'Falsettos,' a new Broadway revival, helped me cope with my dad's death

Joan Marcus
essay
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My dad wasn't supposed to die when he got admitted to the hospital. The doctors thought it was a complication with his heart murmur, my mom told me as I called her on my way to the airport. I was heading back to Austin, Texas, mostly to help her — she had injured her shoulder while taking care of Dad. I wasn't worried.

"We're not talking about something fatal, right?" I asked her. No, she said, because no one thought it was.

Five days later, I was staring at his pale body. His mouth was open. He looked as shocked as I was. Just days before, we were sitting around his bed, cracking jokes. He was slated to retire on Aug. 31; he died Aug. 30, passing from heart complications. I got to the hospital that day in time to be there with Mom when we got the final word, but not early enough to say goodbye.

As Mom put it in the immediate aftermath, Dad could've lived 200 years and it wouldn't have been enough time. He was a generous, loving man who always accepted me for who I was. He was a sportswriter, but preferred to watch Project Runway with me than make me watch a football game. He cared, more than anyone I've ever known. I miss his caring every day.

Flash-forward to me watching Falsettos, a musical revival that opened on Broadway in October, with my mom. In the show's final scenes, a dying man named Whizzer (Andrew Rannells) reaches out to grab his partner's son's shoulder to support him during his bar mitzvah. Imagine that: a man so consumed with personal agony and yet still thinks of others in his final moments. Well, that was Dad, and that reminder onstage devastated me.

Falsettos is a story about love, life and, yes, death. Not just death — hard enough as it is — but a young boy losing a father figure. Like many movies, TV shows, plays and songs in recent weeks, it made me sob near-uncontrollably. But through those tears, I got something I desperately needed: solace. This singular piece of art helped me process some of my grief, and I came out stronger on the other side. In Falsettos, I learned exactly how vital art can be not just as entertainment or distraction, but as a vehicle for coping.

Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in 'Falsettos'Source: Joan Marcus
Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in 'Falsettos'  Joan Marcus

Grieving my father's death has been, by turns, remarkably easy and tremendously difficult. I was composed enough at first to give a eulogy at Dad's funeral, and to be a rock for my mom. But since returning to New York, I've had to accept waves of emotion as they come. Some nights, some days, even some subway rides, I'll remember something about him — a pun he used to love, or a kind word he shared about my work. Then the tears come. Nothing prompts me to miss him more than art, however — especially Falsettos.

Falsettos began its musical life as two parts of a trilogy. Composer William Finn debuted his original work In Trousers off-Broadway in 1979. That musical introduced audiences to Marvin (played by Christian Borle in the Falsettos revival), a married man coming to terms with his sexuality. The next two shows, March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990), became the two halves of Falsettos when it premiered on Broadway in 1992. 

The first act follows Marvin with his new lover, Whizzer, as they attempt to navigate their own lives while Marvin deals with his ex-wife, Trina. He also attempts to better connect with his son, Jason, played by Anthony Rosenthal. In the second half, Marvin, having broken up with Whizzer, forges a different kind of family unit with Trina, Jason and Trina's new husband, Mendel. Soon enough, Marvin and Whizzer get back together. It would be Modern Family-esque had it not preceded Modern Family by 17 years. They may be unconventional, but they're one, big, happy family whose only major drama is bickering about planning Jason's bar mitzvah.

But the family doesn't live peacefully for long. Whizzer gets sick; his illness (which is understood, but never stated, as AIDS) accelerates quickly. Jason, who loves Whizzer like a father figure and a friend, is hit hard by this, waffling on whether he even wants to have his bar mitzvah without Whizzer. He eventually decides to have it in the hospital so Whizzer can attend. 

In these final songs, Falsettos' emotional weight gets both beautiful and nearly unbearable. It's during this scene that Whizzer starts to lose consciousness, then reaches out to grab Jason's shoulder. That gesture — Rannells extending his arm to Rosenthal — made every feeling about my generous, loving, selfless father come rising to the fore. I was confronted with everything I felt about him all at once, suddenly feeling as if I were drowning in grief.

Source: LincolnCenterTheater/YouTube

In the few days Dad was sick, and in the aftermath of his death, I found entertainment to be a necessary distraction. I was watching and writing about RuPaul's Drag Race, even writing my recap the week he died. I watched whatever was left on my parents' DVR. I wanted popular art to be my means of escape — and it was. I kept my mind occupied, only letting in the information I needed to be there for my family.

After arriving home to New York, however, it quickly became clear that said distractions were only sufficient temporarily. Reality came roaring back, and I was flying without any kind of safety net. I had never lost a parent before. I didn't know how to do it. Friends who did lose mothers and fathers offered their guidance, but I never felt compelled to listen to it.

It was art that offered me the most clarity about how I felt about Dad. The final song in Falsettos, called "What Would I Do?", offers up a question: If you knew someone you loved would die, for instance, would you still live life with them to the fullest, embracing the time you have with them?

Marvin sings about and with Whizzer after his passing, considering all the ways Marvin would be different for not knowing Whizzer. Whizzer begins to ask if Marvin regrets his choices — to leave his wife and son, or to fall for Whizzer. Marvin doesn't even let Whizzer finish. "I'd do it again," he sings. "I'd like to believe that I'd do it again/ And again, and again."

'Falsettos'Source: Joan Marcus
'Falsettos'  Joan Marcus

That idea struck such a chord with me, even though I hadn't so much as considered it before. But when it came up in Falsettos, my mom shared a story I had never heard: When she was my age, working as a young lawyer, an older woman sat down next to her in a courthouse lobby. The woman talked about how she was probating her husband's will, and how, despite his relatively early passing, she knew they had lived life to the fullest. They didn't wait to take vacations until retirement. They did everything they wanted to do.

Mom didn't know this woman, but she felt keenly in that moment she needed to listen. So she did, and she kept that advice in mind throughout her 28-year marriage. She and Dad traveled (with me after I was born); they did what they wanted to (and could) do. They lived life — and, as Mom said after seeing Falsettos, she didn't regret any of it.

I, admittedly, have some regrets. I regret not being there to say goodbye right before he passed. I regret not going back to the hospital the night before because I was fatigued. I regret not talking with him more about my boyfriend. But living with regrets is no way to live. Dad certainly wouldn't want me to; he'd feel bad that he'd caused any fuss.

If I had to do life over, knowing that my dad would die when I was just 24, I would still do it again. And again, and again.

The writer, Kevin O'Keeffe, and his father, Kevin O'KeeffeSource: Kevin O'Keeffe
The writer, Kevin O'Keeffe, and his father, Kevin O'Keeffe  Kevin O'Keeffe

Would I have reached that conclusion without Falsettos? Maybe. Maybe one day, I would understand what this work of art was saying so beautifully. Maybe I could find that answer on my own. 

Yet after Falsettos, as I sat with my mom, her best friend and my boyfriend, I felt such a weight lifted from me. I felt like, after weeks of struggling with my grief, this show had given me an outlet. I wasn't done grieving, but I made progress. I felt like I was more at peace with his death than ever before.

Falsettos is a potent reminder to me that, at its best, art is powerful. Art is challenging. Art can heal. Art makes us better. Art makes us stronger. Art is the closest thing we have this side of alchemy to magic. Art moves us and empowers us. Art brings us together to share in both joy and pain.

Art helped me do what I thought impossible: cope with my dad's death. I am in awe of art. I feel tremendously fortunate to have it — and to have had Dad.