Finn was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He is Jewish, and grew up in Natick, Massachusetts with his parents, and siblings, Michael and Nancy. While attending Natick High School, Finn competed with the Natick Speech Team. He majored in music at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. When he graduated, he received the Hutchinson Fellowship (a musical composition award). He is also Adjunct Faculty Composer/Lyricist at New York University.
Finn is a heavily autobiographical writer; he always writes his own lyrics. His topics have included the gay and Jewish experiences in contemporary America, and also family, belonging, sickness, healing, and loss. According to a 2006 article, "The Washington Post called him 'the composer laureate of loss.'"
Finn is especially noted for his work on what was to become a trilogy of short musicals Off-Broadway. In Trousers, March of the Falsettos, and Falsettoland all chronicle the lives of the character Marvin, his ex-wife Trina, his boyfriend, Whizzer, his psychiatrist, Mendel, and his son, Jason. Falsettos, the combination of the latter two parts of his Marvin Trilogy (March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland), opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theater on April 29, 1992, and ran for 486 performances. It won the 1992 Tony Awards for Best Music and Lyrics and for Best Book, the latter shared with James Lapine.
With Lapine, Finn penned a musical loosely based on his near-death experience following brain surgery, exploring the role of music in his life and recovery. The musical's main character is a man who has what may be terminal brain cancer. Finn's longtime partner, Arthur Salvadore, is represented by the character Roger Delli-Bovi. Finn's mother is also present in the piece. That musical, A New Brain, starred Malcolm Gets, Kristin Chenoweth and Chip Zien, and premiered Off-Broadway at the Lincoln Center Theater in 1998. The musical won the 1999 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical. The UK premiere was at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
At the 2006 Elliot Norton Awards Ceremony, Finn brought his High School drama teacher, Gerry Dyer, onstage with him to present an award. Finn said of Dyer that he "imbued us with a ridiculous sense of our own self-worth." Another student of Gerald Dyer, Alison Fraser, found fame on Broadway, collaborating with Finn in the original casts of In Trousers and March of the Falsettos.
Finn had another Broadway success with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, for which he wrote both music and lyrics. The show won two Tony Awards in 2005-one for Best Book of a Musical, and another for the Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. It ran Off-Broadway, then on Broadway in 2005 and toured the United States in 2006. The show was first workshopped and produced at Barrington Stage Company (BSC) in Pittsfield, MA, where Finn later created The Musical Theatre Lab (MTL) with BSC Artistic Director Julianne Boyd. The MTL is an annual summer lab where emerging musical theatre artists are supported and new musical works are created, fine-tuned and produced under the curatorship of Finn and Boyd.
Three musical revues or song suites of Finn's music have been produced:
- Infinite Joy, in which the composer played the piano and sang along with an all-star cast, contained several songs from shows that were unfinished, and some that were cut from previous shows.
- Elegies: A Song Cycle (2003) is a series of songs the composer wrote in memoriam of loved ones now gone, and in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
- Make Me a Song, conceived and directed by Rob Ruggiero, premiered at Hartford's Theaterworks in the summer of 2006, opened Off-Broadway in November 2007, and closed in December 2007 after 54 performances. A live recording of Make Me a Song was released by Sh-K-Boom Records on April 29, 2008.
Finn's first show was called "Sizzle" and was produced at Williams College in the fall of 1971. Finn wrote the music and lyrics, and his good friend, Charlie Rubin, wrote the libretto. "Sizzle" was the first original musical produced on the Williams College campus since Stephen Sondheim attended the college over 20 years earlier. Sizzle was a coming of age musical about college students but concluded in an unusual way with the star of the show, played by J. Tyler Griffin, Jr., dying in an electric chair. "Sizzle" played to packed houses. Rubin possesses a reel-to-reel tape containing excerpts from the show, including most of the music.
