Already Legendary "Follies" Revival Offers Another Look at The Great Postmodern American Musical
In the early 1970s, with Broadway no longer providing the songs that made the whole world sing, Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" offered an elegiac perspective on the devaluation of the Great American Musical's cultural currency.
Indeed, after watching an early out-of-town tryout performance, a college student named Frank Rich wrote a piece for his school paper declaring that Sondheim and book writer James Goldman had just delivered our theater tradition's "last musical."
40 years later, the instantly legendary revival of "Follies" that has arrived in Los Angeles, following runs in D.C. and New York, re-invites us to consider whether its prescient report of the demise of that ol' song and dance was exaggerated at all.
"Follies" takes places on the stage of a classic old theater that's about to get torn down, where the once-glamorous showgirls from "The Weismann Follies," a hit show produced there thirty years earlier, have gathered for a "first--and last" reunion party. As the divas and chorines of yore confront the decay that the intervening decades have wrought, the spectral figures of their youthful selves, in full costume, inhabit the room as well, albeit invisibly (at least at first) to their latter-day counterparts.
While several of the older women get their moment in the spotlight (with awesome star turns by Elaine Paige, Jayne Houdyshell and Terri White), "Follies" is primarily the story of two unhappy couples. Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) and Sally (Victoria Clark) were roommates back in their showgirl days and ended up marrying a pair of friends who had waited outside the stage door to meet them after seeing the show one night. Phyllis's husband Ben (Ron Raines) has become a rich and powerful east coast statesman/philanthropist, while Buddy (Danny Burstein), now an Arizona-based traveling salesman, has settled into more modest circumstances with Sally. All four of them have fallen well out of love with their long-time spouses, and their return to the theater occasions a wellspring of regret over the paths they once chose (as she first arrives to take "one last look at where it all began," Phyllis breezily recalls that "I wanted something when I came here thirty years ago, but I forgot to write it down and God knows what it was.")
Lending poignancy to all this charismatic bitterness are the flashback scenes from thirty years earlier in which the protagonists' younger personae establish the trajectories their future lives will take, all of which play out on stage simultaneously with their present-day expressions of mutual contempt. The intensity of the conflicts we see in both past and present then melts away the temporal separation between the older and younger characters, and all four returnees redirect their bile from each other to the youthful figures of their own respective selves who made the decisions that led to their current desperation.
And right then, as the intensity of these recriminations approach the precipice of a nervous breakdown, the action takes an unimaginably surreal turn into what can only be described as an alternate musical theater universe. This show we've been watching for the past 80 minutes or so, "Follies," is suspended, relegated into the theatrical ether, as an entirely different production takes over the stage. It's still all Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben, but these characters no longer reside in their own recognizable past or present, but have rather been relocated into a previously unsuspected five-song Tin Pan Alley musical Land of Oz called "Loveland," where each one of them gets their own old-fashioned MGM movie musical showstopper to perform. And we almost stop wondering if we'll ever return to that original world of "Follies" from which we had been so abruptly redirected.
Though its celebrated original Broadway production was a bit before our time, this is clearly the definitive "Follies" production of the present age, and with a 41-member cast and 28-piece orchestra, we may question whether we'll ever see it replicated on a comparable scale again.
Perfectly cast from top to bottom, the show offers an ongoing stream of one high point after another. The moment that replays in our head the most, though, is the first act's thrilling "Who's That Woman?" in which the aging "Weismann girls" launch an impromptu reprise of a hit chorus number from the old show and are gradually joined by the ghosts of their younger identities until we see the routine being performed in full by both generations at once.
When it was first produced, "Follies" marked the passing of a classic American popular art form, or at least the passing of its greatest heyday, with an ingenious postmodern recontextualizion of the genre's theatrical effects. Today, the show's sensibility is still every bit as contemporary (and entertaining) as anything else the commercial musical theater has had to offer in all the years since. As Sondheim recalled the Follies shows of three decades earlier by creating "Follies," our own theater generation's recourse in recalling Sondheim's "Follies" is to acknowledge implicitly by its revival that this show's vitality has never been surpassed.