Shades of Follies
An original cast member shares memories of the great Sondheim musical, now back on Broadway courtesy of the Roundabout.
Of the original Follies' four leading players -- Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, John McMartin, and Gene Nelson -- only McMartin survives. Also deceased are the show's co-director and choreographer, Michael Bennett, as well as book writer James Goldman and many members of the company who were already middle-aged or elderly 30 years ago. But the spirit of the production itself is more pervasive than any individual ghosts.
"Whenever somebody recognizes me today, of all the shows I've done, they say: 'Oh, my God, you were in Follies!' It was the most exciting piece of theater I've ever been associated with." Thus speaks Harvey Evans, who played Young Buddy in 1971 and later graduated to the role of the character's older counterpart in four regional theater productions.
With gorgeous music and nonpareil lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Follies concerns two middle-aged couples who face up to years of bitter disappointment at a reunion of Follies stars in an old Broadway theater that's about to be torn down to make way for a parking lot. (That happened a lot in the 1960s and '70s.) Throughout the show, Phyllis and Ben and Buddy and Sally are shadowed by the ghosts of their younger selves, seen in the days before their lives fell prey to disillusionment and regret over roads not taken.
When it's done right, Follies is a tremendously moving theatrical experience -- cathartic, hopefully, but sometimes so difficult to watch that the show has never attained the popularity of lighter fare. The original production earned a myopic pan from the New York Times: Clive Barnes described the show as "the kind of musical that should have its original cast album out on 78s" and went on say that it "carries nostalgia to where sentiment engulfs it in its sickly maw." Oh...and Follies lost the Tony Award for Best Musical to Galt MacDermot's cute but forgettable adaptation of Two Gentleman of Verona.
Having done Follies several times, Harvey Evans has a pretty clear picture of its potential traps. "Every element has to be perfect for it to come together," he says. "I think Matthew Warchus [director of the Roundabout Theatre Company's current revival] is right in saying that the book of the show works better in a smaller production. I remember doing the show in Long Beach on an enormous stage, and I thought it was very unfriendly to the book scenes. The Winter Garden was the ideal space, because it's a grand old theater but it's not a big, big place."
The level of detail in the Follies book and score continues to astound Evans. "Even the characters' names are perfect," he points out. "Ben Stone. Buddy Plummer. How great that this cold, cold man is named 'Stone' and this average guy is named 'Plummer.' Also, there's a brilliant moment at the beginning of the show when Sally introduces herself in a line and in a song as 'Sally Durant.' She's been married to Buddy Plummer for what, 30 years, but she introduces herself as 'Durant' because she wants to go back to her youth and get Ben. The book is full of things like that. And, if you can't find your character in the book, you can certainly find it in the songs that Stephen wrote.
"When I played Young Buddy, I didn't have to work that hard," Evans recalls. "You can't play the character's history, because there isn't any; and you can't play his future, because you don't know what it's going to be. But when the four older characters walk through that door at the start of the show, they've got to have 30 years of subtext, because it's not in the lines -- especially not in the first half of the show. You're aware that there's a problem, but you don't know what it is yet. Jim Goldman's writing is brilliant but you don't see it unless you do your homework, because there's so much more to the book than the actual words. It's almost like Chekhov, if that's not too pretentious for me to say."
As much as he loves the show, Evans says that "You don't necessarily get your rocks off as a performer in Follies" because it's such an episodic, ensemble piece. "You know you're in something that's part of theater history, but you might not stop the show like you did when you played Barnaby in Hello, Dolly! It's just not that kind of musical."
Nor does the show go down easy with audiences who are out for fluffy, mindless entertainment. "It's especially painful for older people to watch Follies, if they get it," Evans notes. "We heard that Shelley Winters came to see the show in New York and, when we got to the mirror number -- when Mary McCarty came out as a hefty woman and this thin, gorgeous, young girl came out behind her as her younger self -- Shelley ran out of the theater. I don't know if that's true, but it's a great story."
The uncompromising nature of Follies probably accounts for its lack of popularity among the masses. "Maybe because Sally was first played by Dorothy Collins, we think of her as this fabulous little victim," Evans says by way of example, "but she's really one of the villains of the piece. Sally has messed up her own life, her husband's life, her kids' lives, and she's on her way to messing up Ben's life. What you can't always hear in productions of Follies are the arguments that come right before the 'Loveland' sequence. Everybody is yelling at each other and all you hear is a wall of sound, but the lines are brutal. Those people say the worst things to each other: 'I made a big mistake.' 'Why did I marry you?' 'You didn't want him but you slept with him to have a baby.' I'm paraphrasing, but it's pretty bad."
