Friday, February 16, 2007

Further Thoughts on Follies

1. I think too much is sometimes made of the idea that Follies is supposed to be exposing the lies in show tunes, or even making fun of the naivete of show tunes. Very few of the pastiche songs in Follies work that way. The only pastiche numbers that are flat-out wrong, and flat-out parodies, are the early numbers in the "Loveland" sequence (the Loveland song and the songs for the younger versions of the two couples). And even those songs don't represent deliberate lies, but rather the things we really do believe when we're younger: the show has already told us that when the characters were young, "everything was possible," so they sing songs about what a wonderful future they expect.

Remember, too, that even seemingly naive ballads and charm songs are not fantasies, not exactly. They resonate because they're saying things that are widely believed. Most love songs have messages that make perfect sense to us when we're young: possibilities are endless, love happens at first sight and lasts forever, there's an ideal mate for every person and someday he'll come along (someone to watch over you). These messages may have been somewhat cynically peddled by middle-aged chain-smoking pop songwriters who didn't believe a word of them any more, but they are not phony messages: from the perspective of youth, they make sense. What Follies is about is the contrast between youth, when everything is going to be great, and middle age, when things haven't worked out the way you expected (and the only way to be happy is to stop bitching about the fact that things didn't work out the way you expected). That applies specifically to the two main couples and more broadly to the "middle-aged" America that the show is really about. But I don't read that as a condemnation of traditional love songs, just an acknowledgement that they're songs for tbe hopeful young person in all of us, and they don't have much resonance for our depressed middle-aged side.

But most of the other pastiche numbers are basically "middle-aged" show tunes -- songs that are written in a '20s or '30s style but have resonance for the world of 1971. "Who's That Woman?" is supposed to be a number the women performed in the Weismann Follies. And when the four main characters take the stage in the finale, they face the truth about themselves and arrive at a moment of real honesty, and how do they do that? By singing a show tune in a very traditional, old-fashioned style. Sally's big solo earlier in the evening, "In Buddy's Eyes," was more modern, nervous, has a rambling structure, is very recognizably Sondheimian, and it's a song of denial, of (mostly) lying to herself and the person she's talking to. Her solo in the finale, "Losing My Mind," is an old-fashioned torch song with a simple A-A-B-A structure, and it's her first big moment of honesty (yes, Sally, it is like you're losing your mind). The only one of the four climactic numbers that's a "denial" song is Ben's, and even that is giving plausible advice that, we're meant to infer, he ought to be taking, since it's the lesson he takes away with him after the number collapses on itself: he should, in fact, stop obsessing over superficial things and "learn how to love."

So what Follies is building up to is a climax where we find that a show tune -- a traditional, simply-structured show tune, fitting into a clear genre and with all the staging bells and whistles that go with it -- is a great way to express honest emotions and face up to the truth about yourself. That's hardly what you'd expect to find if Follies were as anti-show-tune as it's often made out to be.

2. In my earlier post I said that Christine Baranski was wrong, vocally and as a matter of casting, for Carlotta (the ex-sex-symbol who doesn't do much in the show but toss off some one-liners and sing "I'm Still Here"). Carol Burnett, at the 1985 Lincoln Center concert, could sing the song better, but wasn't right for the part. Polly Bergen, in the Roundabout revival, was closer but not quite right (and she had that problem of trying to sing the song with more rhythmic freedom than it can withstand). So who is right for it?

Well, I think the part, and the song, demands someone who was once famous for her looks. That's built into the character's dialogue, and also into the song, which is full of references to the fact that the character wasn't really a trained actress but got by on her great looks and her "sincere" acting. The character's triumph, and it's a small triumph but a real one, is that instead of becoming a pathetic figure as former sex symbols sometimes do, she is still working -- not a lot, but enough (the original draft of the song says she's recently been doing commercials; this was changed to "I'm almost through my memoirs"), still confident, still attractive, in short, still here.

Obviously, Yvonne De Carlo embodied this character. And I think, in casting the role and the song, it would still help to seek out a former sex symbol who has had her career ups and downs but, like De Carlo, has kept working successfully. I thought, and still think, that Raquel Welch would be very good in this -- I saw someone else suggest this on another blog somewhere, but can't remember who. And while they probably couldn't get her for a stage performance, Ann-Margret would be an excellent Carlotta if they did a Follies movie.

3. Finally, speaking of "I'm Still Here," you might notice that it violates what is otherwise a rule of the show: only the four main characters get "character" numbers. All the other characters sing songs that are supposedly numbers they performed in the Follies. All, that is, except Carlotta, because "I'm Still Here" -- though it has pastiche elements -- isn't a song she sang in a show, it's a song about her life.

The reason for this is that the song originally written for this spot was cut out of town. It was "Can That Boy F...oxtrot," a take-off on suggestive comic songs (Cole Porter et al). The song didn't work, so during the tryout "I'm Still Here" was written and inserted into the show.

Addendum: has some brief excerpts from the concert mixed in with cast interviews.

And Michael Riedel writes about various options for what happens to Follies next. Note, though, that stuff like this is often written after Encores! concerts, and nothing usually comes of it; there's special reason for skepticism because Follies, unlike Chicago, is just too damned big and expensive to ever make back its cost. And as for movie versions, there have been plans for a Follies movie ever since the early '70s and, again, nothing's ever come of it (though it's been written in several places that M-G-M got the idea to do That's Entertainment after a failed attempt to develop Follies as a film).


VP81955 said...

I like Christine Baranski a lot, but she really can't play an ex-sex symbol -- even if she has the legs of one.

cgeye said...

two words: Craig Zadan. He owes Garber a solid, because their ABC production of FIDDLER never came through, and he has a rep for making the only way TV revivals in town successful.