Celebrating William Finn’s Birthday from Boston to Broadway to the Berkshires

Tony Award winner  William Finn.

Tony Award winner William Finn.

Bill Finn – From Boston to Broadway and the Berkshires, via Barrington Stage Company
by Gail Burns

Berkshire On Stage wants to take this opportunity to wish award winning composer and lyrcist William “Bill” Finn a very happy 61st birthday today. Finn’s fortuitous affiliation with Barrington Stage Company – which began in 2002 when the company mounted his 1992 Tony Award-winning musical “Falsettos” (Review Here) – has turned the Berkshires into a regional hot bed for musical theatre development through his mentorship of the Musical Theatre Lab (MLT) program and the opening of Mr. Finn’s Cabaret (First Season Story Here) which showcases new songwriters and vocal talent on a regular basis.

Massachusetts born (in Boston) and bred (in Natick), it was Barrington Stage that brought Finn to the western part of the state. “He came up and saw what we did with ‘Falsettos,’ loved it, and stayed,” said BSC Aristic Director Julianne Boyd. Finn and his partner now divide their time between a home in Pittsfield and one in NYC, where Finn is a member of the NYU Tisch Graduate Program in Musical Theater Writing faculty as well as active professionally in the theatre.

Finn liked what BSC had done with Falsettos so much that he brought Boyd his current musical in development, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, (First Review Here) which the company presented in both workshop and main stage productions in 2004. The show moved on to success Off-Broadway and then on Broadway in 2005, winning the Tony for Best Book of a Musical. Many actors in those Berkshire casts stayed with the show in New York, including Dan Fogler, who went on to win the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance as William Barfée, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family). …Spelling Bee returned to the BSC Main Stage in 2008 with an entirely different, but no less delighful, cast.

Finn returned to BSC again in the summer of 2005 for a production of his 2003 song-cycle Elegies (Review Here), which pays tribute to Finn’s own departed loved ones (human and animal) now gone, and in response to the September 11 attacks.

Creating a Musical Theatre Lab in the Berkshires

Finn and Boyd created the Musical Theatre Lab in 2006 as a place for young musical theater writers to develop their work on all levels: from staged readings to workshops to full productions. Since its creation, eight world premieres and four workshops have been produced. The critically acclaimed The Burnt Part Boys (2006) received a production at Playwrights Horizons in 2010. Barry Wyner’s 2007 musical Calvin Berger not only introduced Broadway and Hollywood heart-throb Aaron Tveit to the Berkshires but alsoreceived critical acclaim at the George Street Playhouse, and an Off-Broadway production is in the works. See Rock City and Other Destinations was produced in 2008 and later played at the Transport Group in NYC, which is also preparing to stage the 2010 MLT production The Memory Show later this year.

Mr. Finn’s Cabaret

Then in 2012 Finn became the titular proprietor of Mr. Finn’s Cabaret Space (Background Story) at Barrington Stage’s newly acquired Lee and Sydelle Blatt Performing Arts Center, a role he takes very seriously, showing up as host at many events there. The 99-seat cabaret space provides an additional performance platform for the young artists Finn mentors at NYU and through the MLT. The inaugural season was bookended by boffo performances by up-and-coming young composer Joe Iconis and his “Family” of talented performers (Burns and Murray Review Here), while the MLT premiered Iconis’ exciting new musical The Black Suits. This summer’s cabaret season has yet to be announced, but hopefully Iconis will make a return along with other young talent of the same caliber.

Julianne Boyd (l) at the world premiere of William Finn (r) and Rachel Sheinkin's new musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2004, before the show was transferred to the Second Stage Theatre in New York City. Subsequently, the show moved to Broadway's Circle in the Square Theater, where it garnered six Tony Award nominations, and won two.

Julianne Boyd (l) at the world premiere of William Finn (r) and Rachel Sheinkin’s new musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2004, before the show was transferred to the Second Stage Theatre in New York City. Subsequently, the show moved to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theater, where it garnered six Tony Award nominations, and won two.

