Walter McBride/WireImage
Jessica Derschowitz
November 01, 2016 AT 04:23 PM EDT

Nearly two decades before Modern Family hit TV screens, there was the very modern family that makes up Falsettos, which just opened to critical praise in its Broadway revival.

Originally performed Off Broadway as two one-act shows — 1981’s March of the Falsettos and 1990’s Falsettoland — the musical by James Lapine and William Finn first opened on Broadway as Falsettos in 1992 and won two Tony Awards for best book and score. The story, which begins in 1979, centers on a neurotic gay man named Marvin (Smash star and Tony winner Christian Borle) and the intertwined lives of his ex-wife (Stephanie J. Block), young son (Anthony Rosenthal), therapist (An American in Paris’ Brandon Uranowitz), and new lover (Girls star Andrew Rannells).

As the show progresses, the action moves to 1981 and their “tight-knit family” grows to include the lesbian couple next door (Betsy Wolfe and Tracie Thoms), but in this decade, a new threat looms — unnamed, but described as “Something that kills/Something infectious/Something that spreads from one man to another” — and soon hits very close to home. (Trust us: You’ll want to have tissues handy.)

EW caught up with Rannells, a Tony nominee for The Book of Mormon, to talk about his special connection to the show, why it still resonates today, and its powerful messages about love and family.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I hate to start this interview on a down note, but when I saw the show you made me cry.

ANDREW RANNELLS: [Laughs] Well, it’s probably wrong to say, but I’m glad to hear that.

How familiar were you with Falsettos before joining this production?

Very familiar — I was a huge fan. I watched the 1992 Tony Awards as a kid and they performed “The Baseball Game” number, and I became really obsessed with the show and wanted to find out more about it. So I went to my local library in Omaha, Nebraska, and got the CDs and sort of obsessed over the score, and when I got to college in New York, I sang many songs from the show in classes and worked on the material in school. So it’s really a real dream come true moment for me to get to actually perform this music, not only in a production but on a Broadway stage and directed by James Lapine, who wrote it and directed it originally.

What about the show resonated with you?

I just had never heard a musical that had sounded like that before. It has an oddly contemporary sound and also just a very unique, which I now know is [William] Finn, it’s his sort of genius and very specific brand and style of writing. I had never heard anything like it. And as a kid who was figuring out his sexuality, I was also really moved and intrigued by the fact that it centered around this gay couple, so I think I was also interested in the subject matter because of that as well — coming to terms with my own sexuality and then realizing this was a show about this gay couple having this life together. So that was very interesting and moving and very informing as a kid, and getting to know it as an adult and really getting to dive into it and perform it, I’m just regularly so amazed at the depth of it.

It’s amazing to think about how different the world was when this was first on Broadway.

Very much so. I was explaining that to my nieces this morning, and we had to explain to our little Anthony Rosenthal, who plays [Marvin’s son] Jason, that being gay in 1979 and leaving your wife for another man was a huge deal — and not that it still wouldn’t be a huge deal today, but there have been more conversations about it. So the fact that that was the centerpiece of that first act was really groundbreaking material at that point. And then the second act, Bill and James decided to incorporate and tackle the AIDS crisis with these characters and that was happening in 1990 when it was first presented Off Broadway. Those were all things that were happening in real time, so it was extremely timely and extremely moving in a different way because it was happening in that moment, they wrote it in that moment that it was all going on. Now we look at it and I think we take it in stride a little bit differently, but when they wrote it all together that was really groundbreaking stuff.

The idea of coming together as a family is one of the big themes in this show. Is that something you’ve ever experienced yourself?

Absolutely. Coming to New York to go to school and being very far away from my own family, I definitely found myself piecing together my sort of chosen family here, and I have friends that I’m still very close with, that we all met at the same time and have become a huge part of each other’s lives. I think that’s another reason that, getting to perform the show, I’m so moved by it — particularly in the second act when we incorporate the lesbians from next door — it’s such a beautiful depiction of what that is, that you can make and extend your family with the people who are around you and maybe it’s not exactly the one you were born into, but these unexpected people that come into your lives that you really fall in love with and bond with and I think that’s another really beautiful aspect of the show.

 

Let’s talk about your character, Whizzer, and his relationship with Marvin.

In the first act, Whizzer gets in a little over his head with Marvin. It’s maybe a little more than he bargained for with the ex-wife and the child and them being a part of his life and also feeling responsible for Marvin leaving his wife for him. I think that’s a lot of pressure on him and a lot of strain on their relationship and so I like getting to play that conflict — they fight a lot, they’re not always happy with each other, and those highs and lows are always really fun to play as an actor. And then in the second act, I just love, particularly when Marvin sings “What More Can I Say?” while Whizzer is sleeping, that they’ve come to this place where they’re totally in love and invested in each other. But it’s such a beautiful arc to get to play and such a beautiful love story to get to dive into every night.

You get a lot of very period costumes in the show, like those racquetball shorts…

[Laughs] Yeah, it makes you realize how small the clothing was in the ’80s!

Some people might be wondering why it’s called Falsettos. Can you explain?

To sing in your falsetto [voice] as a man, you’re not singing in your natural register — you’re doing something that’s a little unnatural and also can sound sort of childlike, or you’re singing like you would before your voice changed. So we have this group of guys in this show that are technically men — we have the one child, that’s probably the most mature character in the whole show, and then this group of men — who are sort of still behaving like boys. That’s kind of where Bill and James I think kind of jumped off with this show, is that it’s not uncommon for men to act like children [laughs] and that’s a large part of what we deal with in the show. So I think the falsettos part is these guys, they seem like they’re grown up but underneath not quite grown up yet.  

Falsettos is playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre. For more information, visit the show’s website.

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