August 19, 2019

‘Falsettos’ Explores What it Means to Be Jewish

Cast of “Falsettos” Photo by Joan Marcus

Themes of love, loss, the AIDS crisis and family bonds blend together in the musical “Falsettos,” about a gay man, his ex-wife, their young son and their new partners. But with songs including “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” “Miracle of Judaism” and
“Jason’s Bar Mitzvah,” it also explores what it means to be Jewish. The national touring company production is now playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre.

“I relate to the Jewish cadences and culture references in it and I think that the way Judaism permeates the show is so honest,” Nick Blaemire, who plays psychiatrist Mendel Weisenbachfeld, told the Journal. “It does a great job of telling everybody’s story from a Jewish perspective. It begins with the kitschy stereotype of ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching’ and then it ends with the most beautiful, heartbreaking, entirely human and grounded bar mitzvah I could possibly imagine. It’s a profound intersection between religion and love.”

For Blaemire, a theater veteran who played Jewish “Rent” playwright Jonathan Larson in “Tick…Tick…BOOM!” and the Jewish member of a Christian boy band in “Altar Boys” on his first national tour, “Falsettos” has brought him closer to Judaism.

A self-described “lapsed Jew,” he had a crisis of faith when a close family friend died at the age of 13. “It turned me into a more secular Jew,” Blaemire said, and he didn’t go through with his bar mitzvah. “I’ve always identified with the culture but I’ve had some shame about where I fit into it,” he said. “But this has been a very Jewish year for me. This show coming into my life has been such a gift. In a way, I feel like I got my bar mitzvah at 34.”

Blaemire finds a lot to relate to in his character, Mendel. “While I don’t agree with his ethics to a certain degree, I understand the choices he makes and what he’s going through and the loneliness that motivates the actions that he takes,” he said. “I also admire the stepfather that he becomes. My wife and I are talking about having kids and I’m trying to fathom what a big thing that is and how big an influence you can have over a young person’s life.”

Debuting on Broadway in 1992, “Falsettos” won Tony Awards for its book by William Finn and James Lapine and music and lyrics by Finn. But the show’s genesis dates back several decades to their trilogy of one-act musicals, “In Trousers” in 1979, “March of the Falsettos” in 1981 and “Falsettoland” in 1990. They combined the latter two plays into one two-act show that takes place two years apart, in 1979 and 1981.

“I’ve always identified with the culture but I’ve had some shame about where I fit into it. But this has been a very Jewish year for me. This show coming into my life has been such a gift. In a way, I feel like I got my bar mitzvah at 34.”

 — Nick Blaemire

“It’s a pretty unparalleled piece of writing,” Blaemire said. “It speaks to an issue that we’re still dealing with today in a profound way. It describes a nontraditional family in a way that breaks the idea of what a family is. The setup is crazy: gay Jewish man leaves his wife for another man, his therapist falls in love with his wife and they try to create a family. It’s a proxy for all of our own individual experiences. There is no ‘normal,’ and it’s been proven so beautifully in this show. I’m constantly looking for things that challenge me and this is like a New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s so intricate and so subtle. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Born in Washington, D.C., to a Jewish mother and Methodist father, Blaemire grew up in a Reform “Jewish bubble” in Bethesda, Md., where he started taking theater classes before he was in kindergarten. He continued acting in plays all through school and college at the University of Michigan. “I’ve been obsessed with theater since I discovered it,” he said. “I wasn’t a particularly social kid, and didn’t fit in. Make believe was the avenue that helped me find friends and find myself in a very supportive community. And in a lot of ways, I feel that I’ve found my connection to Jewish culture through theater.”

Nick Blaemire, from the First National Tour of “Falsettos,” which will play at the Ahmanson Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Brooklyn-based actor has appeared on TV in “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order,” and the new “Fosse/Verdon” as a cast member of “Damn Yankees,” a show he knows well: he played the Devil in a high school production. He’s currently writing two film scripts and stage musicals about the dogs that were sent into space at the dawn of space exploration, and an English adaptation of a French play about the impact of Anne Frank’s diary.

“I’d like nothing more than to make TV, movies, theater, music and art in any way that feels important to me and useful to the audiences that watch them,” he said. “But I’m writing more these days because you never know where the next acting gig will come from.” 

Blaemire will be on the road with “Falsettos” through June 30, and his actress-writer wife, Ana Nogueira, and their dog, Leo, are joining him for the California segment. He is particularly excited about playing at the Ahmanson, which he called “a bucket list place.

“This show is such a transcendent experience,” he said. “It’s striking a chord like I’ve never experienced before. I think people need this kind of frank honesty right now.”

“Falsettos” runs through May 19 at the Ahmanson Theatre.