Follies: Dances With Ghosts


Some musicals are pivotal, others seminal. Hair, when it opened on Broadway in 1968, was clearly pivotal: After it, the musical theater would be different. In contrast, when Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies (Marquis Theatre) opened in 1971, it seemed more like a puzzle than a pivot point: a lavish, old-style musical that at times resembled an attack on old-style musicals, thickened with complex, new-style songs that disoriented you on first hearing. Apparently changing its course entirely in its last third, and then going completely haywire, it was clearly brilliant in some respects, but overall far more perplexing than pivotal.

Follies, it soon developed, was seminal. It didn’t spawn imitators—you’d have to be crazy to try—and, unlike Hair, it didn’t bring musical theater a new vocabulary. Rather, it expanded songwriters’ traditional vocabulary, adding a new self-awareness. And though its narrative framework remained obstinately unsolvable, its astonishing score seeped into the theater’s pores. Hair‘s songs won fans’ affection; Sondheim’s mode of songwriting won generations of disciples.

Set in an old theater about to be demolished, haunted by the ghosts of glamorous, Ziegfeld Follies-style revues past, Follies could be expected to have acquired some ghosts of its own over the past 40 years, and indeed it has. Between songs cut from the first production before it opened and alternative songs written for later incarnations, the show possesses a shadow score almost as long as the one used in performance. And behind Follies‘ book hover both a ghost script and the shadow of the conceiver-director, still very much alive, who gave the push that started its transformation into the work we have today.

Sondheim and book writer James Goldman had initially planned a much smaller-scale work, a musical murder mystery about ex-Ziegfeld girls and their husbands called The Girls Upstairs. Although Hal Prince, a gracious gent, would undoubtedly be the first to assert firmly that he did not write a single word or note of Follies, it was his ambition, provoked by a famous photo of Gloria Swanson amid the rubble of the demolished Roxy, that spurred the change from the intimate work the writers contemplated into the big, daunting event that now stokes every musical-theater director’s dreams.

The ex–chorus girls and their hubbies remain the focal characters. It’s 1971. Back in 1941, hard-edged, glamour-hungry Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) and her now ultra-rich, ultra-eminent spouse, Ben (Ron Raines), made up a foursome with Ben’s pal Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Phyllis’s flatmate, Sally (Bernadette Peters). Sweet, nervous Sally and sappy, good-natured Buddy haven’t scored as high in life as their onetime double-daters: She, daydreaming about her might-have-Ben youth, lets their suburban home run to seed; he, off on the road selling oil-rig equipment, cozies up to a younger woman.

What reunites the two couples, setting old recriminations ablaze again, is the impending demolition of the Broadway theater where “Dmitri Weissmann’s Follies” played annually between the two World Wars. Weissmann (David Sabin) elects to throw one huge reunion party before the wrecking ball strikes. Our chorines and their onetime stage-door johnnies show up to mingle with a covey of ex-Weissmann stars, specialty acts, and choristers—rousing not only the ghosts of showgirls past, but also those of their own still-aggrieved younger selves. Everybody’s got a doppelgänger.

While the celebrated guests, trailed by their ghostly avatars, redo their “old” numbers (all actually cunning pastiche inventions by Sondheim), and catch up on each other’s post-1941 lives, the two unhappy couples relive the youthful lower-case-f follies that led to their current marital miseries. They vent their souls vocally in what’s now familiar to us as Sondheim’s established style but was startlingly new in 1971: discursive, threnodic, ferociously rhymed arias and duets that suggest the colloquial speech of naturalistic plays encased in extended musical shapes. In its last half hour, as the embitterment mounts, the show’s title comes true: Thesis and antithesis merge, creating a nightmarish synthesis, a Follies-from-Hell that pushes harsh reality into the old, playful showbiz conventions.

Broadly evocative and capacious, the show’s conception carries enormous power, especially as supported by the zestful, wide-ranging imaginative work with which Sondheim fills it. Its potential appeal is universal: Not everybody loves the frivolity of pre-Oklahoma! musicals, but everybody loves a big, gaudy show. And virtually everybody over 23 has some part of their past that they’d like to live over again and get right. What fun to put the two notions together, and imagine revising your life into a big, gaudy show. In a sense, Follies was prophetic, not of what the musical would become, but of the extent to which America would increasingly find itself living inside celebrity culture. Concerned to enforce a new sense of realness on their audience, Sondheim and his collaborators found themselves doing the opposite: reaffirming the McLuhanite notion that the real is merely part of the show.

Beyond its size and costliness, Follies gives a director a frightening multiplicity of tasks: to create, simultaneously, the atmospheres of a haunted old theater, a lavish, elite 1970s party, and an ornate, high-gloss Broadway revue in both ghostly and fleshly forms. Plus, you have to channel a horde of old stars and young talents into an overall event that roots them all in reality while they engage in the most extravagantly unreal sorts of song and dance. No production of Follies ever gets everything right.

Eric Shaeffer’s revival, moved north, with some recasting, from the Kennedy Center, fulfills only a modest number of the show’s gigantic demands. There’s much gaudiness and some fun but little atmosphere and less emotional grip. The two main couples, whose wispy background has always been a principal problem with Goldman’s book, come off as four disconnected entities, singing their hearts out in a vacuum; Burstein’s Buddy carries the most conviction. Warren Carlyle’s choreography often seems remote from the sense of the numbers: He scores only one bull’s-eye, with the young couples’ twinned duet. For compensation, you get terrific turns by Jayne Houdyshell, Terri White, Rosalind Elias, Mary Beth Peil, Susan Watson, and Don Correia, plus an awful lot of top-drawer Sondheim. If Shaeffer doesn’t create the cohesive work the authors strove for, neither did they. Like a giant seed pod spilling its gifts in every direction, Follies, as I said, is seminal, not pivotal.