Stephen Sondheim's *Follies* has been my favorite musical since I first discovered it in 1993 (my favorite before then was Sondheim's *A Little Night Music*). In my opinion, *Follies* has everything you could want in a musical - - great music, clever lyrics, fascinating characters, and emotional depth. Also glamour and some severe razzle dazzle.
I first saw it on Broadway in 2001 in a stunning but flawed production with Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey, Treat Williams, Gregory Harrison, and that human steamroller, Polly Bergen. I loved it, mostly because I'd never seen in onstage before. It hadn't been done on Broadway since its 1971 debut, and the critics still had problems with it, though for different reasons. They said about the original, "Why is this glamorous show so dreary?" - - they said about the 2001 revival, "Why can't they give this dreary show a little more glamour?"
The next time I saw it was a few years ago, at Encores at City Center - - a more satisfying production in terms of casting (Donna Murphy, Victoria Clark, Victor Garber, Christine Baranski, and some guy I don't remember), but really a staged reading as opposed to a full production. When I heard that Kennedy Center was mounting a production, with Bernadette Peters as Sally, I knew I had to be there. Of course Richard was up for it too, because he loves this show almost as much as I do.
It was without a doubt the best production I've seen. Director Eric Schaeffer had a keen sense of how to balance the drama with the glamour, and trusted the material enough to let it stand on its own. The most stunning part of the production was how he handled the ghosts - - the younger versions of the lead characters, who are often onstage interacting with the older versions of themselves. I'll tell you about two moments: he staged "Too many mornings" with Ben holding the Young Sally and Sally holding the Young Ben, to point out that they're really in love with an idealized version of who the other person used to be, rather than the sadder-but-not-wiser middle-aged person standing in front of them. It was chilling. And the dramatic high point of the show was the dialogue scene between Sally, Ben, Phyllis, and Buddy, joined by their younger selves, eventually with all eight characters talking at the same time, leading into the "Loveland" number. This short scene became central to the whole show and the way he staged it was pure Pirandello: he had the eight actors at the front of the stage, a curtain dropped behind them, and creepy lighting. They started hollering at each other, the orchestra came in, and the curtain fell down from the flies, revealing a three-tiered arch made out of feathery flowers in hot pink and red. Again, chilling.
One of the things that makes this show special is that all the leads are over fifty, and some of the supporting cast can be into their 60s and beyond. It's a really delicious opportunity to see what these oldsters can do. The central theme of the show is people in middle age and old age looking back on their lives, seeing what they missed, what they did right. I wept more or less through the whole first act, and started to think, "If this show turns me into such a wreck when I'm 43, I'll have to be medicated to see it when I'm 63."
Of course any show lives or dies by the strength of its cast, and this cast was spectacular. I'll take the Kennedy Center cast one by one.
BERNADETTE PETERS as Sally ("Losing my mind")
She is the reigning queen of Sondheim, so she was the central point of interest in this production. I was a little worried about her in this part, because it requires some really beautiful singing (Barbara Cook set the bar very high in her performance with the NY Philharmonic in the 80s), and the last time I heard Bernadette was in *Gypsy*. Though I loved her in that show (actually preferred her to another human steamroller, Patti Lupone), her voice had a fair amount of grit and rasp. She sang beautifully in *Follies*. She used the stick shift a bit, navigating around her vocal registers, but she used her clutch very artfully. Just as important, her portrayal of Sally was spot on. I imagine it was a collaboration between her and the director, but for the first time I understood that Sally isn't just unhappy, she's really clinically depressed and delusional. All four leads are troubled and unhappy, but none of them are as far gone as Sally.
JAN MAXWELL as Phyllis ("Could I leave you?")
I wasn't familiar with her at all before a couple years ago, when Richard and saw her in two plays on Broadway, both of which got her Tony noms that year: she was the lead in *The Royal Family* and had a hilarious supporting role in *Lend Me a Tenor*. She's very old school, totally hits the ball out of the park. She was perfect as Phyllis: she was brittle without being sullen, icy but still sexy. Her performance of "Could I leave you?" (which, let's face it, is a killer song) was the musical high point of the show. There was a moment early in the song when the audience laughed and then was instantly silent, because they wanted to hear the next line. That was thrilling, a real edge-of-your-seat performance.
