By: Alexis Jackson
Falsettos presents the story of an unconventional Jewish family living in NYC in the late 1980’s through a two-part musical, with a two year time difference occurring between Act One and Act Two. Falsettos uncovers the growing up and coming-of-age of a 10-year-old boy, Jason, who faces more than the average kid. Jason is a dynamic character who is lost in the confusion of his seemingly broken family. Coping with his parent’s divorce, discovering his father’s homosexuality, connecting with Judaism, and witnessing the death of a loved one shape Jason’s growth and force his maturity. Throughout the plot, Jason struggles to gain his parents’ understanding and to connect with them. Marvin’s lover Whizzer and psychiatrist Mendel serve as two agents who can truly connect with Jason and become important members of his family.
A conflict between Jason and his parents exists as a result of coping with their divorce. This conflict is heightened as Jason finds difficulty in coming to terms with his father’s sexuality. In Act One, the scene “Marvin and the Psychiatrist” reveals Marvin’s struggle with connecting to Jason and with his resentment towards his father. Marvin elaborates on the lack of connection that exists between him and Jason as he sings about going to a museum together, yet standing miles apart. A New York Times columnist, Frank Rich, who took his children to see Falsettos claims that his kids’ biggest takeaway was how family values are portrayed throughout the show (Rich). Specifically, Rich’s son enjoyed watching how Marvin and Jason had to work out an adjustment to a difficult sudden change: Marvin coming out as gay. Jason says, “My father says that love is the most beautiful thing in the world… I think Chess is the most beautiful thing, not love (Falsettos 36).”
Jason’s obsession with chess serves as a coping mechanism to deal with his broken family. He uses chess as an outlet to isolate himself from his parents’ separation. The scene “Everyone Tells Jason to see a Psychiatrist” uncovers Marvin and Trina’s concern with Jason’s chess obsession. Trina believes it is not “normal” for Jason to enjoy playing chess alone. Trina and Marvin push the idea of seeing a psychiatrist onto Jason. After going back and forth, Jason wants Whizzer to decide if he thinks he should see a psychiatrist. In this situation, Whizzer serves as an agent to resolve the tension which exists between Jason and his parents. Jason trusts Whizzer’s knowledge more than his parents, who he feels emotionally disconnected to, and ultimately relies on Whizzer.
In Act Two the conflict between Jason and his parents intensifies as they are planning his bar mitzvah. Trina and Mendel continuously fight over simple, foolish details about the bar mitzvah. During the scene “The Fight,” it is revealed that Jason feels his parents’ continuous arguing is taking away from his celebration and ultimately ruining his bar mitzvah. Frustrated, Jason concludes he no longer wants a bar mitzvah simply because it will make his parents happy. Mendel referees the situation by explaining to Jason it is perfectly normal to hate your parents. Mendel says “Everyone hates his parents that’s in the Torah… In fact God said to Moses, “Moses, everyone hates his parents that’s how it goes (Falsettos 120).” This scene reveals Jason’s development, as he comes to the conclusion that someday he too will grow up and hate his parents less. Like Whizzer, Jason instills trust in Mendel and takes his guidance to help mend his relationship with his parents.
“The Baseball Game” scene can be used to further analyze Jason’s character and how Judaism is highlighted throughout the plot. Marvin, Trina, Mendal, and Cordellia and Dr. Charlotte (Marvin’s lesbian neighbors), sit together on the bleachers to watch “Jewish boys, who cannot play baseball, play baseball (Falsettos 101).” The humor in how Jason’s spectators are singing about Jewish boys’ lack of athleticism gives insight into Jewish masculinity stereotypes. It is common for Jewish men to be stereotyped as nebbish and meek throughout media outlets, and theatre alike. “More often than not, Jewish men on TV are brainy and sharp-witted, however, they can also be clumsy and awkward, both socially and physically (Antler 51).” Jason’s clumsiness is emphasized as Marvin says “But why does he have to throw like that (Falsettos 101)?”
