Director Rob James and star Chad Elder chat about joys and challenges of rarely done musical
By SHARON EBERSON
Director, actor and educator Rob James is known as a Sondheim kind of guy, so it was only natural that when he was approached about directing one of the two summer musicals produced by Front Porch Theatricals, the thought was that he would choose Merrily We Roll Along.
Instead, he chose the other Front Porch show.
“I instantly was like, Falsettos, yes, please,” James was saying on Tuesday, load-in day at the New Hazlett Theater. “I think that took [producer Nancy Zionts] by surprise, because she knows I’m a big Sondheim fan and she thought I’d be interested in applying for Merrily. And I said, ‘Well, I’ve done it. I haven’t done Falsettos.’ ”
The cast of Front Porch Theatricals’ Falsettos, opening May 19, at the New Hazlett Theater. From left, standing, Natalie Hatcher, Chad Elder, Sam Bucci; seated, Lindsay Bayer, Jenna Kantor, Justin Borak, Matthew Frontz. (Image: Deana Muro)
There’s more to it than that, of course, including the Tony Award-winning libretto by Stephen Sondheim’s frequent collaborator, James Lapine.
James, the former president of Stage 62 in Carnegie, and Front Porch have a lot in common. They lean toward revivals that are topical with an edge, and a bit off the beaten path. James noted that the last time Falsettos was done by a professional company in Pittsburgh was 1997, when Pittsburgh Public Theater was at the New Hazlett.
The show, with a Tony-winning score by William Finn, got a boost in 2016, with a star-studded Broadway revival that was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances, but James did not think that was the definitive version. He also had another connection to Finn’s work, back in 2011, when he was in a Bald Theatre production of Finn’s A New Brain at the old Grey Box Theater in Oakland.
His castmate in that show, Natalie Hatcher, is now under his direction in Falsettos. As luck would have it, Chad Elder also is onboard.
Elder, who has worked with James on shows such as Side Show and Sondheim’s Assassins, stars as Marvin in the groundbreaking Falsettos. Marvin is a husband and father who has come out as gay, has a new love, and is determined that everyone should be accepting of his choices and maintain family harmony. In the meantime, his son Jason (Matthew Frontz) is about to be bar mitzvahed, his dazed and disconcerted ex-wife Trina (Jenna Kantor) is seeing a therapist (Justin Borak) who is dealing with feelings of his own, and Marvin and his partner, Whizzer (Sam Bucci), don’t always see eye to eye. Hatcher as Dr. Charlotte and Lindsay Bayer as Cordelia play a supportive couple who are like extended family.
It’s a family dynamic that was still a bit shocking when it was first seen off-Broadway, in various stages of development, in the late 1970s. The show, a combination of its early incarnations, reached Broadway in 1992, and was nominated for seven Tonys.
Here’s more from director Rob James and star Chad Elder on bringing Falsettos to the New Hazlett Theater, opening Friday, May 19.
QUESTION: You two have worked together before, so how did it happen this time?
JAMES: You do want to see the people that you know, that you love working with, come to auditions. So I was just really lucky to see Chad walk through the door.
ELDER: Similarly, I’ve been in shows that Rob has directed before and it’s always been a wonderful experience. So, you know, when I knew that Front Porch was doing the show and Rob was doing this incredible show that doesn’t get done very often, all of those things piqued my interest. I’m just so that Rob chose me to be a part of this.
Q: Chad, was Falsettos on your bucket list?
ELDER: Not necessarily, but when it came up, I was instantly super-excited about it. I love William Finn and, as Rob has said, I think it’s a different experience to do a show that’s a small cast. And when you have a small cast, all the characters are written in such a rich way. And especially with Falsettos, every single character is, I feel like you’re meeting a real person. There’s so much depth to it, which is so fun and rewarding as a performer. You just could create such a close bond with the team. There’s this song in the show called Tight Knit Family, and I feel like that’s what our little crew has become just in a couple of weeks.
Q: Music director Deana Muro paid you a great compliment on Facebook. I assume you saw? She was photographing you for publicity stills, and she wrote, “Please let me be this good looking someday. And this kind. And maybe I could ask to sing like a god, too. …”
ELDER: That was, uh, super, super nice. She makes us look good, in photography, and she makes us sound good on the stage.
Q: Falsettos was written as a progressive story in the lives of these people. So, Rob, for you as director, what do you feel like needs to be accomplished as you move along?
JAMES: What I really have discovered in doing this show is along the lines of what Chad said, like this is a play. It gets to explore this richness through dramatic set pieces. It doesn’t feel like a musical when you’re doing it. … It was so unconventional when the first act was written as a standalone thing, and the subject matter was not what people were used to seeing as a musical. It didn’t have a finale, it was just this kind of little jewel that got its fair share of criticism just because, you know, anything new, people are immediately gonna knee jerk and hate. Then you kind of start opening these layers. And then the second act, well, the second show I’m going to call it, came along. And then they worked together so well to tell the story of this modern American family, that nobody had tried to tell a story like that before.
Q: It’s a story that’s still being told in real-life families. It’s timeless in that way.
JAMES: There have been so many criticisms that the characters are unlikeable and they’re brittle and they’re very New York. Immediately when I direct [a revival], I try and go through the reviews of the shows and I’m like, ‘OK. What do I have to watch out for?’ But luckily, it’s just the humanity in the show. [We’re] just tapping into this human storytelling that I just think is so important with a piece like this.