Finn is known as an autobiographical songwriter, and …Spelling Bee – an hilarious look at the angst of early adolescence at a local spelling bee – was a departure for him from his frequent topics of illness and of life as a gay, Jewish American man. The show returned to Barrington Stagae in 2008 for another successful run in Pittsfield. (Review Here) Although Finn’s keen eye for detailing and exploring family relationships was still strongly in evidence, …Spelling Bee is a much lighter and family-friendly show than his other works, and it is doing great business now that the rights have been released for regional and community theatre productions.

Going Under the Knife

But there is one major work of Finn’s that has yet to see a Berkshire County production, and it is his most deeply autobiographical. Twenty years ago, as his 41st birthday approached, Finn was recovering from Gamma Knife surgery to remove an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in his brain stem. This followed hard on the heels of his success with Falsettos. Finn described the recovery process as having been given “a new brain” and said that the music literally poured out of him during that time. By 1998 that outpouring had taken shape as A New Brain.

Berkshire On Stage traveled over the Taconics to Troy, NY in May of 2012 to see A New Brain (Review Here) presented by Class Act Productions, a relatively newly formed non-Equity theatre company which uses performance space at Russell Sage College. We were profounding moved by the extraordinary production and wrote of Finn’s amazing ability to take everyday events and make them both universal and very, very funny: “A New Brain is written…from the loopy sideways perspective of someone whose brain is not functioning in the way we consider ‘normal.’ The result is fantastic flights of musical and lyrical fantasy that just stand reality on its ear and make you laugh and cry at the same time. Finn runs through just about every musical style and genre in this non-stop 90 minute show – beautiful and touching ballads, solos that establish character and move the plot briskly along, hilarious ensemble numbers where the nine voices of the cast mix and mingle in astonishing combinations.”

Rarely seen “A New Brain” in Boston March 15-April 16, 2013

The good news is that Boston audiences have an opportunity to experience this wonderful show first hand in the Moonbox Productions presentation running March 15 – April 6 at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.

“I think the world that we’re building for this show will be unlike any other version of A New Brain,” said director and set designer Allison Olivia Choat, reflecting how the Moonbox production will create the show’s essential dual reality and of the central character’s – a young composer named Gordon Schwinn – experience as it plays out inside and outside of his own mind. “From books that glow, doughnuts that dance, and pianos that explode, this production will strive to take a composer’s internal world and make it external, so that the audience shares in every part of Gordon’s journey.”

Tickets are available by calling Boston Theatre Scene Box Office at 617-933-8600 or online at www.bostontheatrescene.com.

Southern Comfort for this Summer

Back in Pittsfield, the MLT is gearing up to present the world premiere of Southern Comfort, which Finn describes as about transformation, love, and redefining family with a score that mines America’s heart with music ranging from contemporary country to Appalachian bluegrass. Southern Comfort tells the story of male transgendered Robert Eads and his tight-knit community of individuals, including his trans girlfriend Lola Cola, living in the back hills of ‘Bubba Land’ Georgia. Starring Annette O’Toole and Jeff McCarthy, the show will run on BSC’s St. Germain Stage from July 19-August 10.

Subscriptions for the upcoming season at Barrington Stage are still available with a discount, and single tickets go on sale March 1. barringtonstageco.org

So we in the Berkshires, Boston and Broadway all have good reason to celebrate Finn’s six decades of remarkable contributions to American musical theatre. With projects such as The Royal Family of Broadway and Little Miss Sunshine he is not done with the genre, or with Berkshire County, as he continues to push the envelope and encourage other composers to do likewise. For those who would like to sample his work, Finn’s songs are featured on Lisa Howard’s album Songs of Innocence and Experience. (Her clip with a gorgeous song cut from Spelling Bee is above.)

Happy birthday, Mr. Finn! We look forward to seeing you all around the Commonwealth in the coming year.

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