Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn [Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording]
On November 12, 2007, the day that the musical revue Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn opened at one of the theaters of off-Broadway's New World Stages, the 55-year-old Finn, arguably the most talented songwriter for the theater of his generation, was enjoying his greatest commercial success right across Eighth Avenue at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway, where The 25th Annual Putnam Valley Spelling Bee was in the midst of its run of 1,136 performances. (Understandably, no songs from that show were included in the revue.) But the road had been anything but straight for Finn, who first attracted attention for "the Marvin trilogy" of three one-act off-Broadway musicals -- In Trousers (1979), March of the Falsettos (1981), and Falsettoland (1990) -- the last two of which were combined into the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Falsettos in 1992. For various reasons (including illness, chronicled in his 1998 show A New Brain), Finn's career has suffered interruptions and misfires, even as it has produced some brilliant music, which makes Make Me a Song all the more valuable, since it draws not only from produced shows but also unproduced ones and various special projects on which Finn has worked over the years. The songs are brilliant, but, it must be admitted, quirky and idiosyncratic, effectively sung here by two men (D.B. Bonds and Adam Heller) and two women (Sandy Binion and Sally Wilfert) to the accompaniment of pianist Darren R. Cohen. The Marvin trilogy told the story of a Jewish man in New York who leaves his wife and child to move in with another man, and Finn's sensibility is rooted in that sort of identity elsewhere, too. The singer always seems to be a New York Jewish homosexual who loves the theater, or something not far from that (a woman who loves a New York Jewish homosexual…, a son of a New York Jewish homosexual…, etc.). Sometimes, there is no distance between the singer and the songwriter at all; in "You're Even Better than You Think You Are," written for Songs of Innocence and Experience, a show commissioned by Finn's alma mater, Williams College, to commemorate the opening of a new theater on the campus, he pays tribute to the people who have encouraged him to keep going, even though his early efforts "were less than very good." But given the specificity, Finn's songs also can be surprisingly universal, particularly when it comes to family relationships, and they are both so openly emotional and articulate that they are usually irresistible. The songwriter himself turns up at the start and the close of the live cast recording, singing the title song, written for Mandy Patinkin, in his enthusiastic gravel-filled voice. It's an appropriate bookend to a collection of high-quality theater music written (and in this case sung) in a highly individual voice.