Sunday, February 11, 2007

Random Thoughts on Follies

Some thoughts after seeing the Encores! concert of Follies by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman:

- It's often noted that this show was originally anti-nostalgia (an antidote and contrast to the straightforward nostalgic pieces that were playing all around New York at the time, like a revised version of No, No, Nanette that was if anything toned down from the original) and now it's a nostalgia piece, appealing to the same age group that hated it at the time. This is not surprising, though. For one thing, the people who go to Follies now are people who more or less grew up with it. For another thing, Follies upset people because it was announcing that the conventions of the musical -- the boy-meets-girl, optimistic, feel-good musical -- had run their course. This was upsetting at the time. Now we all know that this is true, that the musical no longer occupies the central place in the culture that it did until the '60s, so instead of being an announcement of a hard-to-swallow fact, it's a nostalgic tribute to a type of musical that no longer exists.

- The ending doesn't work, never worked, never will work. James Goldman, the writer of the show, was rewriting it up to the end of his life, and the original version (which was used here) is still the best of the bunch even though it doesn't work. The problem is that the climax of Follies is sort of anti-climactic in itself. The plot, such as it is, comes to a conclusion when the two couples confront each other and their past selves, and they finally have to face up to their illusions about themselves. Then we get a long "Follies" sequence where each of the characters sings a pastiche number where they face the truth about their problem. But while this is a great theatre moment, it's anti-climactic because they're just admitting to us what we have known about them the whole evening. And so there's a sense that we spent the night waiting for something to happen, and all that happened was that these four not-terribly-appealing people finally admitted the obvious. No matter what happens after that -- and the final scene, where they stay together and go off to try and work things out, is a plausible enough ending -- there's never going to be much of an ending to a story that is exclusively about forcing people to admit what we all knew the first time we met them.

- I would say that Christine Baranski's rendition of "I'm Still Here" was disappointing, except I never expected her to be right for this song. But a lot of people are vaguely unsatisfying in this number. What it needs is not a great voice -- Yvonne De Carlo introduced it, her version is still the definitive one, and she wasn't a great singer. What it needs is a) A sense that the performer herself has some connection with what the song is about (De Carlo, obviously, did, and a lot of people felt she was really singing about herself, whether or not she was) and b) A willingness to sing it in rhythm, on the beat (a lot of people think that because it's kind of jazzy, they can sing it in free rhythm, and it never works that way).

- My favorite song in the show has always been "Could I Leave You?" and Donna Murphy's performance got a huge hand (as it apparently did at earlier performances. It's an amazing number and has even more of an impact because it comes from a character, Phyllis, who has done hardly anything up to that point except deliver bitchy one-liners. In the original, people might have been wondering why Alexis Smith was in it, or whether she was going to have a number at all, until she stopped the show with this one.

- The original co-director and choreographer, Michael Bennett, went on to do a show with a similar concept -- gathering a bunch of people in a theatre and focusing everything on them. That was A Chorus Line which was more successful though I think it sucks. On the other hand, though A Chorus Line sucks (more specifically, the score sucks, the script sucks and I hate most of the characters), it does have something that Follies doesn't: it's actually leading up to something -- it has that reality-show tension that you get from wondering who will and won't make the cut -- and therefore keeps the audience guessing, whereas as I've said, Follies tells us what's wrong with these people and then lets us wait while they figure it out. The strange thing about show like Follies, where everyone is in one place with occasional fragmented flashbacks, is that even though it's a huge lavish musical, nobody really does anything -- we don't even get complete scenes from their past.

- James Goldman, who was probably a bigger name than Sondheim at the time (because of his play The Lion in Winter and the successful movie version he wrote), got a bad rap for his script, because, well, for one thing there's not much dialogue in the piece, and for another thing, there's not much story and not much of an ending. Sondheim rightly took offence at the idea that the show was good in spite of the book; I don't have the exact quote, but he pointed out that the whole show is built around the book -- songs are written for the writer's story points and characters, staging ideas are built out of the script -- so you can't say that the book is bad and then turn around and praise the songs it inspired.

- There are two ways to cast the four main roles. One is to just cast good performers, which is the approach that was taken at Encores! The other is to cast them similarly to the roles of the old troupers: that is, find people with some kind of nostalgia connection, so the audience will react not just to the character but to their memories of the performer. The original cast went for that approach, mostly -- I say "mostly" because John McMartin, a relatively young performer at the time, was brought in to play Ben (replacing Jon Cypher, who had more nostalgia value because he was the Prince in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella). The audience sort of remembered Alexis Smith from '40s movies, Gene Nelson from the movie of Oklahoma! and Dorothy Collins from the radio. That added an extra dimension, because most of the main characters had that "are they still around?" quality to them -- and the added joy the audience experiences when they find that not only is Alexis Smith still around, but she's even better than she ever could be in the movies.

- In many ways Follies is the ideal Encores! show. The way these concerts work is that the book is cut down as far as it can go, to streamline the evening and make sure there's not too much dialogue between songs. But with Follies, though there was some trimming of the book, the show is almost written that way to begin with: a few stray lines of dialogue here and there followed by another number. It's a very long score, and almost every dialogue scene is basically a lead-in to another song. On Broadway, this was somewhat unsatisfying, but it works in a concert, where the audience is mostly there to hear the songs anyway.

- The original production of Follies had no intermission. The Encores! concert, like many revivals, inserted an intermission after "Too Many Mornings." This is always a mistake, because it's a very awkward act break. Follies really doesn't have a good place for an act break -- that's why they didn't have one originally -- and trying to fit one in just kills the show's momentum, hurting the buildup to the Loveland sequence.

- If you doubt that Broadway has lost something due to the shrinking size of the orchestra, you have only to hear the excellent Encores! orchestra, under conductor Eric Stern, playing the original orchestrations of Follies (Jonathan Tunick's finest work). In "The Right Girl," there's no substitute for the sound of a full violin section in the dance section, or for the sound of a real, rough brass interjection (which is built into the song).

- Has anybody asked Sondheim or Hal Prince or somebody why Buddy and Sally have the same first names as characters on The Dick Van Dyke Show? I have to admit, if I had been at the performance with a Q&A session, that would have been the question I'd have asked. So maybe it's just as well I wasn't there.


Jon88 said...

I've seen "Follies" a few times -- the original production in 1971, the Lincoln Center concert, and the Paper Mill version a few years ago. In order: brilliant, thrilling and disappointing.

Gene Nelson was apparently sui generis. I don't think any production since 1971 has cast an Older Buddy who could dance; Young Buddy winds up doing all the heavy lifting, and I don't think the part works as well that way. Too bad.

Galen Fott said...

I saw an excellent production at TUTS in Houston back in the late 80s...John Cullum as Ben, Marilyn Maye as Sally, Juliet Prowse as Phyllis, and Harvey Evans -- the original young Buddy -- as older Buddy. Still dancing, too!

Michael Sporn said...

Thanks for the comments. I think part of the greatness of this show is in its flaws. There isn't anything on Broadway now that's half as perfect. (Everything seems to be trying to be an Encores production - take a look at Spring Awakening.)

I'm glad to hear your comments on Chorus Line. I never did get that show. I saw it after it first opened and thought it was cliched back then.