Among musical theater enthusiasts, there are few musicals as revered and discussed as Follies, the legendary 1971 musical featuring a magnificent Stephen Sondheim score and a book by James Goldman. The original production ran for only 522 performances, and audiences did not always respond, but it is regarded by its fans as an opulent, brilliant, and never-to-be-duplicated production of a groundbreaking musical. I saw that original, and I have always felt I may have been a bit too young to fully appreciate it. Since then, among others, I have seen the 1987 London production, a well-regarded mounting at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, a scaled-down Broadway revival ten years ago, and a concert version that was part of the Encores series several years ago. Fans of the show flock to each new production, always hoping that this will be the “perfect Follies” we have long awaited. All the versions I have seen had their attributes and their standout performances, and all have had elements open for legitimate debate and criticism. Has any musical ever inspired as much passion, differing opinions, and intrigue as Follies?
We now have a new Follies on Broadway, as a production originally mounted at the Kennedy Center in Washington this past spring has transferred to the Marquis Theatre. Like the musical itself, the new and worthy production has its imperfections, but much of the brilliance of Sondheim-Goldman classic is on display in riveting, powerful fashion. The first half of the show, leading up to the intermission, is high drama, and I felt myself on an emotional roller coaster, alternating between thrill-induced goose bumps and tears. The show drags slightly and loses some momentum in Act Two. This is not unique to this production – it is something I have felt watching other Follies productions over the years.
Follies is a concept musical; the conceit of Follies is that we are watching a reunion taking place in a crumbling Broadway theater which is about to be destroyed. The theater had been the scene for lavish Ziegfield Follies-like revues, staged between the World Wars. The show takes place in 1971, and the aging performers from those revues are brought together for the first time in many years for a last gathering before the theater comes down. The story focuses on two couples, who we see as both their youthful selves, while the women were performing in the follies, and their adult versions at the reunion. Follies explores many themes, ranging from lost youth, shattered dreams and illusions (including the shattering of the American Dream), aging, the end of an era in musical theater, and roads not taken, to name a few.
It can be heady stuff, and the book has taken its share of criticism over the years. It is not easy to care about the central couples, and each new production has featured changes in the book. Mixed in with the story, we also view several of the former showgirls performing their old numbers, at times accompanied by the “ghosts” of their former selves. Sondheim’s score consists of a brilliant mix of pastiche numbers and book songs. Much of the excitement in Follies comes from the musical numbers, which result in some dazzling theatrical thrills, even if the book comes over as cold and distant to some viewers.
In watching the previous productions, I have at times been blown away, at times moved, and at times left wanting more from the productions. That will probably always be the case with this musical. The glories of the new production are quite wonderful. It was a delight seeing such long-time Broadway pros as Susan Watson, Jayne Houdyshell, Mary Beth Peil, and Terri White do knockout versions of their pastiche numbers. Houdyshell is adorable, lovable, and perfect with her rendition of “Broadway Baby.” White is downright terrific and stops the show cold with her “Who’s That Woman,” accompanied by her fellow showgirls and the ghosts, and displaying the evening’s best choreography. Rosalind Ellis sings a gorgeous and stunning “One More Kiss,” with able help from Leah Horowitz. And British musical theater legend Elaine Paige delivers a thrilling “I’m Still Here” that is angry, defiant, and powerfully sung.
But Follies always comes down to the four leads. Excluding the original production, I don’t know if I have ever seen a better quartet, as a group. That is not saying they were the four best individual performances, but the overall quality of the foursome is high. Ron Raines gives us one of the best-sung Bens we’ll ever see. Danny Burstein just may be the best Buddy I have seen; he is genuine, conflicted, and hurt, yet conveys decency and likability.
Jan Maxwell is a sensational Phyllis. Who knew this talented actress could sing like this? She has more warmth, and is not quite the ice queen we have seen in the past in the Phyllis role, and is certainly more vulnerable. When she explodes in her rendition of “Could I Leave You?” it is a powerful and exciting moment. She is not a great dancer, so “Lucy and Jessie,” while still a marvelous number, does not quite soar.
The production’s big name star is the wonderful Bernadette Peters. Her damaged, dark, delusional, and melancholy Sally worked for me and proved quite heartbreaking. Sally usually starts the show as perky and eager, then unravels as the story proceeds. Peters is clearly on the edge from the start, which is probably more realistic. Peters does not have the belt in her singing that she used to have, but when singing in her high range displays a lovely soprano that was touching and quite right for “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind.”
For whatever reason, and perhaps I was just tired, Follies does not maintain its intensity level or dramatic power in the final half hour or so. The climactic Loveland sequence and numbers, while all strong, nicely done, and well performed, don’t dazzle or thrill the way we might hope.
But that is the eternal frustration in the quest for the perfect Follies. There probably never will be one. We will continue to debate casts, direction, the book, and the merits or lack thereof of the book cuts and changes, but we will also marvel at the brilliance of the score, the sublime performers we have the privilege of watching do great songs, and the intelligence of the book. Whatever its flaws, it presents themes that, as we grow older ourselves, will resonate with greater intensity. Overall, this new Follies has the scope, lavish feel, and size missing from the previous Broadway revival, plus the drama and atmosphere I found lacking at Paper Mill. Director Eric Schaeffer has done well in setting the mood, weaving the ghosts throughout the proceedings, and giving us a big Follies on a Broadway stage with plenty to cherish, even if the payoff may come up a bit short.
All in all, I am pleased with this production and always glad to have Follies back. One has to take advantage of any opportunity to see Follies, and I already have tickets to return in a few weeks. It probably won’t be perfect, but it will be Follies, and a very good Follies at that, which is worth celebrating. - James Miller
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.