Monday, December 17, 2007

Sondheim: Follies (1971)

It could never happen again. It should have never happened at the time. The unbelievably extravagant, exceedingly expensive and ridiculously ambitious 1971 musical Follies was a musical perhaps doomed to failure.  Shockingly downbeat, Follies marked the end of a Broadway that sparkled with glamour and fantasy, ushering in a new area of cynicism and modernity. It was another experiement in creating a whole new kind of musical. Follies began in the mind of Stephen Sondheim as a murder mystery called "The Girls Upstairs." After much reworking, and with Hal Prince's guiding hand, the show transformed into a massive eulogy for youth, hope and old "42nd Street" showbiz.  Inspired by a startling photograph of Gloria Swanson amid the wreckage of an abandoned, dilapidated theatre, Follies is set at the first, and last, reunion party for Weissman's Follies (a transparent Ziegfield stand-in) before the old theatre gets torn down. As one character barbs, "Just what this city needs, another parking lot."  Specifically focusing on two middle-aged former Follies girls and their stage-door Johnny husbands, (Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben, respectively) we are invited to luxuriate in the destructive dynamics and long stewing resentments of two collapsing marriages. Old romances are rekindled (and discarded); hopes for the future are shown futile.  Through the metaphors of show-biz, these domestic dramas are elevated into the more universal crisis of age and loss.  A true concept musical, the action plays on a dream stage where the ghosts of the past literally share space with the harsh realities of the present.  

There are two kinds of music in Follies. Most transparent are the pastiche; songs written deliberately in the manner of the tin pan alley tunesmiths of the 20's and 30's.  The other songs are uniquely Sondheim-esque and contemporary.   All are brilliant. In Follies Sondheim was able to display his complete mastery of theatre music, tossing off Irving Berlin and George Gershwin homages that often outdid their real inspirations.  Better yet, Sondheim's lyrics in these pastiche numbers worked on two levels: they are fully believable as period pieces and they also subtly comment on the action, providing discomfiting irony to each musical moment.  No where is this more obvious than in the Act-one showstopper "Who's that Woman."  As the aging chorus girls sing a cheery bouncy dance number, the lyrics cut to the quick. "Who's that woman?/That cheery, weary woman/Who's dressing for yet one more spree?/Each day I see her pass/In my looking-glass--/Lord, Lord, Lord, that woman is me! "  As they dance with their old selves, the ladies "mirror" image becomes all the more poignant-their feeble attempt at dancing more pathetic.   Even the grand opening, a parody of Irving Berlin's Follies classic "A Pretty Girl" called "Beautiful Girls" has a more than subtle hint of the pathetic and grotesque to it,-as all the old, wrinkled, heavy and frail former Follies girls parade down the staircase one last time, nostalgia quickly transforms to sadness and disgust.

Eventually the regrets and recriminations of the the four main characters comes to a head, boiling over and transforming the stage into a new and one-of-a-kind show; a full-fledged Follies of psychological dysfunction and released repression.   As each of the main characters has their moment in the spotlight the futility of the entire endeavor becomes more and more obvious. Eventually invoking a nervous collapse from Ben, the stage becomes awash in a cacophony of noise-all the characters bellowing while the orchestra thrashes in a nonsenical din.  Leaving the party with the spouses they came with, the characters may leave wiser for the wear-but happiness remains nonetheless an elusive dream.

A massive cast, an incredible orchestra, costumes opulent beyond any seen since--Follies was one of the most expensive shows Broadway had ever seen.  All this to service a show that, as described above, leaves it's audience less than joyful.  The critics that disliked the show focused on Williams Goldman's book which they saw as petty.  Why would anyone want to spend an evening with these four sad pathetic people who spend a whole show complaining and bitching with each other about events long since passed? The point is not without insight but what those critics missed is the more universal and powerful thematic ideas facilitated by this plot. No, the characters don't really change or grow, but that is, of course, the point.  Sondheim and Price simply weren't interested in playing by the rules. The shows most insightful review was written by a Harvard student, a precocious young fellow named Frank Rich.  He had already written his place in the history of criticism with a line that epitomized Follies raison d'etre: "There is no getting around the fact, that a large part of the chilling fascination of `Follies' is that its creators are in essence presenting their own funeral."

Follies did not recoup it's invest despite a run of 522 performances on Broadway.  A National tour also fizzled early.  Ever since, the show has achieved a legendary status, not only for the brilliance of it's score but for the perfection and unattainable opulence of the original production.  Chronicled in the book "Everything Was Possible" by Ted Chapin, the history of Follies is mythic among theatre aficionados and for good reason.  But this has not stopped people from attempting to remount the show and make it a viable entertainment once again.  A star-studded 1985 concert with Mandy Patinkin, Barbara Cook, George Hearn and Lee Remick cemented Follies status as one of the most brilliant scores in Broadway history.  The 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse Production dared to ask if a fully mounted revival could succeed. The answer seemed to be a resounding "yes!"  Critic swooned. When an slimmed down revival appeared on Broadway in 2001, the results were underwhelming.  Once again Follies proved a classic problem play, unrelentingly interesting but stubbornly unproducable.  The recent critical and commercial success of another concert staging, this time at City Center Encores, stirred up discussions of yet another possible try for Broadway gold-but so far no official word has confirmed the chatter.  

And probably for the best.  Follies will never be a commercial success; it's subject matter too bleak, it's financial demands too great.  In a concert staging, pressures are lessened and the imagination takes hold, closing the gaps that a real production would have to fill.   For those who saw it, memories of the original persist.  For those who didn't, like Bobofag, the idea of a fully realized Follies is probably better than the real thing.  Follies remains a frustrating, sad, dark and numbingly brilliant musical, all the more enticing for it's many flaws.  It's unrealistic demands of production and it's taxing emotional experience for the audience make Follies better imagined than real.  Like a young child staring at his beautifully wrapped Christmas gift, the toy itself can never quite live up to the anticipation.  

1 comment:

joe said...

Loved your commentary. I saw the original production when I ventured to NYC on my own at 18 years old. Even at that age I was profoundly moved and also exhilarated! The show was a staggering visual achievement and made me a lifelong fanatic of Stephen Sondheim. Just Brilliant!
Funny, what drew me in was the incredible poster art for the show.I got a cheap ticket because the show was nearing the end of it's run ( April 1972).
The images and atmosphere of the show will be with me forever. Now at 55 i think I understand the "book' songs better and can relate to the bleak and desperate themes.