On November 6, for one night only, Miracle House will mount a benefit concert of William Finn's Falsettoland at New World Stages, starring Jill Abramovitz (Cordelia), Zachary Allen (Jason), Keith Gerchak (Mendel), Colin Hanlon (Whizzer), Lisa Howard (Trina), Michael Hunsaker (Marvin) and Leisa Mather (Charlotte). Falsettoland, which was first produced in 1990, is one of a trilogy of musicals; the other two, In Trousers and March of the Falsettos, were produced at Playwrights Horizons in 1979 and 1981, respectively. In 1992, Falsettos, which consists of both March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, moved to Broadway, where it won numerous awards, including the Tony for Best Musical. In the years since its initial Broadway and Off-Broadway runs, Falsettoland and the entire trilogy have remained beloved among musical theater fans for the score, scope and heart.
Miracle House began as a grass roots effort among friends. "What [the founders] saw was that there was no place for caregivers [of people with HIV and AIDS] to go when they came to New York City to take care of loved ones," explains Matt Wexler, the organization's grants development and communications manager. "At that point, more so than today, there was a huge stigma attached to HIV and AIDS. The caregivers were mothers and sisters and friends, and often they were going against their families' wishes. There was a lot of emotional baggage there." In 1990 (coincidentally, the year Falsettoland was first produced) Miracle House opened with one studio apartment in which to house caregivers. Today, the organization has five three-bedroom apartments in a high rise in midtown, and it assists approximately 1000 clients annually, also providing meals and advocacy support. With its expanded size, Miracle House also helps people dealing with critical illnesses other than HIV and AIDS.
Adds John Znidarsic, who is directing the production, "I felt it fascinating to look at the piece again because I hadn't listened to it for quite a while, and to realize how much it is about exactly what Miracle House does ... The whole world of dysfunctionality that is presented in Falsettoland becomes a functional setting where people work through their differences and band together to take care of someone they love. Which is exactly what Miracle House has done over the years." Another message that is common to both Miracle House and to Falsettoland, Znidarsic says, is that "you can never really forget. You have to be living for each day, making sure that you trust yourself to move forward and live with a lot of hope."
According to Wexler, Falsettoland is an especially appropriate choice for this year's big benefit. "There has been a lot of coverage in the news about the 25th anniversary of AIDS. I personally have been a huge fan of the piece, and of William Finn's writing and James Lapine's contributions as well. It just seemed to be right, the timing seemed to be right. We thought we could serve the piece well and we also thought it was just a great tie-in with our organization, so we could bridge those things."
It was fairly straightforward to realize the plan. Wexler and Director of Special Events and Volunteer Services Jesse Ramos, "the other brain" behind the project, contacted licensing agent Samuel French and discussed their idea. "Within a few days, we had the go-ahead," Wexler says, and, the pieces fell smoothly into place. Ramos contacted Znidarsic, who has amassed an impressive set of musical theater credentials over the years. He directs the Bound for Broadway series at Merkin Concert Hall - which, more precisely, features songs from shows heading for off Broadway as well as for the Great White Way. For the past 16 years, Znidarsic has run the Songbook Series at the Donnell Library, saluting the work of new composers. He also teaches acting at both Marymount Manhattan College and the American Academy of Musical and Dramatic Arts; and, he is Artistic Director for Arts and Artists at Church of St. Paul the Apostle.
Despite these myriad activities, Znidarsic - who had collaborated with the group on a prior cabaret benefit - was happy to accept. "Ironically enough, I had seen the first production at Playwrights Horizon with Faith Prince and Stephen Bogardus, friends of mine who were in the original production. It was one of the first things I saw when I moved to New York." Also, he says, "It's important in the arts to give back. People sometimes say,'Great, I'll do it. But, how much will I get paid?' But, it's not about the money, it's about helping an organization."