His long-in-development show, The Royal Family of Broadway, with a book by Richard Greenberg, was based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, which tells the story of a girl from a family of great Broadway actors who contemplates leaving show business and getting married. It has apparently been shelved, according to William Finn's personal notes for Make Me A Song, Playbill magazine and an article from 2006.
The musical comedy Little Miss Sunshine, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse, California, from February 15, 2011 through March 27, 2011. James Lapine wrote the book and is the director, set design by David Korins, staging by Lapine and Christopher Gattelli. The opening night cast featured Hunter Foster (Richard), Malcolm Gets (Frank), Dick Latessa (Grandpa), Taylor Trensch (Dwayne), Georgi James (Olive), and Jennifer Laura Thompson (Sheryl). The ensemble, who Jay Irwin wrote "...took the small parts they were given and ran with them, almost right out of the theater as each of them brilliantly played the comedic relief to the family's "straight man"", starred Bradley Dean, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Eliseo Roman, Andrew Samonsky, Sally Wilfert, and Zakiya Young.
Finn's frequent collaborators include librettist James Lapine, director Graciela Daniele and singers/actors Stephen Bogardus, Carolee Carmello, Stephen DeRosa, Alison Fraser, Keith Byron Kirk, Norm Lewis, Michael Rupert, Mary Testa, and Chip Zien.
Finn was one of a selected few composers who contributed to the song cycle Stars of David which premiered in October 2012 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. It was based off the Abigail Pogrebin's book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish and starred Nancy Balbirer, Alex Brightman, Joanna Glushak, Brad Oscar and Donna Vivino. Finn also contributed to the Off-Broadway musical Mama & her Boys.
In 1992, Finn suffered deteriorating vision, dizziness and partial paralysis and was rushed to the hospital. He had arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in his brain stem. In September, 1992, he had Gamma Knife surgery, which obliterated the AVM. After the surgery, Finn experienced a year of humbled serenity and constantly felt like he had a "new brain." Finn's 1998 musical A New Brain is based on his experience with AVM and his subsequent successful surgery.
He lives with his life partner, Arthur Salvatore, in New York City and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he is a composer and writer. Besides composing for the stage and screen, Finn is member of the NYU Tisch Graduate Program in Musical Theater Writing faculty and he has been the Artistic Head of the Musical Theater Lab at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts for the past four years.
- In Trousers (1979, revised 1987) – Off-Broadway musical – composer, lyricist
- March of the Falsettos (1981) – Off-Broadway musical – composer, lyricist
- America Kicks Up Its Heels (1983) – Off-Broadway musical – composer, lyricist (an earlier version of Romance in Hard Times)
- Dangerous Games (1989) – Broadway musical – lyricist; music by Ástor Piazzolla
- Romance in Hard Times (1989) – Off-Broadway musical – composer, lyricist
- Falsettoland (1990) – Off-Broadway musical – composer, lyricist, co-writer with James Lapine
- Falsettos (1992) – Broadway musical – composer, lyricist, co-writer with James Lapine; includes March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland
- The Sisters Rosensweig (1993) – Broadway play – composer and lyricist for the song "Scarlet Pimpernel"
- A New Brain (1998) – Off-Broadway musical – composer, lyricist, co-writer with James Lapine
- Love's Fire (1998) – playwright, composer and lyricist for the song "Painting"
- Muscle (musical) (2001) - O'Rourke Center for the Performing Arts, Truman College - composer (lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh)
- Elegies: A Song Cycle (2003) – Off-Broadway revue – composer, lyricist
