Cher Public

The folly of fidelity

Our Own JJ returns to the pages of Capital New York to reflect on the current Broadway revival of the Sondheim-Goldman musical Follies: “one gorgeous zombie.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

  • Orlando Furioso

    Very well said by JJ (including the “even so, it’s worth seeing/hearing” caveat). He pins down a lot of what I regretfully found missing in this production of (for me too!) one of the greatest of all musicals.

    I’ve seen Schaeffer direct very fine, moving, thoughtful productions of Sondheim on his home ground at Signature Theatre: Assassins, Passion, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park (coproduction with Arena Stage). But his Follies there in 2003 came off weirdly empty and idea-less, and so does this. Yes, it’s an opportunity for visual/aural glamour, and to see old-timers show they’ve still got it (in period-perfect song pastiches). But it’s not just that, not by a long shot.

    And thank you, thank you to JJ for pointing out how the number everyone calls “the mirror number” is not, in fact, staged as a mirror number. The central metaphor, which used to catch me in the throat every time, was missing!

    It’s fashionable now to sneer at the 2001 Roundabout revival (and I’m definitely not calling it ideal!), but it got at the heart of a lot of the show better (with definite credit to Kathleen Marshall for “getting it” choreographically). And the 2007 Encores presentation, albeit in semi-concert format and put together in little more than a week, dug deeper and had more understanding choreography too.

    Anybody who’s been to a lot of Follies productions, as I have, can all too easily fall into the trap of dismissing each new cast member by comparison to the best of all possible predecessors. So I’ll say that there are some terrific performances in this new cast. These would not include Peters, whose choice to play the undercurrents on the surface is especially hurtful to the character Sally (and how she can choose to super-rubato “In Buddy’s Eyes,” with its nonstop rhythmic heatbeat from start to finish, is beyond me). But Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein are as good as I’ve ever seen as Phyllis and Buddy (and yes, I did see the original). Also splendid are Watson/Correia, Peil, Houdyshell (so the “Montage” is about the best ever, musically/vocally speaking), and White. I’m happy to have seen them all. And to have one more production on Broadway asserting the value of an actual orchestra.

  • armerjacquino

    How long do the contracts for first casts tend to be on Broadway? I’m eyeing up the Virgin Atlantic website but won’t be able to afford a trip for a couple of months…

    • Since this is a limited run (through the end of 2011) almost certainly the whole cast will remain in place, barring injuries, illness, etc. The show probably will close on schedule immediately after the first of the year.

      • armerjacquino

        Aaaagh, I didn’t realise it was a limited run. Back to the drawing board (and thanks for the info, la Cieca).

    • Orlando Furioso

      The one person I know in the production says nobody has even brought up the possibility of an extension. Aside from another show being booked into the Marquis early next year (Evita, I think?), the whole undertaking, given the exceptional number of personnel for these days, has to have been planned as a worthwhile enterprise rather than a money-making one. As such, it really can’t afford to run (lose money) longer than scheduled.

  • Batty Masetto

    Makes me kind of wish I could see it, even with the very smart reservations, and even though I’m not all that crazy about Broadway shows. So double kudos. I love “one’s disbelief tends to come off its suspension.”

  • Buster
  • jim

    I saw the show in Washington. My problem with it was that (like Schaeffer’s earlier production in Signature’s garage days) it fell apart into three shows: the more or less realistic Buddy/Sally/Ben/Phyllis old and young story; some party pieces from the older chorines; and a considerably anti-realistic reworking of the overlapping triangles. Each of these shows had a lot of good things going for them, but they weren’t integrated. The good things made it worth seeing (though it was a bit cheaper in Washington: I paid $75 a ticket). The lack of integration disappointed.

    • figaroindy

      Saw it in previews in NYC in August -- first time I’d been able to see a live production…and I enjoyed it, but I can see, reading JJ’s review, how it missed the mark (didn’t notice it in the production, which he sort of says, also…production is good, but maybe not what it’s “meant” to be.)

      However, I’d have to say “gorgeously sung” isn’t fair -- Bernadette Peters shouldn’t sing over her break into the head voice register. She sounds like a yodeler, the break is MASSIVE in the center of several of Sally’s Act I songs, and the sound is very unpleasant. She does a great job with “Losing My Mind” in Act II, which remains low, so it’s safer for her. But, ugh…there was some really nasty yodeling and pitch-darts singing occurring on Wednesday evening 8/10! Loved Jan Maxwell though, and what fun to see Rosalind Elias as Heidi (and the “ghost of Heidi” had a STUNNING floated high note at the end of the “One More Kiss” duet…breathtaking.

      • Orlando Furioso

        As noted, I didn’t care for Bernadette Peters in general (found her the weakest of the cast), but I wouldn’t call her head voice “unpleasant” — just VERY different from the rest of her voice, so that the mechanics are obvious and the spell keeps getting broken. We keep thinking she isn’t going to make it, and then she does, but as if a ventriloquist is helping out.

        And why is SHE the first Sally in history, as far as I know, to decide that the last note of “Losing My Mind” needs to be taken up an octave? (Unless that was a whim of the one preview performance I attended.)