DANNY BURSTEIN as Buddy ("Buddy's blues")
We'd seen him in hammy supporting roles in three Broadway shows: *The Drowsy Chaperone*, *South Pacific*, and *Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown*. I was looking forward to seeing him in a meaty leading role, and he was fantastic. His song and dance chops are strong, that was no surprise, but he really delivered in the acting department, had lots of depth and pathos.
RON RAINES as Ben ("The road you didn't take")
I'd never heard of this guy before - - he's done a fair amount of stage work but is best known for being on *Guiding Light*. I only ever watched ABC soaps, so he was unknown to me. He did a great job, has a gorgeous voice and lots of charm. He and Bernadette sounded lovely together, and he did a great job with Ben's nervous breakdown.
ELAINE PAIGE as Carlotta ("I'm still here")
A huge disappointment, the weakest link in the show. She's got loads of charisma and stage cred, but she did an awful job with "I'm still here". She didn't quite ruin it, but she was trying real hard. Her problem was she tried to do something different with the song - - this isn't always a problem (see Linda Lavin below), but in her case it didn't work at all. The song goes like this:
Good times and bum times
I've seen them all, and my dear
I'm still here
She was playing free and easy with the rhythm, so it went like this:
Good times and bum times
The song still packed its punch at the end, but it did a lot of clunking on its way there. I spent the whole song being worried that she would get so far behind that the orchestra would have to vamp, to wait for her to catch the heck up.
LINDA LAVIN as Hattie ("Broadway baby")
Yes, Linda Lavin, who was the star of *Alice* back in the 70s! Speaking of the 70s, she is now in the 70s herself, and she looks fantastic and sounds great. She did something different with this song, and totally delivered. It was a little faster than we're used to hearing it, and she made it less hammy and more sexy. And she rerouted some of the vocal line so she could sing higher, which was wonderful.
ROSALIND ELIAS as Heidi ("One more kiss")
As my old boyfriend Alan would say, she's older than dirt, three days older than water! To be precise, she's 82. She had a big career at the Met in the 50s through the 80s. I heard her in a small part at the City Opera a few years ago and she was barely audible, so I was worried about her in this show, but she sounded great. Maybe they cranked up her body mic, but the voice itself sounded full and luscious. She also looks spectacular -- her hair is snowy white and carefully styled, she was a dead ringer for Italian mezzo Giulietta Simionato (who is now dead herself, so I guess that look is available).
SUSAN WATSON as Emily ("Listen to the rain on the roof")
She was Nanette in *No, No, Nanette* and the first Luisa in *The Fantastiks*. She was adorable, sang great and danced especially well. Cute little haircut, sort of a modified pixie.
REGINE as Solange ("Ah, Paris")
I'd never heard of this broad before, but her bio says that she started a line of nightclubs called Regine's. A little profile in the Washington Post said that she got rid of the jukebox and put down two turntables, played her own selection of music - - which she says makes her the first DJ in a club. OK, sure, why not. She has a great "where are my Gauloises?" croaky French voice. She could sing "Ol' man river" in the original key, and sound pretty believable. Richard and I both know the lyrics to “Ah, Paris” pretty well, so we were able to follow it, but her accent is so theeck that you could hardly understand her. I think she would have come through a little better if the orchestra had played quieter, it would have put her singing in a sharper focus.
TERRI WHITE as Stella ("Who's that woman")
Another woman I'd never heard of. She was in *Barnum* back in 1980, was in the recent revival of *Finian's Rainbow*. Powerhouse voice and a very strong dancer. This number was one of the real shocks of the show. Usually they stage it so the old broads are sort of indicating the choreography they used to do, while the ghosts (their younger selves) are onstage with them, doing it full out. Well, in this production, the ghosts were there, and the old broads were keeping right up with them! It was a really exciting choice. One other thing I should mention: this number usually features all of the leading women (with the exception of the opera singer - - no one can expect an opera singer to tap), but I guess Linda Lavin and Regine weren't up for the challenge, because they had a couple of extras dancing their part in this number. It was a little peculiar, but it worked.
* * *
I read in the NY Times back in 2007, when *Sweeney Todd* was in movie theaters, that Sam Mendes was in pre-production for a movie of *Follies*. I don’t see any internet news about that since then, so I guess it died in Development Hell. I feel like I can do without the movie, now that I’ve seen a really first-class production of the show.