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2004) - Off-Broadway musical transferred to Broadway (2005) – composer, lyricist
- Make Me a Song (2007) – Off-Broadway revue – composer, lyricist
- Little Miss Sunshine (musical) (2011) – La Jolla Playhouse musical and then Off-Broadway, Second Stage Theatre, (2013) – composer, lyricist
- "Anytime (I Am There)"
- "The Baseball Game"
- "Four Jews in a Room Bitching"
- "Gordo's Law of Genetics"
- "Heart and Music"
- "I Have Found"
- "The I Love You Song"
- "Infinite Joy"
- "Just Go"
- "Song of Innocence and Experience"
- "When the Earth Stopped Turning"
- 1991 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics Winner (Falsettoland)
- 1991 Drama Desk Award Nominee – Outstanding Music (Falsettoland)
- 1999 Drama Desk Award Nominee – Outstanding Lyrics (A New Brain)
- 1999 Drama Desk Award Nominee – Outstanding Music (A New Brain)
- 1999 Drama Desk Award Nominee – Outstanding Book of a Musical (A New Brain)
- 2005 Drama Desk Award Nominee – Outstanding Lyrics (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee)
- 2005 Drama Desk Award Nominee – Outstanding Music (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee)
- 1992 Tony Award Winner – Best Book of a Musical (Falsettos)
- 1992 Tony Award Winner – Best Original Score (Falsettos)
- 2005 Tony Award Nominee – Best Original Score (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee)
- Friedman, Jonathan C."Chapter Three" Rainbow Jews:Jewish and Gay Identity in the Performing Arts, Lexington Books, 2007, ISBN 0-7391-1448-4, p.74
- Ruhlmann, William."William Finn Biography new.music.yahoo.com, accessed August 22, 2011
- "Programs and Faculty, New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, New York, NY" New York University, accessed February 15, 2011
- Pall, Ellen."The Long-Running Musical of William Finn's Life" nytimes.com, February 20, 2012
- Henry, William A."The Quirky William Finn"Time Magazine, May 11, 1992
- Brantley, Ben."Theater Review:A Romp Through the Valley of Death"The New York Times (requires registration), June 19, 1998
- MacDonald, Sandy.Camp, Mays, Spamalot, et al. Win 2006 Elliot Norton Awards" theatermania.com, May 23, 2006
- Isherwood, Charles."Six Misfits Test Wits on Bigger Platform"The New York Times, May 3, 2005
- "Barrington Stage History, Commitment to New Work and the Musical Theatre Lab" Barrington Stage Company, accessed August 22, 2011
- Holden, Stephen.Departed Friends Vibrantly Recalled in Song"The New York Times (requires registration), March 28, 2003
- Midgette, Anne."A Songwriter’s Gamut, Personal and Poignant With Notes in Between" The New York Times, November 21, 2007
- "Music Theatre International: Licensing Musical Theater Theatrical Performance Rights and Materials to Schools, Community and Professional Theatres since 1952". Mtishows.com. Retrieved 2014-07-04.
- Jones, Kenneth."'Make Me a Song, Finn's Revue of "Heart and Music," Opens in NYC" playbill.com, November 12, 2007
- Cerasaro, Pat."SOUND OFF Special Interview: Lisa Howard on William Finn Album, TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN, and More" broadwayworld.com, April 13, 2011
- Jones, Kenneth."Road Trip! Finn & Lapine's 'Little Miss Sunshine' Musical Begins World-Premiere Run in CA" playbill.com, February 15, 2011
- Irwin, Jay."BWW Reviews: 'Little Miss Sunshine' at the La Jolla Playhouse" broadwayworld.com, March 26, 2010
- "Songs by William Finn, Tom Kitt, Jeanine Tesori, Amanda Green Bring Shimmer to Stars of David Musical, Starting Oct. 17". Playbill.com. Retrieved 2014-07-04.
- "Mama and her Boys — Ethan Paulini". Ethanpaulini.com. Retrieved 2014-07-04.
- Guthmann, Edward."A playwright steeped in loss finds bliss in 'Spelling Bee'" sfgate.com, February 18, 2006
- "Finn: Tisch School of the Arts at NYU". Gmtw.tisch.nyu.edu. Retrieved 2014-07-04.
- " Dangerous Games Listing" playbillvault.com, accessed November 5, 2013
- Jones, Kenneth. "Lapine, Finn and Fitzhugh Flex Their Muscle June 13-July 22 in Chi" playbill.com, June 13, 2001