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
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
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,
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