Follies came at a turning point for the musical theater, courtesy of Stephen Sondheim and director-producer Hal Prince. "Broadway had been in kind of a slump, and then we were jolted by Company," Evans recalls. "That show made all of us think, 'I want to do better work.' So when the next Sondheim-Prince vehicle came along, everybody wanted to be connected with it. Again, I remember that, when I read the script before rehearsals started, I thought: 'What is this? It's surface writing. There's not much to it.' But little by little, as we started putting it together, the subtext of the piece began to come through. Like the fact that, when Sally sings 'In Buddy's Eyes,' she's really making a play for Ben. I also remember a chilling moment when Sally and Young Sally said a line together as they stepped off the side of the stage at exactly the same time. It was mind-blowing."
Who was the auteur of the show? "I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, although we think of Follies as Sondheim's masterpiece, it wouldn't be the show that we know today without Hal's contribution," Evans ventures. "He knew in his head what he wanted and he put that on the stage. He also forced Jim Goldman to keep rewriting; we had four or five endings before the final version. Michael Bennett did some amazing musical numbers but Hal was the one who made the whole thing a seamless piece of theater. I guess the point is that a Follies may never happen again because we'll never have four brilliant people like Sondheim, Goldman, Bennett, and Prince working together on one show."
Still, Evans recalls that it was a rough road to opening night. "Our first dress rehearsal in Boston was a disaster," he says flatly. "Imagine trying to do that big of a show for the first time, never having worn the costumes and wigs and everything. I remember being so depressed. But there was Hal, patient and loving and making you think it would all work out. I also remember that Fifi d'Orsay [who played Solange] was going through a sort of a crazy time: Ethel Shutta [who played Hattie] was walking away with that section of the show and there was a period when Fifi couldn't get through her number. But Hal was so patient with her and, eventually, she got it."
Given the level of genius exhibited by the creative team of Follies, one can only imagine the company's reaction to that infamous Clive Barnes notice. "The low point of the opening night party was when we found out about that review," Evans remembers. "Hal was incredibly upset by it. The fact that Barnes didn't appreciate the show on any level was shocking -- and Walter Kerr gave us an even bigger shock on Sunday when he wrote 'No, no, Follies; yes, yes, Alexis.' God knows, we all defended the show during its run. On a television show, I said something like: 'We can't keep having No, No, Nanettes being revived.' I got in so much trouble for that, but all I meant was that revivals of old shows couldn't compare to the brilliance of a new piece like Follies. Times have really changed since the show was first produced. We hadn't had as much Pinter by 1971, for example, and audiences weren't as sophisticated. I think they were expecting something else from a musical. The people who are going to see the Roundabout revival know what the show is -- but, back then, no one had any idea."
With 30 years' worth of water under the bridge, what are Evans's memories of the show's leads? "John McMartin was very quiet. Alexis Smith was the grand movie star -- very sweet but definitely the star. Dorothy Collins was Mother Earth; her door was always open and she took care of everyone. Gene Nelson was just sort of a nice guy." And what of Yvonne DeCarlo, who introduced the quintessential survivor's anthem "I'm Still Here" as Carlotta Campion and who is still very much alive? "We loved her. She was a staunch Republican and Alexis was a staunch Democrat, but they were girlfriends. They would go shopping together. Yvonne was like Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes -- a real dame."
The final Broadway performance of the original Follies was, in Evans's words, "something the like of which I had never experienced and probably never will again. The prologue was set to timed music -- it wasn't vamps, it was cued -- so we couldn't stop, but the audience cheered and applauded every single entrance so enormously that we didn't know where we were, because we couldn't hear the orchestra. Everyone on stage was in tears." Alas, the magic of the original production dissipated all too soon: "We went right from that incredible closing night at the Winter Garden to a performance outdoors at the MUNY in St. Louis. The only way Hal could afford to take the show to L.A. was to book it at the MUNY for a week, and we had to start the show in daylight. You could see the first showgirl ghost walk out on stage and just stand there. Plus the stage there is about three miles long, and St. Louis didn't know what to make of the show. It was horrendous."
Though Evans was a supporting player in the 1971 Follies, his role was pivotal in at least one respect: "Young Buddy has the last word in the show: 'Sally?' I remember trying to say it like I was saying, 'If you walk out that door, I have to go back to my grave. I am not risen as a ghost. Please don't leave!' That's the brilliance of the piece. If you can put that much meaning behind one word, imagine what an effect the whole show can have."