Men: Can’t Live with ’em

By William Henke and Margaret Mershon

For our final assignment we wrote you a short essay about the 2016 Broadway production of Falsettos. To add some vivacity to the discussion, Will and I decided to do some theatre of our own and perform it as though it was a live and VERY natural conversation. Please enjoy it in the video above or in the transcript below.

Will: Hey guys! A lot of people ask me, “Will, what do you and two-time Tony-winning actor Christian Borle have in common?” Well, besides our chiseled arms, our uncanny ability to grow facial hair, and our silky tenor voices, we are both straight dudes that have played questioning or gay characters. Also, Maggie’s here. Everyone say hi or boo her; I usually roll with the latter greeting.

I honestly can’t tell the difference

Sources: Kristina Wilson; God probably

Maggie: Hello! I am here too, thank you for having me. Anyways, over the course of his career, Christian Borle has shown a knack for playing a wide range of straight, white guys from his origination of the ultimate nice guy Emmett in Legally Blonde to the less cordial William Shakespeare in Something Rotten! But, his Broadway typecast as a straight love interest or, at the very least, a sexual antagonist was challenged in early 2016, and no I’m not talking about the re-imagination of the Joker as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In early 2016, it was announced that Borle would be playing Marvin in the Broadway revival of William Finn’s 1992 Falsettos. Marvin, of course, is a recently out of the closet gay man trying to emotionally accept his identity while maintaining the already weak bond between his family, and through this convoluted game of tug-of-war, Marvin is forced to constantly change his identity and personality depending on the people and situation around him. 

W: My junior year of high school, the theatre department (along with hundreds of others around the country) decided to produce Almost, Maine. I was cast as Chad, the broest bro a bro could ever ask for, who falls in love with his best friend Randy, the second broest bro a bro could ever ask for. 

M: You seem like a Chad.

W: Thank you. The struggle of portraying a shallow frat boy and suddenly switching to his softer, emotional side was difficult but manageable because at the time, I was a shallow 17-year-old boy that pretended to have a softer emotional side by listening to Frank Ocean occasionally. Regardless, I was a straight boy playing a questioning character, despite the other auditionees that actually shared Chad’s internal struggle, and this was in a highly conservative part of Middle Tennessee. I would bet Broadway has a much greater selection of gay actors than my tiny, rural high school, so why Christian Borle for Marvin? Yes, he is a supremely talented actor and has a fantastic voice, but every Broadway actor shares those qualities.

Will giving the performance of a lifetime

Source: Mr. Henke

M: Maybe it’s because it doesn’t matter, not that a person’s identity doesn’t matter, but maybe the point Falsettos is making is that all men, straight or gay, young or old, and able to play baseball or not, are all the same. They are all, to some extent, controlling, dumb, and selfish creatures that impose themselves in every situation and relationship, and love has a funny way of bringing out the worst of these qualities or taming them depending on how true this love is. 

W: Through the ebbs and flows of Marvin, Falsettos explores masculinity in terms of the expectations that Marvin places on himself and his role to the people around him as a father, friend, and lover. The juxtaposition between Marvin and the other two adult male characters Whizzer and Mendel (sorry, Jason) provides us with a better understanding of the complexity and context of Marvin’s character.                

M: So what does it really mean to be a man? I don’t know, Mulan doesn’t know, even this team’s expert doesn’t know, so how is Marvin supposed to know? The first time we see Marvin it is with his family, and he’s leaving them for the very well-toned, Whizzer, which side note, is a crime of a name. NO ONE SHOULD HAVE TO HAVE THE NAME WHIZZER. Moving on. Marvin has been brought up on traditional family values, that he should love his wife and his kid and support them, but now he’s making a choice for himself and leaving them all alone. Marvin transfers this expectation to support his family by turning to Whizzer. Little does he know, Whizzer is more than capable of taking care of himself. This leads to Marvin and Whizzer getting into screaming matches and having a very tumultuous relationship as Marvin treats Whizzer like the wife and child he no longer comes home to. Whizzer doesn’t make him dinner when he comes home and he doesn’t want to learn how to play chess from him. Marvin even begins to walk like a hyper-masculine man. Like that. What is that! It’s not pleasant and it just shows how insecure he is in his masculinity.

W: Alright Maggie calm down. She’s still mad at Christian Borle for what he did to Sutton Foster.

M: The Bastard!

W: As the show progresses, we continue to see Marvin and Whizzers masculinity ebb and flow. When Marvin breaks up with Whizzer, he becomes friends with the lesbians next door, two people who cannot tempt his need to act masculinely. But wait! Right when Marvin thought he was in the clear, Whizzer comes to Marvin’s son’s baseball game and shows him how to swing a bat, something that Marvin is helpless at, and Marvin swoons all over again. After seeing such a display of masculinity, strong fatherly skills, and support, Marvin realizes he wants to be taken care of like that and starts flirting it up.

