Into the Past

 Follies belongs to the tiny category of great impossible musicals. Despite all the wonderful artists involved, the original production wasn't a success, and I doubt that any other production could be. Yet Follies is great: It has, unarguably, a great score. There is a great conception behind it. And it makes—unhappily for our shrunken, scrimping theater—great demands. That the work, as written, doesn't live up to its aspirations is only the first of the great problems shadowing it. The dramatic climax of Follies—the moment when a huge, lavish, Ziegfeld-era spectacle goes haywire—is a purely directorial moment. Though presumably now part of the script, conceptually it belongs to Hal Prince, who originally produced and directed the show back in 1971—a time that now seems almost as remote as the ultra-ancient 1930s, when Dmitri Weissmann's Follies were allegedly a big annual event.

Goldman and Sondheim began with something smaller and simpler in mind: a murder mystery about ex-chorus girls and their wealthy husbands. It was Prince's idea to expand their work into a requiem for a whole way of producing theater, one that would also reflect the crumbling of America's self-image from the hopped-up cheer of '20s boom times to the miseries of the Vietnam quagmire and urban decay. The concept's breadth is equaled by its density: The four central characters are surrounded not only by their ghostly younger selves and those of the theater's history, but by authentic survivors, whose tangible presence is a rebuke to both the characters' failure and to their fictiveness itself. Phyllis and Sally and "the famous Benjamin Stone" are merely a scriptwriter's jottings, but Ethel Shutta, who brought down the house in the Shuberts' Passing Show of 1922, was as real as you or me—probably more real than me—and watching her belt out "Broadway Baby" on the same stage 49 years later was a genuine emotional event. In this respect, Follies gets less producible every year, as people with a real link to that era are supplanted by those nurtured on an electronically supported musical theater that just isn't the same thing.

Even nostalgia, though, isn't what it used to be: The people who embody theater history onstage in any production of Follies are bargaining chips, used to empower the work's fictitious historicism. The mode of showgirl-spangled spectacle it celebrates was in fact virtually dead by the time its characters supposedly began their careers. A product of the pre-World War I "progressive" era, it peaked in the mid '20s. By the 1930s, it had waned, replaced by smaller-scale revues that were intimate or raffishly satirical; the grandiose display of young female bodies migrated to film, where Busby Berkeley gave it a demented apotheosis. Follies' pastiche songs, iconic survivors, and smart-set attitudes evoke the teens and '20s; the struggles of its four leads evoke Depression scrimping, wartime upheaval, Eisenhower-era affluence and neurosis.

Joan Roberts and Brooke Sunny Moriber in Follies: tonal recall
photo: Joan Marcus
Joan Roberts and Brooke Sunny Moriber in Follies: tonal recall

Details

Follies
By James Goldman
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
212-239-6200

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
By Dale Wasserman, based on Ken Kesey's novel
Royale Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street
212-239-6200

Stones in His Pockets
By Marie Jones
Golden Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street
212-239-6200

Buried beneath the script's fairly standard blighted-love tale of the two chorines and their stage-door johnnies are the gossipy myths of an earlier era, of Peggy Fears's diamonds and Peggy Hopkins Joyce's millionaire husbands. These were "showgirls," tall, model-like beauties who posed or walked about. The "chorus girls" who sang and danced had their wealthy suitors too, but saw themselves as professionals first; they were the revue's industrial workers, their crisscross patterns the choreographic equivalent of assembly-line machinery. (An analogy pointed out by Susan A. Glenn in her excellent recent book, Female Spectacle, a chapter of which explores the revue form's perception of women from a feminist perspective, in intelligent, jargon-free language.)

Playing this multilayered bait-and-switch game with theater history, Follies simultaneously plays a second one with its own form as a work, turning from sung psychological drama into mock-nostalgic hit parade into sung oral history and back again, finally coalescing into the "actual" Follies numbers of its finale, which put the characters' torments inside the theatrical metaphor they've helped create. This piece of postmodern "reading" climaxes in a literal act of deconstruction, as demolition blasts signal the imminent end of the Weissmann Theatre. Astounding as the conception is, its unwieldiness makes the work an unfocusable chaos, despite the laser-sharp brilliance of Sondheim's score. Goldman's book never successfully ringmasters this burgeoning circus of ideas, and even Hal Prince, supported by a superb design team and a first-rank panoply of actors, couldn't keep it from cracking in half.

What Prince and Michael Bennett couldn't do, Matthew Warchus and Kathleen Marshall, backed by a cost-cutting Roundabout budget, can in no way do for them. Even counting pennies, the designers could evoke more vanished glamour, summon up more stylish ghosts. Good with one-on-one confrontations, Warchus doesn't have a musical-theater director's breadth of movement or sense of shape; watching the shift from his work to Marshall's mostly routine routines is like watching alternate wagons roll on- and offstage from the wings. Four fine actors are miscast in the leads: The women are out of their depth vocally, while the men seem hamstrung physically. And, as usual, the "sound design" makes voices and orchestra alike seem to be coming from the box seats either to your right or your left.

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