The Follies of Going Home Again: Fabled Musical Returns to Braoadway

During the curtain call of Follies, the mythical Stephen Sondheim musical that has now been

unhappily revived at the Belasco, I had a startling sense of déjà vu . The show that’s partly about

bittersweet nostalgia for a bygone golden age of musicals encourages our own

fractured memories of the past, and as the Follies

cast took their timeless bow I found myself unexpectedly jolted back into

this childhood memory.

I was at the theater

with my parents, who loved the theater, and we were at a kind of gala

performance in the north of England. I was about 7 or 8 years old and would

always stand up to see better-excitedly clutching the top of the seat in front

of me so that my knuckles turned white. For many years, even in adulthood, I

actually thought a “white-knuckle ride” meant going to the theater. Though it’s

long ago, I remember the show vividly because every star vaudevillian seemed to

be in it. Vaudeville-like burlesque, like the Follies-was then on its last

legs, and with it a part of England was dying.

But at the end of the show I saw as a child, something was

wrong as the troupers took their bow. The applause was tepid, the performers

themselves seemed downhearted. I remember how shocked I felt, for I’d loved the

show. To a stage-struck child, all shows are great. I couldn’t understand what

was happening and became upset.

“Why are they so sad?” I asked as the cast went off into the

wings and the curtain fell.

And my father explained quietly, “They know the show doesn’t

work, Johnny.”

As the Follies cast at the Belasco took their

bow, the performers had that same ghostly look about them. A bow is a bow is a

bow. But the reception was cool in a town where a standing ovation is normal

and Sondheimeans usually worship at the shrine. The cast didn’t linger, and

some even looked defeated. They know the show doesn’t work.

Did it ever? I must be the

only person left in New York who hasn’t seen the original Follies production. If all the people who claim to have seen it in

1971 had actually been there, the show would still be running. The fabled

production was co-directed by Hal Prince and the young genius Michael Bennett,

choreographed by Mr. Bennett, designed by the great Boris Aronson with costumes

by Florenz Klotz, book by James Goldman (who wrote The Lion in Winter ), with music and lyrics by Mr. Sondheim (another

genius, who had just written Company) .

On paper, it was a dream team. Yet, contrary to the legend the show became, it

wasn’t successful.

It became a cult success, the unwanted first prize of

glorious failure. The legend would have us believe that the original Follies worked brilliantly, but the

evidence suggests otherwise. The reviews were mixed, with two lethal

assessments from the all-powerful New

York Times . “It carries nostalgia to where sentiment finally engulfs it in

its sickly maw” (Clive Barnes). “‘Follies’ is intermissionless and exhausting,

an extravaganza that becomes tedious …” (Walter Kerr). But other, less powerful

critics disagreed.”A pastiche so brilliant as to be breathtaking” (Douglas

Watt, the Daily News ). “Every other

musical should have its faults” (Martin Gottfried, Women’s Wear Daily ). Let it be entered into the record that the

original production also won every award going, including eight Tony awards.

Set in a crumbling old Broadway theater that’s to be torn

down, Follies is about a number of

ex-Follies girls in middle age and beyond who gather for a final reunion. They

reminisce about their lost youth as the ghosts of showgirls haunt the empty

theater and their younger selves appear. From all I’ve read and sense about the

original production, whether it was a failure or not, it was astonishingly

ambitious. Far from being an extravagant last hurrah and elegy to the past that

announced the death of the American musical, it dared to go out on a limb to

invent a new beginning.

The early 1970′s were still a post-Aquarius age of

experimentation. Follies ,

flipped-out, wayward and impressionistic, is revolutionary at heart. It uses

the dissolves and fluidity of film technique with a nod to Fellini to create a

danced stage dream or nightmare. It attempts the impossible, living in past and

present simultaneously-which in turn is mirrored by the brilliance of the

Sondheim score. When the characters are in the present, we have pure

Sondheim-the aching, disenchanted “Too Many Mornings,” the national anthem to

survival “I’m Still Here,” the bitterly regretful “The Road You Didn’t Take.”

