‘Follies,’ Back on Broadway
I think of Follies, which premiered on Broadway in 1971, as Stephen Sondheim’s late-midlife-crisis musical. That makes it a partner, in a way, to Sondheim’s 1970 show Company, his early-midlife-crisis musical. Both are “concept” shows; Company centers on a 35-year-old bachelor surrounded by married friends who both fears and longs to make a commitment that will shape the rest of his life. Follies takes place at a thirty-year reunion of performers from a fictionalized version of the Ziegfeld Follies, and focuses on four 50-ish adults looking back and longing for a second chance at happiness.
Follies was controversial when it first opened. Not all critics were enamoured of the new direction in which Sondheim and director Hal Prince seemed to be driving the American musical. Among those left cold were John Simon and Walter Kerr, both onetime critics for Commonweal. They were often right, but they were both wrong about this show. Follies has its faults, but I think the verdict of Martin Gottfried — writing a reassessment in the New York Times after both Clive Barnes and Kerr had taken hatchets to the show — says it best: “Follies is monumental theater…. [I]f it is not consistently good, it is always great.”
Among the factors that make Follies great are its fascinating concept, which has the former “Weissman girls” gathering in a tumbledown theater that’s about to be destroyed, reliving their past glory while being shadowed throughout the night by the ghosts of their younger selves. The original staging by Prince and the legendary choreographer Michael Bennett was critical in bringing everything together into one emotionally powerful package. The book by James Goldman is probably the weakest link — but then, no book writer has ever looked his best writing dialogue for characters who, when they sing, have their words provided by Sondheim. The score, words and music alike, plays like a greatest-hits catalogue for Sondheim, who was then in his most fecund period. (Company was still playing on Broadway when Follies opened.) The show has a full complement of pastiche numbers representing and paying loving tribute to the musical styles of the decades during which the various women were stars.
The main problem, it seems to me, is that the plotty part of the show, which follows former Follies girls Sally and Phyllis and their husbands, Buddy and Ben, is never as convincing or compelling as the revue-like sections in which the aging stars and chorines perform old numbers and bid a wistful farewell to the past. That impression is confirmed for me by the current Broadway revival, now playing at the Marquis Theatre after a run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The opening section of the show is nearly as as good as it can be, and that’s very good indeed: director Eric Schaeffer and choreographer Warren Carlyle bring out all the complex emotional and theatrical notes in numbers like “Beautiful Girls,” “Broadway Baby” (expertly sold by Jayne Houdyshell), and “Who’s That Woman” (a thrilling star turn for Terri White). The only bum note is Elaine Paige’s Carlotta singing “I’m Still Here,” a number that in the right hands can go right to the heart of the show. In it a fading star rehearses the ups and downs of her career (“First you’re another / Sloe-eyed vamp / Then someone’s mother / Then you’re camp”) and refuses to be written off just yet. Paige has had a bright enough real-life career to carry the song — her program bio announces that she is “The First Lady of the British Musical Theatre” — but her performance is unfortunately much more reflective of her actual past, spent starring in 1980s pop-rock shows like Cats and Chess, than of the past that brought the character of Carlotta to this reunion in 1971. It’s a big disappointment.
Fortunately, Paige is not the biggest star in the cast; that credit goes to Bernadette Peters, playing housewife and former chorine Sally Plummer. I am a very enthusiastic fan, and Peters gives her all as usual. She is an exceptionally hardworking star, not just when she’s in the spotlight but also, maybe especially, when she is sharing the stage with other performers, as she often is here. To watch her is to see an actor wholly devoted to her character and to the difficult task of listening, really listening, to what is happening around her. I knew more or less what to expect from Peters’s eleventh-hour solo number, when she takes the stage alone to sing “Losing My Mind,” and anticipating that had a lot to do with my eagerness to see the show. But whenever I am fortunate enough to see her onstage, I am always taken aback by the quiet power of her acting.
Unfortunately, Peters’s particular combination of vulnerability and strength, and her dedication to the text, is not entirely well suited to the character of Sally, who as written is a bit of a drip. There isn’t any buried strength for Peters to dig up and mix with the vulnerability on the surface. Sally gets some of Sondheim’s most beautiful songs — “In Buddy’s Eyes” and the duet “Too Many Mornings,” as well as “Losing My Mind” — but her story, and the story of all the principal characters, is melodramatic and flat. Has Sally really spent the last thirty years pining after Ben, who dallied with her but married her former best friend, Phyllis? If they were so in love thirty years ago, the man behind me wondered aloud at intermission, “Why didn’t they just get married then?” A more plausible interpretation is that Sally and Ben and their spouses are all fooling themselves. Having reached middle age, with an empty nest and an unfaithful husband, Sally is looking for something to give her life new meaning and hope, and the reunion prompts her to imagine that she might have been happier if only she’d chosen another path. Ben, Phyllis, and Buddy (Sally’s husband) also struggle to accept the choices they made decades ago; their ambivalence and angst is summed up perfectly in Ben’s song “The Road You Didn’t Take.” (“The books I’ll never read / Wouldn’t change a thing, / Would they? / The girls I’ll never know / I’m too tired for….”) But this production doesn’t bring out that subtext, if indeed that is the subtext, acutely enough. It should seem that, at a crucial moment in middle age, the principal characters find themselves revisiting a turning point in their youths and are stirred to believe that they can trace their unhappiness to that moment. That is their folly, as it were. Instead it seems as though they’ve all been stuck in the same rut for thirty years. This is both difficult to believe and hard to identify with.
Still, the songs are as powerful as they ever were. Jan Maxwell is terrific as Phyllis, Danny Burstein is a winning Buddy, and Ron Raines’s strong voice is a thrill whenever Ben takes the stage. And the “Loveland” sequence that concludes the show, an extended fantasy sequence/nervous breakdown, is lavishly produced and extremely satisfying, with every performer in top form. I don’t think there can ever be a perfect production of Follies. But this one is more than good.