It can also be inferred that the inclusion of the baseball game scene in Falsettos is a tribute to Jewish culture. While Jason is up at bat, Mendel calls out “Remember Sandy Koufax/ Take heart from Hank Greenberg/ It’s not genetic (Falsettos 101).” Mendel’s reference to famous Jewish baseball players is intended to inspire Jason. Furthermore, a long history exists between Jews and baseball. Dating back to the waves of European immigration which hit America in the early 20th century, sports served as a means of assimilation and a way for Jewish people to define themselves (Patterson 84). “Baseball freely provided children with an increased sense of pride and afforded an identity for Jews as Americans. This identity diminished stereotypes while simultaneously reinforcing the values of community and family—all central tenants of Jewish teachings and practice (Patterson 85).” The history and connection Jewish Americans have with baseball highlight how Jewishness is expressed throughout the musical.
Jason’s bar mitzvah displays his growth as a character and the transformation of his understanding of Judaism. Jason initially refers to his bar mitzvah as a celebration for himself, and even claims the “miracle of Judaism” to be selecting girls to invite to one’s bar mitzvah. Later on, Jason seems to gain a better understanding of how meaningful a bar mitzvah is, as he wishes to wait to become a bar mitzvah until Whizzer gets better. Jason believes bar mitzvahs should be all about “Good Friends Close at Hand (137)”. However, Jason is still too naïve to understand the extreme implication of Whizzer’s infection with AIDS, as Trina explains that they can’t be sure he’ll ever get better. Trina responds to Jason by explaining that the hall and band are already booked. For the first time, Jason also prays to God and promises to have his bar mitzvah if he can save Whizzer. Although Jason initially plans for his bar mitzvah to be a large celebration where he would be able to invite girls, after much deliberation, he decides on having the event in Whizzer’s hospital room.
The simplistic performance of his bar mitzvah goes against late 20th century norms of bar mitzvah celebrations. During this time, bar mitzvahs in the United States developed to be a social occasion focused on lavish parties (Hilton 170). However, some Jewish people rejected this extravagance and focused on more simplistic alternatives. The Second Jewish Catalog (1976) encouraged families to assemble their own congregation, borrow their own Torah, compose their own service booklet, and cook their own food. Other unnecessary additions to a bar mitzvah included a rabbi, a bar, professional musicians and vast floral arrangements (Hilton 181). Jason’s bar mitzvah taking place in the hospital room followed this condensed route, lacking a rabbi, torah, and was catered with homemade food from Cordellia. One way Jewish tradition is followed in the bar mitzvah performance is Jason’s donning of a tallit. “The tallit, a prayer shawl with fringes on the bottom, serves as an indicator for Jewish men to become obligated for all the commandments of the Torah, where the fringes represent the 613 commandments found in the Torah. (Hilton 182)” Jason’s bar mitzvah ultimately reclaimed the meaning of becoming a bar mitzvah in Judaism, with a modern twist: an intimate ceremony spent with close family. The unconventional nature of Jason’s family is highlighted as he is called to the Torah with “Son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Son of Marvin, Son of Trina, Son of Whizzer and Son of Mendel.” Listing Whizzer and Mendel along with Jason’s parents proves how important they are to Jason, and his growth as an individual.
Although Judaism is most overtly expressed in Falsettos through Jason’s bar mitzvah, there are other subtle ways it is portrayed, such as when Mendel “cites the Torah” to explain that it is, in fact, normal and natural for children to hate their parents. Jan Lewis explains, “Understanding that identity is fluid and not fixed, we approach the notion of Jewishness in the theater as individually constructed by its creative artists, audiences, and critics (Lewis 62).” This is true in Falsettos as physical and vocal mannerisms used, food preparation, and engagement in song and dance are all different means Jewishness is expressed throughout the musical. Falsettos’ composer and lyricist William Finn intended for Judaism to be such a large part of the show. When interviewed by Linda Buchwald he claimed, “And the bar mitzvah [scene] I find incredibly moving. There’s so much about what it means to be a man in the show. It’s not only the kid becoming a man — it’s kind of all the men becoming men. It’s a metaphor that resonates.” The bar mitzvah exemplifies Jason’s growth and maturity, serving as a culmination of the conflicts with his parents, relationships with Mendel and Whizzer, and ultimately, his newfound connection with Judaism.