Guess that’s why they call him God. Stephen Sondheim’s paean to old Broadway, “Follies,” hasn’t had a full-bodied British revival since its West End premiere 30 years ago. With a cast that includes Imelda Staunton, director Dominic Cooke’s lavish, languid staging – his first-ever musical – showcases its riches, letting “Follies” stretch out in full on the vast Olivier stage. Played in designer Vicki Mortimer’s crumbling Broadway theater – its brick walls half-bulldozed, its stalls swallowed by rubble – it lets old ghosts mingle with lost souls and becomes much, much more than a mere memory play. Instead, it grows into something far more profound – a philosophical meditation on the passage of time and the agonies of aging.
Artistic director Rufus Norris’ National Theatre has quietly set about scrutinizing America and its ideals. From “The Flick” to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” via “Angels in America,” there’s a line of enquiry that spans today’s pressing identity issues: class, race and sexuality. They’ve been his big hits, and “Follies” follows suit. If Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical was, originally, a nostalgic fanfare for old Broadway as its glamour gave way to decay, right now it looks like a lament for the whole nation. Mortimer’s crumbling theater could stand for a country caving in, and Gary Raymond’s Weismann, its proprietor, has a touch of Abe Lincoln about him. The bulbs on his billboard have blown, leaving the word “lies” flickering overhead. “Follies” critiques America’s evergreen image – fresh faces with fixed smiles – while the same old male stiffs pull the strings.
It’s set at a Broadway reunion – the “first and last” for Dimitri Weismann’s legendary vaudeville revue. With the theater marked for demolition, making space for another blank office block, the stars and chorines of the pre-war era revisit their old haunt. It’s 1971; New York’s run down and its showgirls have aged. As they reminisce and trot through old routines, their younger selves – shimmering in silvery, sequined ballgowns – hover on the edges of this ruined auditorium like ghosts in the wings. They sit in dusty red velvet seats, hang off skeletal staircases and stare into burnished mirrors backstage. It’s like a showbiz séance of sorts; glittering and ghostly, lustrous and spectral.
At its center are two middle-aged couples – former showgirls and their fellas – whose marriages have stalled in middle-age. Sally Durrant (Imelda Staunton), now a small-town mother of two, is toying with ditching her dull husband Buddy (Peter Forbes) to rekindle proceedings with her old flame Ben Stone (Philip Quast). Rather than following through on their fling, he married her friend and fellow “Folly” Phyllis Rogers (Janie Dee). Reunited for the first time in years, the past comes flooding back to them all. Their dashing younger selves – carefree and loved up – dance off with one another.
It all positively aches with sadness and regret – an elegy for lost youth and missed chances; “The Road Not Taken,” as one song has it. While the two young showgirls (Zizi Strallen and Alex Young) in their matching floaty, floral dresses, are like peas in a pod, their older selves have seized up. Staunton’s Sally has become a rattle of anxieties, breathless at a chance to turn back the clock, while Dee makes clear that Phyllis has constructed her classy exterior, teaching herself “the art of life.” Their husbands, meanwhile, have filled out for the good: Buddy, an oil executive with a 29-year-old mistress; Ben, a respected philanthropist and politician. Superficially, it seems mighty unfair, but the men are no better off or happier with their lot. They’re no longer the handsome suitors waiting at stage door, nor the young soldiers bravely heading off to war. Cooke catches the mood of a night of nostalgia: from the bubbles of champagne on arrival to the headache that follows the hard stuff later on.
Sondheim’s split score, which combines affectionate vaudeville pastiches with heartfelt book numbers, expands the theme through other showgirl stories. One delirious old couple are still dancing 50 years later; an old flirt is still flitting between gorgeous young men. Di Botcher belts “Broadway Baby” with an impish delight, luxuriating in her follow spot and briefly reliving her youth, while Tracie Bennett’s movie star suggests the price of fame with a slur and a slight shake, singing “I’m Still Here” like a survivor with shellshock. Ensemble numbers give us the joyous spectacle of middle-aged women dancing toe-to-toe with their svelte young selves, matching them tap-for-tap in Bill Deamer’s witty, eloquent routines.
That split allows Goldman’s book to loosen itself from its situation – the reunion – and float, instead, into something more metaphorical. Mortimer’s design, too wrecked to host a party, releases “Follies” from its reality, and Cooke’s production blossoms into a rich, melancholic meditation on life and old times. If the present’s in technicolor and the past in greyscale, Sondheim’s score seems to set memory to a melody. The here-and-now might be humdrum, but it’s the past that sparkles and sings. Nostalgia fills it up with feeling.
With that, Cooke and Mortimer stress the theatrical setting – so critical to the musical’s overall meaning. Throughout, Goldman and Sondheim entwine the ideas of the past and performance together. Reunions are places we perform our identities and re-enact the past. So are memories – private shows that play out in our heads. With past and present selves, there are public and private ones too, and it’s striking to clock who’s watching who. Strallen’s young Phyllis looks on at the woman she’ll become, while Staunton marvels at her former self. Several of Sondheim’s songs are about being seen – “In Buddy’s Eyes,” “Who’s That Woman” – as if one’s sense of oneself is reflected in others’ eyes. Forbes suggests Buddy takes comfort in his young mistress’ gaze, while Quast’s Ben longs to be looked at like a lover.
The theater, in “Follies,” is like the forest in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – a place where people act out their fantasies and, indeed, their follies. Paradoxically, it’s also a place that gives us the truth. If the foursome all realize how much they’ve been faking, they also come to see that the whole world’s a ruse. Divine.