Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, has given us a number of important theater people, notably composer/ lyricists Stephen Sondheim and William Finn.
Finn’s biggest hit to date, “The Putnam County Spelling Bee,” is playing currently on Broadway. But this Tony winner for “Best Book” last season was not Finn’s first Broadway musical. Back in 1992, his “Falsettos” opened, ran for 486 performances and won the Tony Award for “Best Music and Lyrics” as well as for “Best Book for a Musical.” Maybe it’s the popularity of “Spelling Bee” that has prompted a number of producers nationwide to decide that now is the time to mount new productions of “Falsettos,” which is in previews at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick and opens on Friday, April 13.
The story of “Falsettos,” which was built from shorter musical plays, follows the adventures of Marvin, his ex-wife, his current boyfriend, his son, and his psychologist. Marvin would like them to be one big happy family. Certainly this is timely material for New Jerseyites because of the recent enactment making same-sex unions legal in this state. As George Street artistic director David Saint states on George Street’s website (www.gsponline.org): “I love plays that deal with honest relationships, and ‘Falsettos’ is rich in those. Marvin loves his wife and child, but needs to be true to himself — and that struggle makes for great theater.”
Originally Finn divided the story into three separate one-act musicals, each of which dealt with a separate period in Marvin’s life: “In Trousers” (1987), “The March of the Falsettos” (1981), and “Falsettoland” (1990). With James Lapine’s assistance with book and lyrics, a combination of the latter two were transformed into the “Falsettos” that opened on Broadway and is being revived at George Street under Saint’s direction.
Actor/singer Michael Winther, like Finn, is a product of Williams College. He plays the central role of Marvin. When he was a senior at Williams, Winther directed a production of “March of the Falsettos” and to the cast and crew’s delight, Finn came to see it. Winther admits ruefully that Finn said that it was the worst production he had ever seen. Since that less than auspicious beginning, Winther has worked on a number of projects with Finn, including a gala at the opening of a new theater on the Williams campus. Winther says during a phone interview during a rehearsal break that Finn never forgets: “Bill (Finn) loves telling that story and that he had asked why I wasn’t performing in the musical rather than directing it so poorly.” Finn apparently would always say, “I say to this day Michael made the wrong choice.” Laughing, Winther says, “So, now finally, he will see me do it.”
When Winther first arrived at Williams, he was determined to test out the academic “waters,” and avoid theater. However, two or three weeks into his first year, he was cast for the freshman revue. “So theater it was.” He graduated in 1985 as a theater major with a concentration in art history.
Winther grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was a busy television director and producer, whose long list of credits include “20/20” and the variety show “Shindig” for ABC, and “Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “Sonny and Cher” for CBS. He was executive producer on four different soaps, including “One Life to Live,” and directed even more. The younger Winther remembers going to the sound stage with his dad, and was a little dismayed to see that the musical numbers were pre-recorded and that the musicians just mouthed the words and pretended to play the instruments. “I remember very clearly seeing my first live theater (the first national tour of ‘You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown’), and it was so much more interesting to me. It was so immediate and so exciting.”
His mother quashed his request to be a child actor, telling him that he would have to find someone else to take him to auditions and performances; she was a busy nurse. He was in elementary school with some child actors and he remembers that Susan Olson, who played Cindy, the youngest daughter on the “Brady Bunch,” was the instigator of a group-written play called “In Search of the Glugs.” Winther says: “It was a parable about why milk goes glug, glug, glug. And I was the King of the Glugs.” That was his first acting role.
All of the Winther boys, five in all, played ice hockey. So when it came time for high school, Winther followed his older brothers to Hotchkiss Academy in Connecticut to play ice hockey while being educated. The East Coast has held on to Winther ever since — first at Williams, then New York City. All the other siblings, including one sister, are firmly entrenched in television and film production on the West Coast. Though they try to coax him west, he says, “Theater is what I wanted to do rather than go to LA and play doctors, accountants, and lawyers, small pieces in an assembly line that a year later might be cut. In New York I get to play much more interesting roles.”
He performs in dramas as well as musicals, and has given many concert performances.
Singing since he was a child at church, his goal was opera. To test that, he took a break from college and went to New York to investigate the opera scene. He waited tables, worked in the marketing department at the Metropolitan Opera, and sang with the now-defunct Manhattan Light Opera Company, performing a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan. After a year, he says, “I went back to Williams with a great respect for opera but realizing I didn’t want to limit myself only to that.”
After college, back in New York, he studied with “this odd acting coach, David Kaplan, who empowered us to have control over our own careers, not just wait for the phone to ring.” A group of students in the class banded together, called themselves “Artificial Intelligence,” and as a group developed the original “Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding.” So, at night he was an Italian band leader but during the day worked as a reader at various auditions. At the auditions for “Artist Descending a Staircase” by Tom Stoppard, the director asked Winther to come back the next day and read for a part, which he got. The play only ran for a little over one month in 1989 but Winther had made his Broadway debut.
Since then Winther has worked consistently. His other Broadway appearances include a stint as one of the “maybe” fathers in the musical “Mama Mia,” and in revivals of “Damn Yankees” and “1776.” His list of concert performances includes the popular “Broadway By the Year Series” and Lincoln Center’s American Songbook.
In his spare time, his path crossed again with William Finn as they were both involved in the new musical development program at New York University. In that creative atmosphere, Winther, with lyricist Mark Campbell — using music by 18 composers from the NYU program, including Duncan Shiek (currently represented on Broadway with the hit “Spring Awakening”) — developed his own performance piece, “Songs from an Unmade Bed.”
Says Winther: “If you’re not getting the work you want to do, then get up and create it yourself.” Presented by the New York Theater Workshop (where “Rent” was born) it was first developed by the Workshop’s summer residency at Dartmouth . It ran for six weeks in the early summer of 2005, and amazingly (considering how notoriously short the memory span is of those who make theater awards) was nominated by the Drama Desk for “Outstanding Solo Performance” for the 2005-’06 season.
Let’s hope he wins the nod of approval from Finn for his performance at George Street.
“Falsettos,” through Sunday, May 6, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Musical about a man, his male lover, his ex-wife, her new husband, their soon to be Bar Mitzvah’d son, and the lesbians next door. $28 to $64. 732-246-7717.