The famous ghosts of “Follies” have at last taken up residence again on Broadway, bringing a few new specters along. Thirty years after the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical opened at the Winter Garden, “Follies” is haunting the Belasco, uneasily wearing the diadem of legend that it has accrued in the three decades since it closed.
Crowns are not the most comfortable form of headgear, of course. In fact, the creators of the revival may find that the show’s iconic status among theater lovers — its score is perhaps the greatest from the last great composer for the American musical theater — is a crown of thorns. There’s an odd irony in this, of course: The musical suggests that nostalgia is a trap, and it has come to find itself a victim of it.
The Roundabout Theater Co.’s eagerly awaited new revival is not perfect; it has its glories and disappointments, good times and bum times. It is, in general, finely acted, directed with intelligence and craft, middlingly sung, minimally designed. Above all, and with or without flaws, “Follies” is welcome on Broadway, where its uncompromising air of regret is particularly bracing amid the juvenile cheer that marks most musicals these days.
A perfect “Follies” is, I suspect, an entirely imaginary conception. What strikes this first-timer to the show is its troubling — and at the same time fascinating — lack of cohesion, a quality commented upon by critics at its debut. “Follies” may be the most artful musical that somehow doesn’t satisfy as a work of art, and maybe wasn’t meant to.
Irresolution is stitched into its every seam. Is it a book musical or a revue? It’s both. Does it condemn or celebrate the beautiful lies that Broadway once sold? it does both. Does it tell us that survival is everything, or that mere survival is spiritual death? Both. It throws a party to celebrate disappointment, and expects us to love its characters for their self-hate.
You try making all that work.
English director Matthew Warchus’ previous New York productions were small scale, small cast and intricately nuanced: Yasmina Reza’s “Art” and “The Unexpected Man,” and the recent revival of “True West.” He has said that his staging of “Follies” would take a “book-centered and actor-centered approach.” Considering that Sondheim’s score is the show’s primary and most-beloved asset, with Michael Bennett and Harold Prince’s staging of the original also reverently recalled, this is somewhat perverse, and the perversion sometimes shows.
Nevertheless it does bear dividends. Take, for example, “I’m Still Here,” sung by the worldly wise Carlotta Campion, one of the ex-showgirls in attendance at a 1971 reunion on the stage of the Weissman Theater, soon to be a parking lot. As performed with indescribable artistry and vocal assurance by Polly Bergen, the song, once one among a series of solo divertissements performed revue-style, becomes a small, neatly defined drama within the larger frame of the show. Bergen begins by addressing her fellow performers, including them in Sondheim’s tartly phrased paean to getting along, but as her intensity grows, the song turns inward, and by its fierce climax, Carlotta is alone onstage; the song has become an interior monologue, as much a fierce avowal of further endurance as a celebration of past survival. Not a mere show-stopper but a show in itself.
But it’s in the casting of the musical’s four central roles that Warchus’ actor-centered approach is most clearly apparent, for good and ill. Neither Judith Ivey nor Blythe Danner, who play former follies girls and best friends who married the wrong men, have much experience in musicals. Ivey is sorely taxed by the range of some of her songs — particularly “In Buddy’s Eyes” — while Danner’s dancing in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” is mostly chorus boy-assisted posing — and hardly persuasive at that. But these are actresses of the first rank, and they give touching and thoughtful performances.
As Sally Durant Plummer, who has always carried a torch for Ben Stone (Gregory Harrison), the man who tossed her aside to marry Danner’s Phyllis, Ivey is poignant from start to finish. Her character’s girlishness seems to have been uncannily preserved; with her eager, upturned face always boasting an ingratiating smile, she’s visibly still the ingenue waiting for her dream date. The other characters are haunted by — and in turn haunt — the ghosts of their former selves, but Ivey’s Sally also remains the ghost of her former self.
Phyllis is probably the best-written role of the four principals — she’s the only one who’s both smart and sympathetic, and Danner nails both aspects of the character in a performance to relish. Her line readings are models of intelligent acting: Note how she slaps a layer of self-mockery on top of Goldman’s occasional clunkers. She also clearly reveals the brittle but still hopeful heart beneath Phyllis’ hard-edged exterior. Her performance of “Could I Leave You” is variously mordant, delicate and lacerating, as indeed is the performance as a whole.
Treat Williams, who plays Sally’s salesman husband, Buddy, and Harrison as the successful but empty Ben Stone, are slightly less satisfactory. Williams is vocally overtaxed — at times he even seems physically distressed — by his challenging vaudeville number in the second act, although his acting is often affecting. Harrison is a stronger singer, but his performance is bland and too remote even for an emotionally withdrawn character; it doesn’t help that Ben is prone to bald self-diagnoses on the order of, “It’s my life and I’ve lived it wrong,” and other somewhat glib paroxysms of self-contempt and need. Goldman’s book is often amazingly theatrical, particularly in the intermingling of the ghosts from the past (fluently staged by Warchus), but it is also occasionally overexplicit and maddeningly underwritten.
Sondheim’s score, of course, is a marvel. Thirty years on, the pastiche songs retain all their inherent musical charm and pizzazz, to say nothing of their verbal wit, and the book songs are exemplary examples of Sondheim’s unparalleled knack for turning knotty pieces of introspection into musical and lyrical jewels.
Aside from Bergen’s number, the most accomplished spots come from a stylish Jane White, her mouth wide enough to swallow the Eiffel Tower in “Ah, Paris!,” and Carol Woods, who rocks the house with “Who’s That Woman.” Joan Roberts, the original Laurey in “Oklahoma!,” is also sweetly enchanting while dueting with her younger self, Brooke Sunny Moriber, in the operetta number, and Betty Garrett rather endearingly undersells “Broadway Baby.” Kathleen Marshall’s choreography is appropriate but workmanlike and unmemorable.
If minimalism could be said to describe the vocal assets of the show, it also applies to the visual ones. Designer Mark Thompson has done a marvelous job of distressing the Belasco — or merely exposing its age spots — but more money seems to have been spent tearing the theater apart than constructing things to put onstage.
The “Loveland” sequence and the series of musical numbers that follow should transport us to a glamorous facsimile of the follies, but Thompson’s sketchy vision — when inspiration fails, think pink? — doesn’t take us very far. The financial constraints of today’s Broadway are partly to blame here, but the fact remains that the production’s pared-down visual aesthetics — which extend to Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes, handsome but mere ghosts of the Florence Klotz originals — diminish its overall impact. (Hugh Vanstone’s wondrous lighting is an exception, however; it artfully and intricately identifies the ghosts by bathing them in lavender moonlight.) Without an idea of the magic that was lost, how can we feel the ache at the heart of the show, which is as much an elegy for an art form as it is for the dream of a happy marriage?
Even diminished, “Follies” is hypnotic and deeply affecting to anyone old enough to ponder roads not taken and the follies of youth. Its splintered, unresolved quality — it doesn’t so much end as stop — may have a lot to do with the overwhelming affection it inspires in its fans. The show leaves the audience hanging along with its characters, who seem to have no future whatsoever when the curtain comes down. As soon as it’s over you want to start watching it again, hoping for a miracle: that elusive happy ending that life — and Broadway shows — once seemed to promise.