Even Jason is shocked he hit that ball!

Source: Joan Marcus

M: Classic Christian Borle.

W: Maggie!

M: Sorry.

W: But as the relationship progresses again, Marvin starts to feel insecure in who he is as a man when Marvin kicks his ass at racquetball. He tries to compromise and discusses this insecurity in his song “What More Can I Say?” which is the point in the musical where I begin openly weeping until bows. He softly sings “stay calm / untie [his] tongue / and try to stay / both kind and young.” His goal is to remain as kind and sweet and not feel as threatened by Whizzer and his tendency to make him feel like less of a man, attempting to see it as more of a give and take because of the pure love he feels for Whizzer. That isn’t to say Marvin doesn’t have any more slip-ups. When they’re playing racquetball and Whizzer is beating him once again, Marvin flourishes his poor sportsmanship, saying “please forgive me for winning one game.” It’s at this moment that Whizzer’s body starts to feel the symptoms of the disease ravaging his body, and when he insists that the game be done, Marvin stays on him, insisting that he not let him win. Marvin continues to be so threatened by Whizzer’s masculinity that he is blind to the pain that his partner is feeling.

M: If redefining his masculinity as a response to his redefinition of his sexuality wasn’t enough, the one guy that was supposed to be on Marvin’s side, his therapist Mendel, swoops right in to snatch up Trina once he’s out of the picture.

W: I would kill him

M: Me too. During “Marvin at the Psychiatrist,” we see Mendel discuss Marvin’s difficulty with his wife Trina withholding love, which Mendel proclaims to be untrue. Mendel turns the blame around, saying “perhaps she held back love from you,” and then continues to unload a series of questions about Trina’s personal life. Two songs later, the same song where Marvin is miffed that Whizzer won’t make dinner, sitting with Mendel he says “this had better come to a stop, Mendel/ don’t touch me/ don’t condescend.” Marvin has lost touch with the one man that was supposed to always have his back and on top of all that Marvin feels like Mendel is treating him like a child. To be treated like a child by the man who is now fathering your child? That can’t feel good.

W: Yeah I would doubt it. Later, after receiving the wedding invitations to Trina and Mendel’s wedding…

M: Yay.

W: Exactly, yay. Anyway, Marvin screams at Trina that she “chose [Mendel] to make [Marvin] look bad”

M: Talk about insecure.

W: Yeah it’s a mess, and it only gets worse.

M: Great.

W: Yeah so the wedding invitation song continues, and Marvin mutters to himself, “I am so dumb.” Immediately after that, as if in an echo chamber, everyone in the show, Jason, Trina, Mendel, and Whizzer, all begin shouting “Dumb!” at him. It’s like a manifestation of all of the thoughts Marvin THINKS they all feel about him are being shouted at him in reality.

M: Sounds like a dream.

W: Well, I bet he wishes this next part was just a dream. Acting out of rage and insecurity, as the prophecy fulfills itself and as the title of the song suggests, “Marvin Hits Trina.” In order to take control of his life, prove he is still the man of the house, not Mendel, and show he is as masculine as he needs to be, he strikes someone he loves. After this move, Marvin removes himself from the entire plot and, after taking some time off for himself, making different friends, and living “without a lover,” Marvin makes tenuous peace with Mendel, though he continues to make snide comments about him, especially when he comments on how he is raising his kid. When Mendel tells Trina and Marvin they don’t need a bar mitzvah for Jason, Marvin turns to Trina and remarks, “Isn’t he an asshole?” “Isn’t he too much?” and my personal favorite, “Jesus, what an asshole!–It still gives me hives.”

M: Yeah that’s pretty good.

W: Thanks.

M: All of this is to say, Marvin’s core identity doesn’t change. One thing remains constant through lovers, through divorce, and through a weird fatherly bond with his therapist. Marvin is a man. What does change is his understanding and relationship with masculinity. At the beginning of the show, being a man is about “bringing home the bacon” and raising his son to conform to society’s expectations of men, and if being the patriarch and moneymaker is not enough, he’ll shout and strike to impose his masculinity. But, Marvin modifies these tactics when he realizes that is not the man his family needs him to be. He supports Mendel’s commitment to raising and loving his son, he makes amends with Trina and Jason, and most importantly, he realizes Whizzer doesn’t need a man to take care of him. He needs a lover to love him unconditionally and a friend to keep him company in this confusing, lonely world. Oftentimes, society determines what it means to be a man for us when being a man may be just being there for the people you love when they need you most.

Feel free to jump in the air…you just learned something about Falsettos!

Source: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

W: just like I’ll always be there for you. Oh-all right. Bye guys!

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