Through Znidarsic's work in New York musical theater, he has gained a strong sense of the talent there; this benefit has given him the opportunity to cast up and coming performers. "Some people had said,'Why don't you get the original cast and do it again?' But I thought it would be better to get people who are the right age now, to do the parts as they were written to be." The result, as Znidarsic describes it, is "a dream cast of young New York talent," from both a vocal standpoint and a character standpoint. He adds, "It's interesting to see, though. They're going to have to dig a little deeper. Some of the people in the cast don't know what it was like to know people who were dying of this all the time. They may have been 15, 18 years old at the time. As the director, it will be more interesting for me to pull [the emotions] out of them."
From the start, the project has been met with great enthusiasm in the theater community. The people Znidarsic contacted about participating "were jumping up and down. If they couldn't do it, they were upset that they couldn't do it. The people who accepted, are thrilled. They're clearing their schedules to make sure they have time. It doesn't always happen that way."
Wexler adds, "There's a really warm energy surrounding the project. It's been that way from the get-go. There's a commonality among the actors." Many know each other personally or professionally, he says, and are happy at the opportunity to work together and to help Miracle House. In addition to the performers, Znidarsic hopes to use Miracle House staff in the show - helping with scene changes and the like. He believes it will further underscore the connection between the production and Miracle House, and further add to the positive energy that Wexler describes.
Volunteers will be assisting with many of the behind-the-scenes preparations. According to Wexler, helping out with performances is one of the more popular ways to assist at Miracle House. It's not the only one, however. "Volunteers really drive our program," Wexler says. "We have over 150 volunteers, and they are integral to every aspect of what we do. The volunteers are really engaged with our client base, welcoming them to the city and really taking them under their wings, especially the people who help greet the clients when they're coming into the city for the first time ... It's a great testament to New York City. The city's a lot different than it was 10 or 15 years ago, but there's still a stigma about how people are here. I think it really cracks the mold of that ideology. There's a bond of compassion between the people here, who are proud of the city and all it has to offer - whether it's our cultural things or our medical facilities."
There also is often what Wexler calls a "secondary blessing that comes out of the experience of people staying at Miracle House and using its services. We'll have somebody staying at Miracle House for some kind of medical treatment who is not aware of AIDS or HIV or the gay community because of where they come from. They get that exposure here, and they learn about human dignity and compassion and supporting one another. They take that back to their community, wherever that is, and hopefully exponentially that grows into something. It affects the way you vote, the way you think about rearing your kids, where you shop for groceries. All those layers."
Wexler's own presence at Miracle House is a secondary effect of sorts. A cancer survivor himself, Wexler first found out about Miracle House when he attended a benefit for the group, which inspired him to do volunteer work there. A former actor with about 10 years experience - including a stint as Mendel in a production of the Falsettos trilogy at The Duplex - Wexler recently had started looking for a job that used his marketing and writing skills, and he helped out at Miracle House in that capacity as well, speaking at several fundraising events on behalf of the organization. Before long he pursued a full time position there and got the job. "It just kind of happened organically," he says.
Znidarsic, who assists with the Momentum AIDS Project at St. Paul's, also feels a particular responsibility to work with groups like Miracle House. When he first moved to New York, prior to the use of the AIDS cocktail, "I saw so many people dying around me." Now that medical advances have made it possible for more people to live with HIV and AIDS, Znidarsic says, "One of my fears with the AIDS crisis is that people almost have forgotten in a way. Not to diminish it, but it's not right in front of them any more." Events like the November 6 concert, he hopes, will help to keep HIV and AIDS concerns in the public eye.
Miracle House and Gary McClain Present A Benefit Concert of Falsettoland Monday, November 6, 2006 at New World Stages: 340 W. 50th St., NYC. Tickets, available at Telecharge.com are $50 for general admission and $100 for orchestra seating. The higher priced seats also include an invitation to the VIP cocktail party before the show. Sponsorships also are available, providing ticket packages and invitations to the cocktail party, and range in cost from $1,000 to $5,000. For more information, visit www.miraclehouse.org/.