‘Follies,’ exhumed, is one gorgeous zombie, with not much going on upstairs

follies-exhumed-one-gorgeous-zombie-not-much-going-upstairs
The pivotal 'Who's That Woman' number in the current 'Follies.' (Joan Marcus)
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The premise of the 1971 Sondheim-Goldman musical Follies, currently in a revival production at the Marquis Theater on Broadway, is that the night before one of New York’s lavish old-time theaters is to be demolished, the producer of the “Weismann Follies” throws a reunion party on the very stage about to be razed.

 Among the guests are middle-aged Sally and Phyllis, who were chorus girls in the last edition of the Weismann Follies show on the eve of World War II; and their husbands, Buddy and Ben, once best friends. These four turn out to have a lot of unfinished business: Sally was dating Buddy but slept with Ben; Ben was attracted to Sally but chose instead to marry Phyllis because she had the potential to be a more “suitable” consort for the successful man he longed to be.

Now, 30 years later, Ben and Phyllis are barely civil. Last to arrive at the party, they examine the ruined theater. In James Goldman’s 1971 script, Ben says:

I like it. That’s the way nostalgia ought to look. I sometimes wonder why our memories don’t go the way these walls have gone. Our bodies do. Our plaster flakes away. Yet the fool things you remember stay fresh as paint.

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Phyllis says:

I wanted to come back, Ben: one last look at where it all began. I’ve been devoting my attention to beginnings lately. I wanted something when I came here 30 years ago, but I forgot to write it down. God knows what it was!

It’s symptomatic of the lack of intellectual rigor of the current revival that these two speeches are cut, leaving only a few witless sitcom-level barbs between the couple.

NOW, A DETOUR: WHEN YOU START WRITING REVIEWS, or, rather, when you start writing reviews that people actually read, very early on you run into the Siskel and Ebert Dilemma: The realization that potential audiences may be making the decision to see or not to see, to buy or not to buy, based on your published take on the entertainment in question.

Even when the reader feedback is very positive indeed (“I went to see Satyagraha based on your rave review, and it was amazing!”), there’s this little inside-the-head voice nagging at you: “Who the hell are you to be persuading this guy to be spending his money on a Philip Glass opera?” And, when a critic has an inflated sense of his influence, the voice amps up the volume to such absurdities as “Too bad the Met didn’t have you around the last time they did Billy Budd, because that show didn’t draw flies.”

But the real worry here for a reviewer (again, assuming anybody cares what he writes) is this: If I write a mixed review, with maybe a little more focus on the negatives, am I going to scare somebody away from what is, on the whole, a worthwhile experience, or anyway an experience that somebody might find worthwhile?

So it’s in that spirit of anguished self-doubt that I’m approaching this critique of the current Follies.

What’s playing at the Marquis is definitely worth your three hours and your hundred (or a little more) bucks. It is a great musical, to my mind one of the three or four greatest of all, and it’s given the kind of presentation it deserves. Most significantly, the orchestra and cast size are comparable to the show’s legendary original 1971 production, with 28 musicians in the pit and close to 40 actors onstage—an extravagance unlikely to be attempted again for a decade or more, given the realities of Broadway right now.

As far as specifics go, my reactions were close enough to those in Mark Sullivan’s excellent review that they hardly need repeating. But there is the question of why this revival is problematic.

IT STEMS, I THINK, FROM A MISUNDERSTANDING OF GENRE, or, to be more specific, an inability of director Eric Schaeffer to approach the show as a concept musical. This style of show, to put it succinctly, is driven not by conventional linear narrative and not even by musical and lyrical style but rather by a large-scale, primarily visual idea.

The 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret, for instance, was a concept musical because director Hal Prince made it about something more significant than a love story or a character study. The show is set in and around a nightclub in early 1930s Germany, where blasé patrons passively enjoy light entertainment, willfully oblivious to the growing horror just outside. Prince’s visual coup was a giant mirror that confronted the audience as it arrived in the theater, then returned to reflect its faces as the show ended. The implication, then, was: This show is about you, and you are no better and no worse than the characters you have been watching.

A purer example might actually be 1970’s Company, where the theme is the loneliness of urban life and the inability to commit to a long-term relationship. Hal Prince again. Here Prince’s concept dictated both the form of the show (a revue-like series of brief sketches and song, without a clear through-line) and the set, a vertical maze of steel railings and plexiglass walls isolating the actors from one another.

