity – Charlotte and Cordelia are blissfully happy and remain that way throughout. Against both the heterosexual couple (Marvin and Trina) and the gay couple (Whizzer and Marvin), it’s Charlotte and Cordelia who end up uncomplicated and happy. This in itself was a progressive stance from Finn/Lapine and one that has been rarely surpassed. 

Natasha J Barnes, who plays Cordelia in Falsettos
Photo by Matthew Walker

Both women also have their own identities, relatively free from stereotypes. Cordelia is a caterer struggling in her career and struggling in feeling less impressive than her doctor partner. Charlotte, a successful doctor, makes a couple of tongue in cheek jokes but she and Charlotte are played as women comfortable in their identities. They are successful mid-80s New Yorkers, enjoying material comfort and having surrounded themselves by understanding friends seem to live in a relative bubble free of prejudice. Of course, that isn’t the whole story, but for musical theatre purposes, it’s a nice one to witness. 

Between the lesbians and gay men, there is also a heart-warming sense of community and friendship. The number Unlikely Lover” talks of the surprise each couple has at finding their “other half” but also at finding the other couple, as a marker of friendship.

It’s a microcosm of what LGBTQI+ community was and is, when united by crisis and by friendship. The community has and is too often divided, but Finn/Lapine representing the solidarity and friendship between gay men and lesbians is an important and much needed moment in the canon of LGBTQI+ theatre and theatre of the Aids crisis. 

Falsettos is an often-overlooked piece of theatre. In documenting the Aids crisis, it lost out to louder counterparts like Angels In America and on the musical theatre side, Jonathan Larson’s Rent a couple of years later swept in and took the “Aids musical” label. But what Finn/Lapine did, that few other writers of the time on this subject managed, was a real community look at what the early days of Aids felt like from the inside. And that meant, significantly, including those “lesbians from next door”. 

@EmiGarside.

Falsettos plays at The Other Palace from 30 August until 23 November 2019. For tickets, visit falsettoslondon.com

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