I'll admit it: When I first saw Follies during its pre-Broadway tryout at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, I didn't love it. (I hope you're still reading and haven't switched to someone else.) Oh, of course, I adored the music -- even though "I'm Still Here" wasn't yet in the show -- and the lyrics. I still remember smiling widely at "One of them was borrowed and the other was blue," chortling at "Bet your ass," and barking a laugh at "Buddy-bleehh!" Best of all, I got that wonderful frisson over my entire back and shoulders when the Weissman Girls of yore came down the staircase and, some scenes later, when they did "Who's That Woman?" which I then regarded as the greatest production number I had seen in my then-10 full years of theatergoing. Now -- 31 years, six months, and 14 days later -- it still is the greatest production number I've ever seen.
But, good Lord, I couldn't stand Phyllis, Ben, Buddy, or Sally. Okay, I kept thinking: If all four of you are this miserable with each other, move on! I would have been mollified if they'd split at the end of the show, but when the final scene arrived, I didn't buy for a moment that they all promised to try and stay together.
I remember railing about the main characters and their plot to Frank Roberts, a marvelous director at the high school where I was teaching, who was chronologically only a few years older than I but much older in experience, for he'd been around an emotional block or two. While he didn't see the show (I told him not to, and it's a miracle that he never stopped speaking to me), after he heard the score, he softly said to me: "Peter, I think this is a show you're going to like much more when you get older." If you're assuming that it wasn't until some years later when I said, "My God, he was right" -- well, no. The funny thing is, I knew at that precise moment in time that he was right and that I would appreciate Follies more as time went by.
I never saw the legendary Broadway production again, but I played the shockingly abbreviated cast album quite often. It was not until close to two years later, when the "Sondheim Scrabble" album came out, that I heard the complete "I'm Still Here" lyric again -- not to mention the finest rendition of the song that I've ever heard, courtesy of Nancy Walker. But the next time I caught up with Follies was in 1975 at the La Salle Music Theatre in Philadelphia. This marvelous group that did shows like Allegro, Out of This World, and, of course, Follies. Ten years after that came the famous Lincoln Center concert which finished with Sondheim himself coming on-stage -- and with my giving out with a primal scream that emanated from the depths of my soul. I've never yelled like that before or since.
Now, I go to every Follies I can; this includes the fitfully fascinating 1987 London edition, the excellent 1998 Paper Mill rendition, and the lackluster 2000 production at Emerson College. (The kid playing Carlotta forgot some of her "I'm Still Here" lyrics and, because I was in one of the back rows of the orchestra, I could see 500 men jump up as if they'd been electrocuted when she did so.) And oh, yes: Then there was the 2001 Broadway revival, which I called "the biggest disappointment of the new century." Not one, not two, but three different readers wrote in to ask, "Don't you think that Bush's being elected is the biggest disappointment of the new century?" To which I answered, "No. This Follies is."
Frank Roberts' prediction came true long before I was those productions, partly because I had plenty of opportunities to rue the many roads I didn't take (and some I did). So, on my last night in London recently, I headed out to the Royal Festival Hall to see what director Paul Kerryson would do with Follies. I'd heard that he would use Goldman's 1971 book without any of the recent changes, and I thought that would be welcome. I also heard that he wouldn't mix-and-match the score with any of the subsequent songs that Sondheim wrote for the show. While that turned out to be true, there was the now-standard tendency to drop Vincent and Vanessa and their "Bolero D'Amour" and to have Shirley Temple stand in for Brenda Frazier in "I'm Still Here."
The Hall, as its name implies, wasn't the ideal space for the show. It's a relatively modern space designed to host music events. Around it were photographs pasted up to suggest a distressed theater, and on stage were bleachers not unlike the ones we saw in Side Show. These bleachers would be lit for "Loveland" and tiny lights that dotted the proscenium were also lit, much as they are whenever a cabaret performer gets to his big number at Don't Tell Mama. "Loveland" had only a couple of small chandeliers flying in -- a good metaphor for what would be a low-wattage production. (Nice to have a 30-piece orchestra on hand, though.)
I knew it wouldn't be a night to cherish as soon as Paul Bentley started singing "Beautiful Girls" for, on a 10-scale, this tenor was a fiver. Louise Gold made Phyllis bland from her first entrance. Phyllis has a line where she says that her only flaw is a birthmark under her breast, but Gold would display many flaws in her lackluster performance. Alas, this was also true of David Durham as Ben. Granted, here's a guy who feels somewhat dead, but he must at least show some sparks when dealing with the best of the past or assessing what he can do with his future. This guy stayed deadly dull.
Ben was played by a black actor. No problem there: I'm all for non-traditional casting. But the director made Young Ben black as well, so an audience new to Follies could be pardoned for assuming that this was the story of a couple of interracial love affairs. Faring much better was Kathryn Evans as Sally, capturing all the buoyancy the character feels as well as her delusions. Royal Festival Hall is an enormous place but Evans filled every inch of it when she sang, "You said you LOVED ME!" -- and I'm not just being kind. As Buddy, one Henry Goodman was good-natured, sincere, likable, and musical. Here's one production from which he'd never be fired. (By the way, Goodman mentions in his bio that he did The Producers on Broadway, though he doesn't say for how long.)
There were some nice touches that might have occurred in previous productions -- maybe even some that I've seen -- but, if they did, I don't remember them. One Weissman girl stumbled and almost fell down the stairs. Kerryson also wisely gave the "Broadway Baby" number a big button so that Joan Savage could get a big hand; only afterwards did the number lead into the montage with "Rain on the Roof" and "Ah, Paree!" (I've always been frustrated that such worthy Hatties as Kaye Ballard haven't received the requisite applause after tearing down the house with their song.) Savage disappointed me, however, when she sang "Zieg-field" as opposed to "Zieg-feld." Finally, I liked that, at the end of "Who's That Woman," Shezwae Powell's Stella actually seemed to see her own ghost when she sang: "That woman is me!"
Still, this Follies just didn't have the emotional punch that many productions do when we see idealistic Young Phyllis and Young Ben sing "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" and Young Buddy and Young Sally do "Love Will See Us Through." Usually, we're horrified that these cute, so-in-love, not-a-care-in-the-world kids will turn into the monsters we've dealt with all night long; but, here, these just seemed like two more songs that had to be done before we could go home.
Still, as Phyllis says, one makes bargains with one's life. And we have to make bargains to get any production of Follies, even a bare-bones one like this. So what that it was essentially a summer stock production housed in a more lavish venue? Seeing Follies under most any circumstance is still welcome. I'm so glad I came -- if just to hear Phyllis say "I can't expect to die until 1995," a line dropped from many subsequent productions. Phyllis Rogers Stone has lived well beyond 1995 and, thanks to Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman, will continue to live for a good, long time.
What of my original problem with Phyllis-Ben and Buddy-Sally staying together? I don't think I've changed my mind on that, even though I was in my 20s and married when I first saw the show and in my 30s and divorced by the time of the Lincoln Center concert. Yes, staying in rotten marriages is what that generation did more often than not. Still, I can't help wishing that the Follies couples would shake hands, calmly wish each other well, and go off to greener pastures.