The theme of Follies, as Ben and Phyllis laid out in the original, is the power of memory; how the past impacts the present; and, more specifically, how unfinished business in the past can poison present happiness.

“The past” Prince evoked visually, by populating the stage with ghostly memory-figures: Showgirls all in glistening white promenaded endlessly in slow motion and youthful Doppelgängers shadowed the “present” characters. A “Young Sally” and “Young Ben” tagged along as their present-day counterparts briefly rekindled their old romance.

As the party winds down into the small hours of the morning, the ghosts of the past grow ever bolder. “Young Sally” usurps Sally’s place in Ben’s arms during the love duet “Too Many Mornings"; an ancient operetta diva warbles her waltz song as her memory counterpart soars in obbligato. Eventually the four couples, past and present, collide in an eight-way yelling match that generates a long fantasy sequence in which the four main characters enact their “follies” in song—Sally’s unrequited love for Ben in the torch song “Losing My Mind," for example.

THE PIVOTAL MOMENT OF THE 1971 FOLLIES WAS THE PRODUCTION number “Who’s That Woman,” ostensibly a song performed by one of the old showgirls at the reunion party. (The video above gives you the idea—forgive the quality.) It’s utterly dispensable from a pure plotting perspective, and even as a stand-alone song it’s not much more than an expert pastiche of a 1930s show tune. But it served was a vehicle for a dance by co-director Michael Bennett that defined the uneasy relationship between present and past.

The number begins as a foxtrot, sung solo by Stella Deems, once apparently a glamorous star, but now a plain, dumpy middle-aged suburban lady. The lyrics ask “Who’s that woman” the singer is always seeing, “so clever but ever so sad?” The answer, of course, is that she’s been gazing into a mirror and “that cheery, weary woman… is me!”

The tempo picks up into a lively Charleston, and Stella’s former backup dancers, themselves now ranging from 50 on up, chirp a contrasting melody and strike poses. Stella begins a gentle soft-shoe that builds to a lively step-ball-change kickline for the whole group. Then, just at the point where the audience is ready to applaud the gallant older actresses for throwing themselves into so demanding a dance routine, the music modulates into a whirling bridge passage and, seemingly out of nowhere, a whole line of doubles of the women appears.

This is a chorus line with a difference: Young dancers, the girls the women were decades ago, dressed splendidly in identical mirrored costumes. The mirror idea is firmly planted by having the ghost-chorus of the past, upstage with their backs to the audience, move in unison with their older, present-day counterparts downstage. The two lines begin a tap dance in stop time (staccato rhythmic chords) that again builds, this time to a driving 4/4.

Suddenly, the imaginary mirror separating the two lines of dancers begins to shift, seemingly revolving diagonally, so that as the downstage line moves left, the upstage line goes right. Then the doubles spin around so both groups are now facing downstage: An image no mirror could ever create.

Another bridge leads to the climax of the piece; the two lines now coalesce into a single large circle, old dancer—young dancer, old dancer—young dancer. Stella bounds back onto the stage, her ghost-twin mirroring her every gesture, and belts “Who’s that woman” as the chorus sings its melody in counterpoint. The effect is overwhelming, not just because the dancing is so brilliant, but because before our eyes, the past and the present have converged into a single vibrant experience.

Well, that’s how this number was done, both in the original production and in a number of revivals recreating Bennett’s choreography.

This time around, though, the dance by Warren Carlyle misses or obscures the central point, reducing the number to a conventional crowd-pleasing vehicle for Terri White, the revival’s Stella.

In Carlyle’s staging, the focus is on White’s belting and hoofing skills, both admittedly impressive for a performer now in her 60s. Stella shouts with glee as she pounds out the old routine, hollering out the steps to her apparently less-rehearsed colleagues. To make the trivial point that the old dames aren’t the dancers they used to be, Carlyle inserts gags like having Emily (Susan Watson) forget the choreography, wandering away from the line until another of the women fetches her back. Carlotta (Elaine Paige) skips right into a pillar, and when the tempo picks up, indicates pirouette turns by twirling her finger in the air. These are not new jokes, but, more to the point, they have nothing to do with what the number is supposed to be about.

Worse, the “past” dancers don’t materialize at the point in the music arranged for that moment; instead they lope on one at a time, not immediately relating to their counterparts. The “coalescing” moment is a jumble of solo turns, and the final effect of the number is a simple whoop-up along the lines of “I Want to Be Happy” from No, No Nanette. It’s great fun and the audience applauds it to the rafters, but this choreography trivializes “Who’s That Woman” and thus all of Follies.