Friday, September 23, 2011
Add Follies to my list of shows that I wish I'd seen in their original productions.
Mind you, I very much enjoyed the revival, which is currently running at the enormous Marquis theater. It made me realize why, exactly, so many people rave about Follies, and flock to multiple revivals of it. I've never seen a production of the show, you see--I have a much closer relationship with Sweeney Todd and with Company. But now, having seen Follies, I totally get it: this is one hell of an important, layered, well-constructed, compelling musical.
It is also possibly, in some respects, an unworkable one, especially nowadays, and that is where this production suffers. How to contrast a dilapidated, sad, musty present with a glorious, dazzling, jaw-dropping past, without breaking the bank on scenery, costumes, and a cast of thousands? The original production suffered under the weight of its own expenses; this one doesn't even try on that front, and it's all too clear: the set never stops looking cheap, even when it's clearly trying to dazzle. That said, the cast is good to excellent. (Although Elaine Paige, saddled with "I'm Still Here"--perhaps the most anticipated song in the show--chokes the number out most unsatisfyingly. I was disappointed, but then again, oddly, still somehow moved.) While I did not see the DC production, the four central cast-members seem to have found their stride, and then some--Peters was in fine voice and seems to have found the weight of overwhelming defeat and sorrow that embodies her character; Ron Raines was appropriately imposing and flawed; and Jane Maxwell and Danny Burstein were, to me, revelations. Their younger counterparts, all, were good, too.
Yet the staging was occasionally notably weird--Sandra, with whom I saw the show, and who will surely go to greater length about this in her review on this blog, was particularly bothered by the prevalence of what she called "the Zombie chorus girls"--the ghosts of the past--walking trancelike through the proceedings, waving their arms in graceful, gently swaying, ultimately tiresome arcs, like so many bored trees. And some of the numbers seemed somehow devoid of real grace--interesting, but hardly thrilling.
The aforementioned issues that I had with this production, however, in no way negate the pleasure I had in getting to know the musical itself. The score--one of the most challenging, eclectic and surprising scores, ever--gives us a neat history of the Broadway musical, and jerks back and forth between old forms and new, increasingly weird varations on them. The past, in this musical, constantly teases and competes with, and ultimately collapses into the present; the music never, not even for a second, forgets how to reflect that. In Sondheim's socre, there are direct references to the old masters who helped shape Broadway during its so-called golden age, and who helped shape Sondheim in his youth: there's a Leonard Bernstein quote here, a nod to Rodgers and Hammerstein there. Here's the entire history of American stage music; here's something completely new.
Characters sing diffuse, unformed fragments of songs that they later deliver in full as their memories flood back and overwhelm them; characters tell us how they've been for all these years in song, alternately by being heartbreakingly straightforward and by lying, even more heartbreakingly, through their teeth. I have never connected so strongly to characters who reveal themselves almost entirely through song and dance, but by the end of the show I felt not only that I had gotten to know them, but that I wanted--desperately--to know what was going to happen to them. Probably nothing all that different, or all that good, alas, but the characters became real to me nonetheless, and I was sad for them.
The structure of the musical drives home its many interrelated themes. Follies is all about death --the death of the road not traveled, the death of potential and of opportunity, the death of love and of marriage, the death of the past, the inevitable death of the present. The musical frames this with a structure modeled after entertainment forms that, by 1971 were, if not completely dead, then actively, rapidly dying: burlesque, operetta, vaudeville and, of course, the Ziegfeldian extravaganza. These forms were so enormously important once, to our country when it was younger, and they're all...just....gone.
This revival, too, strikes me as the inadvertent lament for a Broadway that has, as well, died. I know, I know, if we had a dime for every time someone announced that Broadway was dead, we'd all be as rich as Benjamin Stone. But I was struck by the fact that this musical is rooted in the past in more ways than one: it's very much an early 1970s musical in a lot of ways. Not only is it about crushing disappointment, in keeping with that downer of a decade, but it's also experimental, and hallucinogenic, and weird, and sad, and both emotionally and intellectually challenging. It's also risky as hell, and entirely original, and it was first launched at enormous expense. On Broadway. Which, nowadays, revives, revives, revives, or puts its biggest money on shows that have functional scores and that were once movies or tv shows, or...well, you get my drift: Follies is dead. Long live the Follies.