LOS ANGELES – A woman’s nervous breakdown doesn’t sound like the stuff of which Broadway moments are made. But in the recent revival of “Falsettos” Stephanie J. Block got such an ovation audiences felt they were witnessing history.
The first few times she heard the response, Block says, “I kept thinking, oh, these people are crazy. This is never going to continue.” And then it did.
The song, “Breaking Down,” became what she calls a “mini-circus.” Director James Lapine encouraged her to take advantage of the four minutes and 36 seconds she was singing.
“He allowed me to play a lot in rehearsal, and I usually do that,” Block says. “I usually come in with 1,000 ideas and throw the kitchen sink at it and expect a director to say, ‘We need to pare that away. That’s way too much.’ I just kept adding and adding and (he never) kept cutting.’”
The performance earned her a Tony nomination and helped audiences find a way in to a story that was from another time. In the musical, Block’s character learns her husband has fallen in love with another man. He breaks the news to his wife and son and they figure out how to create a new version of family. Written during the AIDS crisis, “Falsettos” also addresses loss and the love that results. The original production opened in 1992 (it was an amalgamation of shows written by Lapine and composer William Finn) and won two Tony Awards.
The revival came about when a Broadway producer asked Lapine what he wanted to direct. “Funny you should ask,” the author remembers saying. “I’d love to do ‘Falsettos.’” Without blinking, producer Jordan Roth gave him the green light and Lapine – who also directed – assembled a cast of contemporary theater stars: Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, Brandon Uranowitz and Block. A son (played by Anthony Rosenthal) and two friends next door (played by Betsy Wolfe and Tracie Thoms) completed the seven-person cast. Lapine set it in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
A fan of the show's music, Block grew up listening to the cast album but never heard “Breaking Down” because it wasn’t included. When she finally got a chance to sink her teeth into it, she realized how perfect it was.
“It really was this sort of comedic gift that I had to figure out,” she says. “We had to have her grounded in reality and yet let the audience know that she is falling apart in front of your eyes and that’s probably going to continue for the next hour and 45 minutes, so join me. And the audience would. It allowed them to release the applause and what they had been holding on to for the first 35 minutes of the play.”
Block has had star turns before – she was the original Elphaba in the workshops of “Wicked” before producers decided to recast – and knew the reaction wasn’t something to be taken lightly.
“As an actor,” she says, “it’s always hard to digest the business part of show business.” When she was replaced in “Wicked” by Idina Menzel – who was a known Broadway commodity – Block was taken aback.
“I think it will forever be a question mark to me because what leads us to this art form is our heart, rather than a lot of our head. I know exactly why that decision had to be made, why that wasn’t going to work for me. ‘Wicked’ was a tough sting. I invested about two years creating Elphaba, with Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz, and it was really basic: You do not have a Broadway credit to your name, let alone creating something of this magnitude with Universal Pictures behind it.”
Menzel won the Tony for her performance and, yes, Block says, “you go, ‘Oh, drat, that should have been me.’ And I got drunk. That stuff happens. But you wake up the next morning and figure out what that next audition is.”
Eventually, Block played the role on Broadway, met her husband, Sebastian Arcelus, and they had a child. “She got the Tony and I got the Sebastian and it all worked out just fine.”
Thanks to “Falsettos,” the 45-year-old Block has the profile that can draw Broadway crowds. When a version of it, taped for “Live from Lincoln Center” airs at 8 p.m. Oct. 27 on PBS, the reach will expand even more.
“It’s going to take a little while for me to let (‘Falsettos’) saturate completely and then start again,” she says. “I’m ready to do an eight-minute tap-dance number that doesn’t necessarily get you thinking. It’s just pure entertainment.”