Now that the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies has opened to mixed reviews, including negative responses from the four New York daily papers, Sondheim acolytes are indulging in the fine sport of Monday-morning quarterbacking--or, in this case, Friday-morning quarterbacking. (The show opened last Thursday.) The temptation to second-guess the casting, the direction, the production values, etc. of the presentationn seems to have been increased by the fact that, in the spring of 1998, the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey offered a star-studded staging of the show that was as lavish as the Roundabout mounting is austere. In fact, plans were well underway to move the Paper Mill version to Broadway--but such a move was apparently prevented by Bobby Goldman, the widow of book writer James Goldman.
Angelo Del Rossi, Paper Mill's executive producer, still regrets the fact that his theater's Follies did not transfer. "I dealt with Mrs. Goldman directly, many times," he says, "and she told me flat out that she would not give us the rights to move the show to New York. However, she also said in the same breath that she didn't think she would ever see a better production of Follies. I asked her why, then, she wouldn't let us move it, but she gave no reason; she said she just didn't want it to go to Broadway. The unfortunate thing is, from that moment on, I never spoke to Jim Goldman again--and, soon after that, he died." (It may or may not be significant that the Roundabout mounted Goldman's The Lion in Winter after the closing of Follies at Paper Mill but prior to its own production of the musical.)
The stars of the Paper Mill Follies included Dee Hoty, Donna McKechnie, Laurence Guittard, Tony Roberts, Ann Miller, Kaye Ballard, and Phyllis Newman. According to Del Rossi, Stephen Sondheim loved the production: "On opening night, I said, 'Stephen, what did you think?' He looked at me very hard and said, 'Brilliant.' The impression that I received from him was that he was very much for the move to Broadway, and I don't really know why he didn't have more influence. Maybe he just didn't want to fight; Bobby Goldman seemed to have the upper hand."
Some have suggested that pure economics scotched the transfer of the Paper Mill Follies to New York, even in the face of a rave review from Ben Brantley in The New York Times. But Del Rossi says otherwise, nothing that "It was [producer] Roger Berlind who instigated the idea of a move to Broadway. He had raised all of the money to move it--but, when he tried to get the first-class rights, they weren't available to him. I don't think we'll ever know the full story, unless Bobby Goldman decides to tell it. I can only say that I did everything in my power to make the move happen. We were very proud of that production."
How much control did Mrs. Goldman exert over the Roundabout Follies? According to Frank Scardino, the show's executive producer, "She represents the estate of her husband, and she was there to protect those interests. I think she had as much control as an author would have over a project. She acted in the same way that Mrs. Geisel would to protect the interests of Theodore Geisel on Seussical or any of the Berlin daughters would to protect Irving Berlin's work." As to Mrs. Goldman's direct involvement, Scardino had this to say: "Mr. Sondheim was there putting forth his ideas and his feelings on the production, and Mrs. Goldman certainly was there and made her own input."
If Bobby Goldman was instrumental in assuring that the Roundabout would bring Follies back to Broadway in a production that focuses more on her late husband's work than on the show's musical and production values, did she make a wise choice? The general critical response must have been disappointing to everyone involved, and word is that the Roundabout will not be running any quote ads for the show. In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley wrote that "The magic of Follies was always in the music--in Stephen Sondheim's brilliant re-inflecting of song styles of the past, with a score and lyrics that throbbed with ambivalence. The current incarnation shifts the emphasis to James Goldman's book, which is largely devoted to disenchanted husbands and wives sounding clever and bitter. This is not what is known as playing to one's strengths." Brantley went on to observe that "Song and dance are almost--and I know this sounds crazy--incidental in this Follies," and described "the general tone of Mr. Goldman's book" as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as it might have been rewritten for Joan Crawford at M-G-M."
Although Mrs. Goldman was not immediately available for comment, Bob Fennell, the publicist for the Roundabout Follies, told TheaterMania that "she's thrilled with the production, as is [Roundabout artistic director] Todd Haimes." It should be noted that the Paper Mill production was not universally loved; some critics and audience members felt it too literal, while others actually viewed the large scale of the production as a detriment. One theater journalist who very much enjoyed the Roundabout version said of the Paper Mill staging that "It just did not feel like it was Broadway caliber to me. Even though it was lavishly produced, there was something vaguely cheesy about it."
If that Follies had come to Broadway, would the major New York critics have agreed with this assessment? Or would they have echoed Brantley's feelings about the show at Paper Mill? We'll never know.