        The Young Heidi did indeed have a lovely voice, and credit to them for understanding that you can’t just assign a Les-Miz-mock-soprano chorine to the brief role (unlike the Roundabout production, where Joan Roberts and later Marni Nixon had to be paired with exactly that kind of pop-soprano young chick). But (nitpick alert) I don’t like the choice to let Young Heidi hop up to high D flat instead of the written A flat on the last note. (Erie Mills does this on the NYPO recording too.) It draws attention to itself as a vocal stunt rather than letting us luxuriate in the bliss of the two voices a third apart. The most complete realization of the aching beauty of this song for me remains Lucine Amara and Leena Chopra at Encores.

        • peter

          Funny about Bernadette Peters. I saw her in Little Night Music last year and she was wonderful except for her Send in the Clowns, which she cried instead of sung. A total weepy misfire. I’m looking forward to “seeing” her in Follies but I shudder at what she will sound like.

          • MontyNostry

            Send in the Clowns seems to have become an excuse for ageing divas of various persuasions to turn on the waterworks, when surely its ironies should be more wryly expressed. I blame Judi Dench for this trend. She overdid things in the National Theatre production in the mid-90s and, as a Great Dame, legitimised the practice. She also should have kept her legs well out of sight. It didn’t help that Sian Phillips, as her mum, was far more alluring. They should have swapped roles, even though both of them were too old for Desiree, who should surely be only **just** past her physical peak.

          • armerjacquino

            Monty, I agree about ‘Send In The Clowns’. My mother, who is 72, gets hugely annoyed when it’s sung as some kind of old woman’s Abschied. As she rightly points out, it’s an ironic song, not a tragic one. ‘Oh. I’ve made a bit of an idiot of myself. I’ll style it out’ rather than ‘I shall never find love again and I’ll weep for my youth’.

          • SilvestriWoman

            For me, this is the absolute definitive version of the song: gorgeously sung, hardly an ounce of self-pity and not without wit, making it all the more heartbreaking… Much like the Marschallin, actually…

  • Orlando Furioso

    I agree too, Monty. I think that’s true of most Sondheim, actually — the clarity of music and lyrics are the surface beneath which the emotion lurks. One of the most effective renditions I’ve seen of “Send in the Clowns” was provided by Juliet Stevenson in the last go-round at NYCO. She understood all this, and also started the song with a plausible touch of anger… at herself for being so stupid. It was grounded in the text, and she didn’t overdo it, so it worked.

    This principle is especially important in Follies, where a lot of the point of the final Follies sequence is that these familiar song forms (vaudeville slapstick, torch song, honky-tonk strut, suave song-and-dance turn) have a lot of pain simmering under their smooth entertaining surfaces… and they always have had. But the surface needs to be there. Putting the pain up front (Patinkin in the NYPO concert was another example) turns it all upside down

    • derschatzgabber

      Orlando, I am in complete agreement with you about the final Follies sequence. My first live Follies was almost 20 years ago, at a community theater in Walnut Creek (about an hours drive east of San Francisco). The local,semi-professional company managed to make that point so clearly. Up until then I hadn’t understood why my more experienced theater friends cringed when they watched Patinkin in the video of the NYPO concert. I’ve seen several bigger budget productions since then, but none of them conveyed that point as effectively. Doing Sondheim right takes a very special touch.

    • MontyNostry

      Most expertly expressed, Orlando. What you say about Sondheim is equally applicable to much opera too. Increasingly, I find too much vocal emoting a turn-off, though obviously a singer needs to colour and shape the music and text. It’s a very difficult balance to find, I’m sure.

  • Camille

    JJ, this was one of your best reviews. It’s nice to see you escaping the clutches of La Cieca and be free to expatiate at length on something you clearly love.

    Thank you so much for going into such great background detail and explaining the past history of the work. Your writing was very engrossing and informative for someone like myself, as I know very little of this world and need a guide. This article has helped me tip the balance about attending a performance, as one of my current daily meditations is ‘who is that lady in the mirror?’. Maybe it might help some.

    As well, all the contributions of others, Orlando Furioso et al., are also noted and appreciated. Thanks, guys. All very interesting and a break from the usual opera blather.

  • Thanks for sharing, Mr. Jorden. I love it when we get to go into the director’s head and walk around there for awhile.

  • Orlando Furioso

    The cast of a high-profile revival like this, knowing that their audience will be full of know-it-alls (like me…) comparing them with all their predecessors, must feel tremendous pressure to try to be the best ever. I do sympathize. It must take tremendous faith in oneself and in the material to let that “best” take the form of simplicity and the obvious choices, rather than searching out “new things to do.”

    It may be that some such search for “new things” led to Warren Carlyle’s choice (and I’ve certainly admired his choices in past productions) to omit the “mirror” image from the staging of “Who’s That Woman?” Some reasoning like “That’s what Michael Bennett et al did with it, so I have to find a different way.” Maybe? But sometimes, especially when it’s built into the bones of the song like this, the obvious way that everyone else does is just the right way.

    As derschatzgabber says, sometimes a community theater production, sticking to the obvious by default, will accidentally do better at such moments. I saw such a production of Follies in Indianapolis decades ago that was risible at times, but at certain moments caught the magic better than many revivals, if only by not playing the “I’ve got an idea” game.