Q: This has been on Broadway twice, in the early 1990s and the 2016 revival that aired on PBS. So even though it hasn’t been done onstage here often, perhaps it has come back into a collective consciousness?
JAMES: And I’m very thankful for that. Because it’s a great representation of the work. I don’t think it’s the perfect representation of it though. … That original [cast] recording, it’s still the one that tears my guts out.
Chad Elder as Marvin in Falsettos. (Deana Muro)
Q: Chad, you play Marvin, a father and a man in love who is trying to keep his family together. He’s also a prickly guy. Is there anything in particular that you latch onto when you’re playing him?
ELDER: I think the undercurrent for Marvin’s character, for the whole show, the theme is about love and family. It’s in the very first number, which is Four Jews in a Room Bitching. It’s fun. It’s, let’s just put our guard down. We’re here to have a good time. But one of the first lines is about, what will they do for love? And I really have latched onto that, because I think a lot of this show is about what the characters do for the people they love, or how they react because of losing love. … Personally, how I’ve related to Marvin, um, gosh, it’s hard to talk about without getting emotional. We meet him in a place where he literally says, ‘I want it all.’ He’s trying to maintain this nuclear family while also coming to terms with the fact that he’s gay and sharing a relationship, and he wants everyone together. He wants to keep that perfect appearance to the world of this family … and that’s a lot to ask of people. Understandably, it leads to a lot of conflict. And it leads to the journey for Marvin, to figure out how to accept the people in his life.
Q: Is there a constant conversation about character?
JAMES: It’s, it’s that beautiful thing. I think that you could do a song 15 times and you’re still finding something a little different every time you perform it, because you’ve lived something else since the last time you sang it, even if it was just last night in rehearsal. People are finding stuff all of the time in rehearsal, and saying, ‘Oh, I could think of it that way.’ There’s no perfect way to think of these things because we’re all different human beings bringing different experiences to this work. I think it really rivals Sondheim in the brilliance of the way that it’s written.
ELDER: Every word, every phrase feels intentional, but there’s five different choices you can make. When Marvin says the words ‘love me’ to somebody, there’s five different reasons for why he’s saying that or what he’s wanting from it. It’s really exciting to explore and discover the choice that makes the most sense. … Rob and I just had some back and forth the other day. We’re getting to like, micro moments where we say, ‘What does this word mean?’ It’s exciting, it’s fun, and I’m sure this is going to continue to evolve.”
[Elder takes a moment to fix his audio on the Zoom call, and James talks about having recently directed Central Catholic High School’s production of Les Miserable, working with teenagers, then jumping into Falsettos.]
JAMES: I’d like to say, about the company that we’re working with, this cast of people, holy moly. I feel really spoiled. …This has been such an exceptional experience for me. We can literally have these conversations and I can look at a performer and say, ‘What do you think? Let’s figure that out together.’ I’m a lucky guy.
ELDER: It’s my first time working with thee rest of the cast, but everyone just seems like the perfect person for these roles, at the perfect time. We’re truly like a tight-knit family, like offstage, too. So it’s, it’s just been rewarding in every way.
Q: What’s it like to be in a position to showcase a musical that might seem to be challenging or that doesn’t get done often?
JAMES: I think it’s a privilege. I really do. Because this is something that people, when you say Falsettos, like there’s no mistaking it. People are either like, ‘What is that?’ Or they’re like, ‘That’s one of my favorites. I’ve been listening to that since college … since Hebrew school … since, you know, fill in the blank.’
ELDER: As Rob has said, it’s just, like, technically, the story is a challenging one to tell, but very rewarding. And it’s exciting for a company like Front Porch to choose this because I think Front Porch has a great track record of doing shows that are not super well known or that might be an artistic challenge.
Q: Is there a design element you want to shout out?
JAMES: This echoes exactly what Chad was talking about at the very beginning. We ran with the fact that Marvin is trying to build this beautiful life from the inside and from the outside, and how it’s different from how things are traditionally built. So we were looking at playgrounds and public spaces in the Seventies and that whole brutalist movement, and the extensive use of concrete, and what is a concrete form, how long does concrete last and what actually tears the concrete down and can soften it and make it beautiful? So that’s kind of what we see in the set as we go along. I’ve been calling it “Mount Falsetto,” because it’s about a story tall, with about 16 different platforms on different levels.
There’s what, two pieces of furniture? Everything else is suggested with props. … I did not want people to have a second to lose their focus on what is happening next, because that’s the way that it’s written. And I didn’t want the set to detract from the story that’s being told; I wanted it to enhance. And Johnmichael [Bohach] has just killed it. He’s knocked it out of the park again, with [Andrew Ostrowski’s] lighting.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say about Falsettos?
JAMES: After COVID and the challenges that that has brought, we have three swings for the seven people. We have an adult male swing, an adult female swing and a child swing (Dan Mayhak, Anna Gergerich and Liv Poole). They have been working their butts off to learn the show because, you know, each of those adults are covering three tracks, and they have been killing it.
Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Falsettos is at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side for eight performances, May 19-May 28. Tickets and details: https://www.frontporchpgh.com/ or 412-320-4610.