A Different Kind of Love Song

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007
Howard Kane

"I am too young to be a queen!” insists 24-year-old Mitchell Marcus, instead referring to himself as a “show princess.” This up-and-coming theatre producer is cute, smart and, most importantly, a nice Jewish boy from Thornhill! Marcus founded the Acting Up Stage Company two years ago with the mandate of producing contemporary musical theatre.

He first launched his company with the Canadian premiere of Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick...Boom and then followed it up with the super-obscure John &Jen. This season, he will present William Finn’s Elegies: A Song Cycle. Marcus has lined up some big-name corporate sponsors, as well as a very impressive roster of talent that includes Barbara Barsky, Thom Allison, Steven Gallagher, Eliza-Jane Scott and Michael Strathmore.

I must confess I chose to write this piece not for my love of Marcus (although he is adorable, with chutzpah for days!) but because of my adoration for the show’s composer, Mr. Finn. My obsession started in the ’80s, when I was living in New York City and could not stop listening to an out-of-print vinyl record of the composer’s first musical, In Trousers, which I bought from a sketchy street vendor for one US dollar.

Although Finn wrote the score for the current Broadway hit, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, I am most fond of his musical Falsettos, which is the second and third parts of a trilogy—In Trousers, March Of The Falsettos and Falsettoland. The latter deals with the central character losing his lover to AIDS.

The subject of death is common ground for a Finn musical— they have an uncanny way of being deeply moving while, at the same time, highly entertaining. Elegies is no exception. “Each of the songs is like a small monologue,” says musical-theatre vet and cast member Barbra Barsky. “The songs are episodic—that’s why Finn calls it a song cycle and not a revue because all of the songs are connected to one another.”

Most of Finn’s musicals centre on a gay Jewish male living in New York City (himself, essentially). The major problem with this is that audiences outside of New York and who aren’t gay, Jewish or male, generally don’t relate to his material. I have witnessed this on many occasions, including the 1994 Toronto production of Falsettos (in which Barsky co-starred), where the brilliance of the piece eluded the Scarborough matriarchs.

Marcus is optimistic about his forthcoming production. “I hope people get this,” he says. “This is the first time where [Finn] is not the central character. It’s about the people in his life—his mother, lover and his dog. That’s what makes this piece more universal.” As Marcus explains, “there are songs about Jews, there are songs about gay people, and there are lots of songs that have nothing to do with either of those two. He memorializes every person that he lost.”

I unfortunately missed Elegies’ brief original run at the Lincoln Center Theatre back in 2003, which starred Broadway Falsettos star Michael Rupert and Betty Buckley (from TV’s Eight is Enough), so I eagerly await Marcus’ production. I’ve been refamiliarizing myself with the score (this time via crisp mp3s on my iPod and not a cruddy used LP!) and three things have occurred to me.

One, I realized my obsession with Finn’s work is just as strong as ever; two, this material is friggin’ brilliant; and three, all of Finn’s songs are love songs, just of a different kind.

Here’s hoping Toronto audiences get it this time around!

Elegies runs from February 15th-March 3rd, Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkely St., upstairs). $25-35, 416-367-8243, www.elegiesasongcycle.com