ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Long before there was "Transparent" or "Modern Family," there was "Falsettos," a frank, funny musical about a Jewish New Yorker who leaves his wife and son for a man. This causes big reverberations in his family. The show, parts of which are 35 years old, is getting a revival on Broadway. Jeff Lunden has this report on how well it's held up, but first a note - you'll hear slang from the '80s which some consider offensive today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOUR JEWS IN A ROOM BITCHING")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Four Jews in a room bitching - four Jews in a room plot a crime. I'm bitching.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The first act of "Falsettos" premiered in a tiny theater off Broadway in 1981. Former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich says he was bowled over by how the show captured a neurotic New York energy.
FRANK RICH: Just to be hit by this piece was astounding.
LUNDEN: With the score by William Finn and directed and co-authored by James Lapine, it was a quirky examination of the intersection of gay and Jewish life on New York's Upper West Side. Nine years later, the same team returned with another one-act, "Falsettoland." In this one, the same characters confronted the AIDS crisis.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING BAD IS HAPPENING")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Charlotte, singing) Something bad is happening. Something very bad is happening. Something stinks - something immoral. Something so bad that words have lost their meaning.
RICH: The political context, of course, was fraught because it was still perhaps something of a dicey and alarming subject for a lot of Americans.
LUNDEN: Director James Lapine.
JAMES LAPINE: And these people, who might have been immature and carefree at one point, now how to deal with the grimmest of realities.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FALSETTOLAND/ABOUT TIME")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Marvin, singing) It's about time to grow up, don't you think? It's about time to grow up and face the music. It's about time.
LUNDEN: In 1992, the two one-act shows were combined into a single show, "Falsettos." It moved to Broadway and Finn and Lapine won Tony Awards. Now they're teaming up again for the revival. But 24 years later in a world of marriage equality and when HIV is no longer a death sentence, will the show feel quaint?
WILLIAM FINN: I was petrified.
LUNDEN: That's writer William Finn. He says "Falsettos" has been performed all over the world, but this is its first Broadway revival.
FINN: You know, people were saying, aren't you excited the show is being revived? And I was really nauseated. I've seen it one time in the past five years. And I thought it was all right, but I didn't know that other people would.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FATHER'S A HOMO")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Jason, singing) My father's a homo. My mother was not thrilled at all.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Jason, singing) Father - homo. What about chromosomes? Do they carry? Will they carry? Who's the homo now?
LUNDEN: To give a sense of how far popular culture has moved, director James Lapine says the young actor who plays Jason, the boy who's preparing for his bar mitzvah, had to be given a history lesson.
LAPINE: The guys in the cast were explaining to the boy what gay life was like - that - you know, he's growing up with there being no stigma against being gay. This is a very different time. And to explain to him, as his character, that would be a very awkward thing to have his father become gay.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIGHT-KNIT FAMILY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Marvin, singing) But I want a tight-knit my family. I want a group that harmonizes. I want my wife and kid and friend to pretend that time will mend our pain.
LUNDEN: And Frank Rich says for generations who didn't live through the AIDS crisis, bringing "Falsettos" back isn't quaint at all. It's an important reminder of a devastating time.
RICH: It's probably a good thing, among its aesthetic virtues, "Falsettos" will remind people of a bit of history that seems now to be vanishing, as so much does in America, to amnesia.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Cordelia, singing) We don't know what time will bring.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Whizzer, singing) I have a clue.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Marvin) (Singing) I have, too.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Cordelia, Whizzer, and Marvin) Let's look like we haven't and each say nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Whizzer, singing) Sky.
LUNDEN: Director James Lapine says as long as there are shadows hanging over us, "Falsettos" will always be relevant. It opens tonight on Broadway. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Cordelia, Whizzer, Marvin, and Charlotte) (Singing) What a group we four are - four unlikely lovers. And we vow that we will buy the farm, arm in arm. Four unlikely lovers... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.