Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Secret Behind 'Follies' Recurring Appeal

Have you ever attended a high school or college reunion?
Did you ever re-encounter friends who you haven't seen in decades?
Have you ever journeyed back to a place that was a huge part of your life during your impressionable and formative years? Did you ever return there with the same people from that era?
And how did you feel when you saw that old flame of yours?
How have the decades treated you -- and him, or her? Was there still a spark there?
If you can relate to any of these questions or any of these experiences then you can understand the enduring allure of Stephen Sondheim's landmark 1971 Broadway musical, Follies.
Now, on its 40th anniversary, Follies will return to Broadway this summer via a big, splashy, definitive new $7.3 million production mounted by The Kennedy Center. With a cast of 42 and a 28-piece orchestra, this show is B-I-G.
Having just seen this star-studded production in Washington, all I can say is you'd better get ready to buy your tickets for the Boradway production just as soon as they go on sale for they will sell out fast.
Follies is no cozy little trip down memory lane.
And if you're looking for that ever-seductive comfort food known as nostalgia, you'd better go elsewhere. Nor should you confuse this with the Ziegfeld Follies (though there is a relationship) or the Follies Bergere.
Follies is a masterwork from a Broadway genius and it works both as classic musical entertainment and also as a provocative (and sometimes even disturbing) story. It mocks the sugar-coated mindlessness of "feel good" Broadway musicals while paying homage to the rich, contagious, toe-tapping sound of Broadway via a pastiche of songs that come at you so rapidly that they take your breath away.
So many numbers from this show are virtual standards now: I Think About You, Broadway Baby, Will I Leave You?, I'm Still Here, Beautiful Girls, Too Many Mornings. And the show is highly theatrical even though it's anchored in a story that's as real as unfulfilled dreams, obsessive love, runaway egos and the ravages of time.
Plus, the cast: Bernadette Peters, Elaine Page, Linda Lavin, Danny Burnstein, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines and even yesterday's reigning Queen of Disco, Regine.
But I don't want to tell you about the story or too much about the various elements of the show lest it spoil your experience should you be lucky enough to see it.
The original Broadway production of Follies opened on April 4, 1971, directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, and with choreography by Bennett. The musical was nominated for eleven Tony Awards and won seven. The original production, which ultimately lost money, ran for 522 performances. That would hardly be considered a "hit" by today's standards.Consider that nowadays "hit" musicals run for years, of not decades.
Though the show's Tony Awards included Best Music and Lyrics (Sondheim) and Best Director (Prince and Bennett) it did not win Best Musical. The Award that year went to the New York Shakespeare Festival Production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Note that Follies has endured. The Two Gentleman have never been heard from again -- at least not in musical form.
Over the past 40 years Follies has enjoyed several notable revivals. Most notable were Wytheshawe, England (1985), London (1987), Millburn New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse (1998) and New York City Center Encores (2007).
I saw the excellent Paper Mill production and felt that would probably be the best (and closest to the original) production that I would ever see.
But now we have a spectacular new production that does justice to this great American musical.
I could write thousands of words about Follies and it's fitting to note that people have been discussing this show for years. Suffice it to say that Follies is the kind of rich, vibrant, evocative, Broadway outing that doesn't come along much anymore. And it grows more and more meaningful with age -- both its age and your age.
Whatever you do, make sure you're in the audience when Follies returns to Broadway!

Originally published 6/21/11

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