Who says – as some claim – that Stephen Sondheim doesn’t write good tunes? Follies, a glorious mix of camp Broadway belters and angst-ridden ballads, has so many it leaves you breathless
The setting is a derelict New York theatre, where ex-showgirls of the Weismann Follies have been invited to one last reunion before it is demolished. Some are still game old gals, performers to the end; others have gone on to normal lives.
Two such are former backstage friends Sally and Phyllis, now mired in unhappy marriages (there isn’t any other kind in Sondheim). The twist is that they are seen alongside their younger selves, revealing youthful follies, as ghostly showgirls stalk the debris-strewn set like sequined lost souls.
Scenes of past and present intertwine, triggering feelings of nostalgia, regret, of missed chances and unresolved desires. The latter – with Sally still in love with Phyllis’s husband – is fertile ground for James Goldman’s book and Sondheim’s genius in mining relationships.
Janie Dee’s Phyllis, barely concealing life’s let-downs beneath surface sangfroid, memorably delivers Could I Leave You?, an excoriating put-down of smooth, philandering husband Ben.
As Sally, Imelda Staunton (already with Oliviers for Sondheim’s Gypsy and Sweeney Todd) is all fixed grin and over-blonde hair. She reveals her own emotional hell in a raw rendition of Losing My Mind (a 1989 hit for Pet Shop Boys and Liza Minnelli) that really does suggest someone on the edge.
To all this, Sondheim adds pastiches and showstoppers, tributes to the stage musical. And there are some doozies: the anthemic Broadway Baby (Di Botcher induces goosebumps) and I’m Still Here, the ultimate tale of an actress’s survival – ‘first you’re another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp’ – from the redoubtable Tracie Bennett. Dame Josephine Barstow also does an entrancing One More Kiss.
Dominic Cooke’s production is less ravishing than the 1987 London premiere – Beautiful Girls sees the aged ladies gingerly descending a fire escape rather than a big staircase – though there is no lack of sparkle. The 1987 version had a more upbeat ending too. I missed some of the emotional heft of the piece then; 30 years on, with a larger rear-view mirror, I was stirred as well as theatrically thrilled.
Follies is like a distinctive taste that you either love or hate. I have always – slightly against my better judgment – adored this exorbitant classic of a musical. First performed in 1971, it’s about the reunion of a chorus line of Weismann/Ziegfeld revue girls, now middle-aged or older, gathering in an about-to-be-demolished Broadway theatre. The potential for humiliation – an unwelcome side effect of growing old – gives the storyline its weird, almost unpalatable edge, intriguingly taking the shine off sentimentality. Glamour is tainted by age, and many of the women, in their party best, are rueful about their vanished youth as they look back to find that they are, and yet are not, the same people they always were. The men, less obviously grappling with a loss of beauty, are as likely to feel they have taken a wrong turning. Do they have regrets? You bet. Did they marry the wrong person? You decide.
The musical can be performed as a camp extravaganza, but as I watched Dominic Cooke’s stupendous revival (the first full production since 1987), I was reflecting that while James Goldman’s book is thin, Stephen Sondheim has his cake and eats it: his lyrics are sad and entertaining, sentimental and truthful. His music is as nuanced as the lives it describes. Vicki Mortimer has designed a backstage theatre with crumbling brick walls, castaway props and battered red velvet chairs, rescued from an auditorium. The set is dominated by a fire escape (useful for rising above old flames). It’s a perfect setting for a piece focused on emotional salvage.
Di Botcher sits at her former dressing room table and sings Broadway Baby. At first too weary to stand, and wearing clunky spectacles, she is incongruously dowdy – comic and poignant. What is wonderful is the way she revs into action, extending the line about wanting to be in a “show” until it acquires an extra syllable – an oh of yearning. Tracie Bennett’s rendition of I’m Still Here justifies on its own the price of a ticket. A slip of a scarlet woman, she starts anecdotally, with a worldly smile. She, too, sits for much of the song, but finishes on her feet on her own and at one point stops singing to shout: “I’m still here!” – an eruption of defiant pain.
Dawn Hope delights with her rousing Who’s That Woman? and Janie Dee is slinkily poised, giving Could I Leave You? a punitive energy that grows out of stillness. The matchless Imelda Staunton memorably undergoes emotional upheaval as Sally, starting as a nervous chatterbox, ending with Losing My Mind, paralysed by love for Ben, her former sweetheart. As Ben, Philip Quast is impressively unimpressive, the stuffed shirt who sings like a dream and belatedly shows he is made of flesh and blood. Peter Forbes as Sally’s husband, Buddy, brings affecting vitality to his put-upon role. Throughout, “girls” and their men are shadowed by younger, glittering selves. But picking up the past’s dropped stitches proves perilous, and there is a neat contrivance when the showbiz lights emblazoning each letter of “Follies” partially fail and only “lies” remain. Nigel Lilley conducts a spot-on orchestra, reintroducing this bittersweet musical that, unlike its characters, is still a sensation – in its prime.
“An outstanding revival – spectacular, sassy, sorrowful and ultimately deeply sad”
“Crowning achievement of Rufus Norris. Don’t miss”
Directed by Dominic Cooke, Follies shows what the theatre is capable of when it has the right material, the right cast and the right budget.
It is the crowning achievement of Rufus Norris’s tenure as artistic director at the National Theatre.
It is set in 1971 in New York as impresario Dimitri Weismann (Gary Raymond) throws one last party for the surviving members of his vaudeville shows before the decaying Weismann Follies theatre is knocked down to be replaced by an office block.
As showgirls from decades past sashay or totter down the stairs, according to their age, the lights go up for the last time.
Follies is not a cheap musical with its huge cast of former showgirls and their various partners doubled by their youthful selves appearing at the same time.
A love letter to Old Broadway, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical is also a drama about wrong paths taken, fantasy romances and the “follies” that occur when the heart overrules the head.
The action centres on two couples, Sally Durant (Imelda Staunton) and her salesman husband Buddy (Peter Forbes) and Phyllis Rogers (Janie Dee) and Hollywood star Benjamin Stone (Philip Quast).
They play cat-and-mouse games throughout the evening as their younger selves reveal their youthful indiscretions.
Having carried a torch for Ben since her teens, Sally attempts to rekindle a romance that never was while Ben’s infidelities reveal the fragility of his marriage to Phyllis.
The songs are hugely evocative, conjuring ghosts of Broadway shows past. Broadway Baby is an Ethel Merman-esque belter, Beautiful Girls an Eddie Cantor-like hymn to female pulchritude.
Staunton’s rendition of the show’s most piercing song, Losing My Mind, is tear-jerking, even if she is not the most obvious fit for the role.
Dee is marvellous, her slinky glamour disguising a nest of anxieties and Quast is as close to Rossano Brazzi as it is possible to get.
Watched over by spectral showgirls in full sequinned and ostrich-feathered regalia, the cast, which includes opera veteran Josephine Barstow, plays out the musical to its bittersweet end.
“Jaw droppingly brilliant”
“Not just triumphant, but transcendent”
“Basks unashamedly in its own nostalgia, yet it’s so engrossing it’s almost a form of time travel”
“Lucid, precisely choreographed and gorgeously performed”
“Brilliant and beguiling”