September 8, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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FOLLIES may be the strangest of all Broadway masterpieces; after 40 years, it’s still the most avant-garde work of Stephen Sondheim’s career.
It’s easy enough to make the show sound linear:  set in 1971 (which was present-day when the musical was written), it takes place at a theatre that had, for some decades, housed the Weismann’s Follies musical shows, but is now about to be torn down and turned into a parking lot.  A group of Follies performers from the 1930s and 40s, hosted by Dimitri Weismann himself, have come to the darkened, emptied-out theatre to salute their pasts and air out their dissatisfaction with their presents.  Chief among these are 2 couples:  Sally and Buddy Plummer (Bernadette Peters and Danny Burstein) and Phyllis and Benjamin Stone (Jan Maxwell and Ron Raines).  Back in the 1940s when Sally and Phyllis were showgirls and best friends, Ben was Phyllis’ boyfriend but secretly courted Sally as well; now Ben is a millionaire and Sally yearns for what she remembers as the love of her life.

That’s pretty much the narrative of the musical, but Follies isn’t fundamentally about its narrative.  Indeed, much of the first act has little overt storyline, instead following the characters almost formlessly around their reunion, dialogue interspersed with the former performers reenacting some of their old musical numbers.  What makes Follies remarkable and to some extent enigmatic is a theme underlying all this:  the relationship between the Follies performances themselves, content and style, and the crises afflicting the characters.  Visually, the Weismann theatre is inhabited by ghosts, unseen by the modern characters but sharing space with them at all times.  Some of them are the youthful versions of Sally, Buddy, Phyllis, Ben and other characters, while others are observers, outfitted in almost godlike versions of the old-time costumes.  
More essentially, Sondheim’s score is an amazing collection of pastiches making use of the grammar used in musical numbers of the era:  operetta, torch song, vaudeville, musical comedy and more.  In the first act, these songs (“Beautiful Girls,” “Rain On the Roof,” “Ah, Paris!”) are somewhat separate from the modern-day numbers, although the latter often comment on the former (“Waiting For the Girls Upstairs,” “Broadway Baby,” “The Road You Didn’t Take”).  As the characters’ mental states fall apart, however, and they become ever more obsessed by their memories and fantasies, the past and present merge.  This culminates in the extraordinary “Loveland” sequence, in which each of the protagonists sings a pastiche-influenced song (“Losing My Mind,” “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,” “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” “Live, Laugh, Love”) about their own psychologies.  Perhaps the oddest thing about this sequence, which takes up most of the act, is that it provides no “objective reality,” but instead envelops both us and its characters in their increasing madness.  The songs themselves are deeply emotional statements as well as commentary about the source, power and danger of show business and romantic myth.  
As you might expect, tackling a project like Follies is not a task to be taken on lightly.  The legendary original production, directed by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, and with sets by Boris Aronson, won 7 Tonys (although not Best Musical, which went to Two Gentlemen of Verona) and ran more than a year on Broadway, but was a tremendous financial failure.  Subsequent productions and revivals have routinely changed songs and the James Goldman book, trying to find a clarity (and some sense of redemption) in the difficult material.
In the new Eric Schaffer production, which originated at the Kennedy Center in Washington and opens officially in a few days on Broadway, the biggest surprise is that the emotional center has moved from Sally, whose longing for Ben and a different life has usually been the spoke around which the show revolves, to Phyllis.  It’s not clear whether that was a conscious decision by Schaffer or simply a function of the magnificent performance Maxwell gives in the role–she’s like a Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? who can sing and dance like a demon; her renditions of “Could I Leave You?” and “Lucy and Jessie” are unmatched.  This isn’t to take anything away from Peters, who sings beautifully and whose vulnerability in the role is moving, but her Sally is all desperation, her psyche not nearly as complex as Phyllis’.  Maxwell is well-matched with Raines, who is able to make Ben’s selfishness comprehensible.  Burstein is a weaker link in the weakest of the main parts; his self-destructiveness is never quite compelling.  (In fairness, the Goldman book has always been sparse, particularly because it barely exists in the second act, where the Loveland sequence takes over what would ordinarily have required dramatic exposition.)
Follies is also a cornucopia of splendid supporting roles–in what other musical do landmark numbers like “Broadway Baby” and “I’m Still Here” go to minor characters?–and they’re played wonderfully here.  Most prominent is Elaine Paige as Carlotta, who gets “I’m Still Here,” and other notable parts are played by Mary Beth Peil, Rosiland Elias, Susan Watson, Don Correia and Jayne Houdyshell.  The ghostly young people are represented by, among others, Lora Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott, Christian Delcroix and Nick Verina.
Although no revival of Follies will probably ever be as spectacular as the Aronson original, Derek McLane, Gregg Barnes and Natasha Katz provide sets, costumes and lighting that are atmospheric and evocative of the dim past and troubled present.  Warren Carlyle’s choreography, especially in the “Who’s That Woman” and “Lucy and Jessie” numbers, is exceptional.

Any production of Follies is an event, because it’s the rare musical that reveals more shadings and possibilities the more it’s delved into.  (In this production, it’s interesting to view the show as a companion piece to Company, Sondheim and Prince’s previous musical, and its more comic analysis of bad marriages.)   The show will always be spectacularly problematic–in a way, a production that solved all its mysteries would be most problematic of all–and this version, anchored by Maxwell’s brilliance, particularly demands to be seen.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."