Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Goldman
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Time laying its ugly hand on faces, bodies and dreams is the subject of Follies
, the most majestic of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, which also exposes all manner of nostalgia, self-loathing and delusions. It was inspired by a photograph
of an aged, glammed-up Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of the demolished Roxy Theatre, and Sondheim lavishes all his gifts of gut-punching psychological insight and musical fecundity onto a story that revolves around a reunion of chorus girls toasting each other and going through old routines before a wrecking ball razes their old theater and turns it into a parking lot. To say that Follies
strips theatrical illusions bare is an understatement. The way that Sondheim digs deeper and deeper into the exquisite gradations of anguish in his four main protagonists, brittle Phyllis (Jan Maxwell), dissatisfied power player Ben (Ron Raines), depressive Sally (Bernadette Peters), and conflicted nice guy Buddy (Danny Burstein), is so intense that it's almost unbearable, and not always in a way that hurts so good. The original production in 1971 featured performers who had actually been in Follies
-like shows themselves in the 1920s, and now this current production, still set in 1971, takes on another layer of distance and regret.
The last major revival of Follies
in New York, for the Roundabout Theatre in 2001
, was such an embarrassing disaster that practically any production would top it, and this new version, direct from a Kennedy Center run, is relentlessly attentive to the material's prodigiously nuanced pain. Maxwell, in particular, truly outdoes herself; when she was finished with the angriest imaginable version of "Could I Leave You?" all I could do was marvel that I was seeing a matinee and Maxwell would actually have to do what she had just done again for the evening show. That's the craziness of great acting for the theater, and it left me more than a little in awe of her. When Peters came out, already in tears, to do "Losing My Mind," I flashed back, with relief, to Andrea Martin's old send-ups of Peters on SCTV where tears were forever streaming down her face on the Johnny Carson show, but there was nothing I could do to sidestep the awfulness of poor Sally's life once Peters began to sing. Great as Follies
undoubtedly is, there came a point in this production where I couldn't stand any more of Sondheim's almost sadistic virtuosity in detailing every conceivable facet of the unhappiness of these people. I was emotionally exhausted and wrung out after ten minutes of it; in all honesty, I was wrung out just listening to the first few notes of the score, with its suggestions of decaying operetta melody and Alban Berg menace.
For those who love Follies
, and they are legion, this production is unmissable for many reasons, not least of which is Jayne Houdyshell's unexpectedly warm and comforting rendition of "Broadway Baby" and Elaine Paige's very specific belting of "I'm Still Here," in which the lyrics about historical figures like Herbert Hoover and the Duke of Windsor finally made sense to me as the journalistic detritus of any public life. The bit of hope that comes through in the final book scenes isn't convincing for a moment, because no bit of hope could be after Sondheim's comprehensive scourge of these two marriages and his hellishly clever pastiches of false musical comedy numbers about love. Sondheim breaks your heart and then he breaks it into tinier and tinier pieces. There's no question with him of ever putting it back together again for you.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)