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‘Falsettos’ Voice Isn’t Traditional : Theater: Composer-lyricist William Finn has long used his musicals to redefine both what a family is and how it’s supposed to act.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When composer-lyricist William Finn first moved here in the late ‘70s, he used to pack everybody he knew into his apartment and literally put on a show.

These days, he’s still writing musicals in the same cluttered place on New York’s Upper West Side. But his audiences don’t fit into the bedroom and hallway anymore.

First Off-Broadway, then on Broadway and around the country, Finn’s idiosyncratic musicals have gone from cult favorites to honored mainstream entertainment. “Falsettos,” Finn’s Tony-winning musical about love, family and friendship in a time of AIDS, opens Thursday at Hollywood’s Doolittle Theatre.

Co-written and directed by James Lapine, “Falsettos” combines two of Finn’s earlier one-act musicals about Marvin, a neurotic charmer with an amazing extended family. And as the show’s opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” makes perfectly clear, “Falsettos” is no traditional Broadway musical.

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Finn and Lapine introduce us to not just Marvin, but Marvin’s male lover, ex-wife, son, psychiatrist and neighbors. The lesbian couple next-door proffers “ nouvelle bar mitzvah cuisine,” the psychiatrist does a soft-shoe to refrains of “Everyone Hates His Parents,” and Marvin’s lover, Whizzer, comes down with a terrible illness.

Finn, 42, was the first person to play Marvin, a character he has been writing about since the ‘70s but swears isn’t autobiographical. “I think all the characters are sort of me. The kid certainly is. The wife is, in many ways. Mendel (the psychiatrist). Whizzer not so much. He’s too good-looking. I would never think I was that good-looking.”

That’s how Finn, who is in fact nice-looking, talks. At 6-foot-2, bearded, sometimes heavier than other times, Finn is a bear of a man who, like “Falsettos,” can be hysterically funny one moment, profoundly serious the next.

“There’s a wild emotionalism to the way Billy writes that is reflected in his music,” says actor Chip Zien, who has played one part or another in Finn’s shows since the late ‘70s. “There’s a sense of abandonment about his material that’s tremendous fun for an actor to perform.”

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Trace it back to Finn’s childhood, and his first-grade desire to be a singing pediatrician. Raised in suburban Boston as “the oldest and least mature” of three children, Finn got started in music when he received a guitar as a bar mitzvah gift. He later moved on to piano, on which he says he is primarily self-taught.

Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Company” so inspired Finn that he went off to Williams College, Sondheim’s alma mater. At Williams, he also won the Hutchinson Fellowship for musical composition that Sondheim won years before, and turned out three musicals. (College student Finn also talked his way into Sondheim’s home at one point, eventually leaving with some encouragement.)

Not long after Finn graduated from Williams in 1974, he wound up in New York, temp typing by day, composing by night. By 1979, he’d produced “In Trousers,” the show that kicked off what has become “the Marvin trilogy” and got Finn hooked up with the Off-Broadway house Playwrights Horizons. Playwrights later produced “March of the Falsettos,” which played the Doolittle (then the Huntington Hartford) in 1982, and “Falsettoland” as well.

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“There was a wild exuberance and naivete with ‘March of the Falsettos,’ ” says Zien, who, as on Broadway, plays psychiatrist Mendel at the Doolittle. “We didn’t know AIDS existed then. ‘Falsettoland’ reflects a maturity and awareness none of us had then.”

Finn and Lapine, who is also a frequent Sondheim collaborator, put the two shows together as “Falsettos” for Broadway in April, 1992. Falsetto, defines Finn, “is the voice above the normal range. I wanted a musical title, and I thought these people were outside the normal range.”

“Falsettos” ran 14 months on Broadway, closing about a year ago. It got great reviews, two Tonys and was the subject of a unique advertising campaign that featured everyone from rabbis and nuns to high school students and tourists touting the show’s virtues.

Timing helps, of course. Since “Falsettos” first opened, “Angels in America” went to Broadway, the TV film “And the Band Played On” aired on HBO and the motion picture “Philadelphia” was released. Even Finn concedes that while people may still be “alienated” by his subject matter, the times have “more or less” caught up with his work.

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Heterosexuals write to him, Finn says, “that they didn’t know anyone who’s gay but should they meet anyone, they’ll know how to act--it’s not so frightening.” And closeted homosexuals, he says, have taken their families to the show as a way of coming out.

“I think this is the first time, or one of the first times, where homosexuality was not treated as an aberration. It was just assumed. These characters had already dealt with any problems they might have recognizing what they were. The homosexuality was already an inextricable part of their lives that was neither to be discussed nor argued over.”

Finn told his own family about his gayness indirectly, asking them to pay for a therapist while he was living in California just after college. When they asked why, he told them “you don’t wanna know. I knew they would know exactly. And when I walked in my house, after I’d been in California, my mother asked, ‘Are you gay?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ”

“In Trousers” is dedicated to his parents, sister and brother, but Finn has long used his musicals to redefine both what a family is and how it’s supposed to act. Family, says Finn, “is the people who, when you need them, are there.”

For Finn, family just starts with his parents and siblings. “Falsettoland” is dedicated to businessman Arthur Salvadore, with whom Finn has lived for maybe 13 years--so long, Finn quips, that they fight about exactly how long--and the composer’s bookcases and tables are filled with photos and memorabilia of his wide, supportive network of friends.

Asked if there will be more shows about Marvin’s family--aside from a film of “Falsettos” he is currently working on with Lapine--Finn thinks it unlikely. Besides, he’s busy now with a musical version of Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s 1927 comedy “The Royal Family.”

“ ‘The Royal Family of Broadway’ is much more mainstream than ‘Falsettos,’ ” says Finn’s collaborator, TV and film writer Kenny Solms. “He’s always wanted to do a big, brassy musical with rich, larger than life characters. This is going to be his ‘Hello, Dolly!'--but with no runway.”

* “Falsettos,” UCLA James A. Doolittle Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood. Preview s tonight and Wednesday at 8 p.m. Opens Thursday, then Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Additional performances: Sundays at 7 p.m. on May 1, 8, 15, 22, and Thursday matinees at 2 p.m. on May 26, June 2, 9, 16, 23, 30. Ends July 3. $15-$49. (213) 365-3500.

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