Composer William Finn's musicals, particularly the trilogy of shows about the bisexual character Marvin (In Trousers, March of the Falsettos, and Falsettoland), excited hope among musical theater aficionados that he was a major songwriter for the stage and a possible successor to Stephen Sondheim. Diverted by a medical emergency in the 1990s, he recovered to write a show about his ordeal, A New Brain.
Finn grew up in Natick, MA, and attended Williams College, where, upon graduation, he was awarded the Hutchinson Fellowship for musical composition. (Sondheim earlier attended the same college and won the same fellowship.) He first came to attention with In Trousers, the first of the Marvin shows, which was developed by the Playwrights Horizons theater company and given a production off-off-Broadway starting on February 21, 1979. The piece, for which Finn wrote the music, lyrics, and book, combined lively, attractive music with provocative subject matter and witty lyrics, telling the story of Marvin, a contemporary man, who grows up, marries, and leaves his wife for a man. Original Cast Records recorded a cast album of the show, which was released in 1979. Finn returned to the Marvin character with March of the Falsettos, which again began at Playwrights Horizons on May 20, 1981, before moving to an off-Broadway house for an eventual combined run of 298 performances. The work was celebrated at the time, and remains in high regard. For example, in his book Show Tunes, historian Steven Suskin called it "a very special theatre work, and arguably the best score of the 1980s." DRG Records recorded it for a cast album. Starting on March 2, 1983, Playwrights Horizons held a tryout of Finn's next musical, America Kicks Up Its Heels, but the show did not open formally. Finn reworked the material, which became Romance in Hard Times, opening for a short workshop production at the off-off-Broadway Public Theater on December 28, 1989.
Finn was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984. He added lyrics to the music of Astor Piazzolla for the dance show Tango Apasionado, which opened off-off-Broadway on November 6, 1987. The show was reworked and renamed Dangerous Games for a short run beginning October 19, 1989, which gave Finn his Broadway debut. On June 28, 1990, Falsettoland, the third of the Marvin musicals, which followed its characters into the age of AIDS, opened at Playwrights Horizons, later moving to an off-Broadway house and earning a run of 215 performances, a cast album on DRG, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for best off-Broadway musical. Both one-act musicals, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland were combined into a two-act musical, Falsettos, which opened on Broadway on April 29, 1992. For this production, Finn won Tony Awards for best score and best book. It ran 487 performances.
Starting in the early '90s, Finn wrote songs for animated children's films, including The Poky Little Puppy's First Christmas (1992), Ira Sleeps Over (1993), The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (1998), The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue (1999), and The Adventures of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina (2002). Around the same time, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, but eventually surgery was performed successfully. When he recovered, he wrote A New Brain, a musical about a composer of children's music who is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, which opened off-Broadway at the Lincoln Center Theater on June 18, 1998, and ran 78 performances. It won the Outer Critics Circle Award for the best off-Broadway musical of the season, and RCA Victor recorded a cast album. Four days after its opening, Finn's one-act play, Painting You, was included as part of the collection of one-act plays Love's Fire at the Public Theater. In 2000 and 2001, Finn and a group of singers performed an anthology of his work, Infinite Joy: The Songs of William Finn, at Joe's Pub, a nightclub within the Public Theater, and the show was recorded by RCA for an album released in May 2001. ~ William Ruhlmann