When the Follies alumnae re-live the

past, Mr. Sondheim effortlessly pastiches every conceivable musical style (and

lyric) from Friml and Romberg to Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Gershwin or Berlin.

The shock of the new

Roundabout Theatre production is its mistaken reinvention in minimalist Stygian

gloom. You cannot recreate glamour when there ain’t no glamour left. But the

production as a whole is cold and remote, lackluster, threadbare. There’s no

emotional connection. (And how we long for one.) The spectacular original

production was a folly in terms of its size and big budget. Jazz bands glided

in and out of the action on moving platforms. There were 26 musicians (there

are 14 here). The cast was a lunatic 56 strong. The current production still

has a cast of 40, yet there are times when the big Belasco stage looks

alarmingly empty. All we get, basically, is a dodgy-looking iron staircase on

which the old Follies girls make their perilous descent. The key Dreamland

sequence in Act II is famous for its surreal daring on the edge of a deliberate

nervous breakdown, but alas, it looks and sounds miserably like a tatty

bus-and-truck company’s version in search of the real magical thing.

A low budget never stopped an imaginative solution. But the

British director, Matthew Warchus, hasn’t begun to capture an imaginatively

staged faded grandeur, or even the right musical pulse. For long bewildering

stretches, the piece seems dance-starved, as if the gifted choreographer

Kathleen Marshall has been shackled. The director is known here for his

meticulous productions of Art and True West -both one-set, intimate plays.

The iconic Follies, which drove its

original creators to near distraction, is his first musical.

Forgive me, but one can’t help thinking this is no time to

mess around. Mr. Warchus’ gamble of going for the dramatic subtext of a

scaled-down Follies at the expense of

the original elaborate musical is the one move he shouldn’t have made. The new

reading of Nicholas Hytner’s version of Carousel,

for instance, touched all hearts because the sentimentalized interior tragedy

of the piece was there to be made real. When Peter Brook scaled down Bizet’s Carmen to 90minutes like filleting a fat

fish to its barest bones, it worked so memorably because the spine of Prosper

Mérimée’s original story was there to be rediscovered. But the biggest weakness

of Follies has always been its

dawdling, simple-minded book by James Goldman. There’s no there there.

Mr. Sondheim has defended

the much-criticized, dominating story about the disenchanted married life of

two warring couples, but he hasn’t always been the best judge of his own

librettists. Michael Bennett loudly disliked the Goldman book and its pro forma

picture of optimistic youth and mid-life crisis, but Bennett was out-voted by

Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Prince. This quartet in middle-aged sourness-Ben (Gregory

Harrison), Phyllis (Blythe Danner), Buddy (Treat Williams) and Sally (Judith

Ivey)-could fit perfectly into Mr. Sondheim’s musical tribute to jaded

marriage, Company . But if you isolate

them from everything else, what are we left with? A spineless self-hater, an

icy sophisticate, a two-timing lug and a dope.

Mr. Goldman’s attempt to be “serious” in a musical doesn’t

make his book great art. It’s bad art, a sappy squabbling melodrama, which

spills over into the score. The libretto is fuzzy several times over.

Why-should you care to know-didn’t Ben marry his childhood crush, ex-showgirl

Sally, in the first place? Why, when each couple has been torn apart by the

folly of their rotten marriage, do they reunite in the end? That’s show biz,

folks.

Small wonder the four

principal performers look ill at ease. The director has gone for legit

actors in his book-driven approach. But who-or what-are they acting? And the

best actors in the world can’t always sing and dance well. There are, as there

always were, several delightful “turns” from veteran stars including Polly

Bergen, Donald Saddler, Marge Champion, Betty Garrett and Joan Roberts, the

original Laurey in Oklahoma!- and all,

we’re glad to say, very much still here.

But it’s true, of course. You can’t go home again. Home, the

original Follies, is a dream. Yet

it’s why, in spite of everything-the doubts, the resentments, the hazy things

that might have been different-I could end up missing a musical I’ve never

seen.