Michael Rupert and Betty Buckley(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Michael Rupert and Betty Buckley
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
More than anyone currently writing songs for the theater and perhaps more than anyone who's ever written songs for the theater, William Finn insists on being pointedly, openly, indefatigably, often gleefully autobiographical. Although he has occasionally ventured away from himself as a subject and even has a score for an adaptation of the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber Royal Family waiting to see the light of day, he seems most satisfied when he's dissecting his own thoughts and feelings with a sharp scalpel. His works are a kind of dazzlingly efficient open-heart surgery.

Flinching from nothing, particularly not from death and grief, he has now crafted Elegies: A Song Cycle. The work is breathtaking in the depth and breadth of its commentary on the rewards and woes of being part of a family, of a group of friends, and of a society in good times and bad. In 19 separate pieces, Finn recalls people in his life, many now dead; he charts how he feels about them and, from time to time, how they feel about themselves.

"I wrote this song to not forget Mark's all-male Thanksgiving," he reports at the end of a wry ditty called, well, "Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving." Included in it are references to filmmaker Bill Sherwood and Steve Buscemi, who appeared in Sherwood's only movie, Parting Glances (1986), but never made any of Mark's holiday festivities. "This is the song I wrote for Monica, this is the song I wrote," Finn chimes at the end of "Andy, Monica and Mark," which becomes the introduction to "Anytime," meant to be sung by a dying friend -- or, perhaps, a friend speaking from beyond the grave.

Although there are references to people and places from Finn's Natick, Massachusetts upbringing, he gives the impression as number follows number (there is no spoken continuity) that he's chronicling most specifically the doleful period of time bracketed by the advent of AIDS 20 years back and by today, when the Twin Towers collapse seems only minutes ago. "I'm saying my goodbyes," he writes in "Goodbye," which includes remarks made by someone phoning from the doomed World Trade Center buildings. "The living was the prize, the ending's not the story," the singer plaintively goes on in the minutes left to him. These sentiments are reiterated in the succeeding song, "Boom Boom," sung by -- or maybe about -- the recipient of the painful telephone message.

There's no getting around the fact that much of the content of Finn's brilliant presentation is painful. What else can be expected from something called Elegies? Nevertheless, the songwriter includes a good deal of laughter among the tears. In "My Dogs," he details adorable canines from his past, or perhaps from the past of someone he knows, who have died -- and a less lovable one who lived on and on. He also writes valentines to the late producer-director Joe Papp ("Joe Papp never took crap") and to the late actress Peggy Hewitt ("She was incredibly loved and she knew it"). One song, "Infinite Joy," is wholly positive and may be the best song Finn ever wrote.

Carolee Carmello and Keith Byron Kirkin Elegies: A Song Cycle(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Carolee Carmello and Keith Byron Kirk
in Elegies: A Song Cycle
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
It's especially marvelous as sung by Betty Buckley, for whom this sort of gloriously soaring piece is ideally suited. This is the kind of number that Buckley sends on a trajectory from where she's planted her feet to somewhere outside the solar system. Buckley is only one of five performers who stand in for Finn here. The other classy warblers, very cleverly put through their ruminative paces by Graciela Daniele, are Carolee Carmello of the lustrous voice and lustrous orange-alert tresses; the commanding yet easy-going Michael Rupert; the earnest and attractive Keith Byron Kirk; and the Ray Bolger-ish Christian Borle.

Together and separately, they register as effective members of the Finn Repertory Company. (Carmello and Rupert have served in this capacity before.) Carmello darts around the auditorium's thrust stage while turning "Passover" into an evocative reminiscence of family togetherness. Rupert gets all the celebration and melancholy of "Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving" and is also droll in a sly song called "Jack Eric Williams." Borle receives an appreciative response for "My Dogs" and for another item, "Fred," about a man excessively enamored of chickens; and when he's required to be serious, as in "When the World Stopped Turning," he's completely up to it. Kirk is properly pensive and forthright in "Goodbye."

Because Elegies is being performed on nights when Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme isn't marching, and because the set for that production remains in place, there is nothing on stage other than a piano with a red rose on it and five chairs placed in a circle for the performers. (No set designer is credited, because there's no real set.) At the piano is Finn protégé Vadim Feichtner, who does his usual commendable job of making the score seem fully orchestrated. Sound consultant Scott Stauffer is also due gratitude. Apparently, acoustics in the Mitzi Newhouse demand that singers be miked, but these five sound as if they're performing without amplification. Buckley, particularly in "Infinite Joy," has a clarion resonance that ought to make those worried about overamplification in theaters break out into wide smiles.

Finn's continual, possibly even compulsive, probing of himself isn't the only distinguished aspect of his writing. Like many of his contemporaries, he has long since put the 32-bar song behind him and taken a no-holds-barred approach to composition. A better way of expressing it may be to say that, with this fellow, it's no bars held: He takes a song where it needs to go, rhymes and hooks be damned. If he comes upon a rhyme, that's fine, and he hits on some clever ones -- he may be the only lyricist who has ever matched "firmer" with "murmur." If a song wants a hook, he goes there. If it's simply prose set to one of his rambling but affecting melodies, then so be it.

Christian Borle(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Christian Borle
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
In one of these discursive pieces, "Jack Eric Williams," he indicates that he's answering a request from a colleague, Ricky Ian Gordon (whose My Life With Albertine is now on view), for a lyric of some sort. In preparing his tribute to tunesmith Williams, Finn brings up the subject of songwriters known by three names and displays something of a bemused take on the odd trend. "Give my best to all the three-name composers, including especially you," he signs off. How interesting it is that Finn is by far the most accomplished and significant of his generation of writers, and that he has achieved that status with only two names.

Incidentally: The roly-poly and hirsute Finn is a terrific interpreter of his own material, having proved as much over the past few years in an act called "Infinite Joy." That turn and a subsequent CD of the same title, which includes four of the songs in Elegies, may be the only way that fans can take home even a part of this show which, according to those in a position to know, is not scheduled to be recorded anytime soon. With any luck, the Elegies cycle will be preserved, because the show offers infinite joy.