On Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies”

Let me make a confession right up front:  I have never been a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim’s work.   I prefer to come out of a musical in the old-fashioned way: with tunes I can hum (a lost art) or whistle.  The last time he completely left me that legacy was in West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics only to Leonard Bernstein’s music.  Oh that’s not to say that parts of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods, didn’t linger with me.   Or that he didn’t endear himself to me when he mentioned during a radio interview that the secret to his really clever use of internal rhyme was a simple rhyming dictionary.  There is no denying the man’s genius, or his influence on the modern musical.

But it was a report by one of my students in a recent course I taught in script analysis that began to sharpen my ear to Sondheim music, and lead me to the conclusion that I was a potential fan after all.  At her instigation I went up to Washington to see the new Kennedy Center production of Follies.  It begins previews in New York next week.   It’s an early Sondheim musical, winning seven Tony’s in 1971, when it ran for well over a year.  I was not familiar with it, but those who were evidently loved it or hated it.  I gather that the critical response thus far has not changed much.   This production features a wonderful performance by a generously self-effacing Bernadette Peters, continuing in a longtime Sondheim association, as well as some stunning renditions by the likes of old-timers Elaine Paige, Jan Maxwell, and Linda Lavin.  It also features a satisfying number of what have become Broadway standards, including “Broadway Baby,”  “I’m Still Here,”  “Losing My Mind,”  “In Buddy’s Eyes,” and “Beautiful Girls.”   The music and its delivery is undeniably magnificent.

The story is simply a portrayal of a celebratory reunion at the soon to be torn down Weismann Theatre of veteran showgirls from old Follies productions, here to prove they have forgotten nothing and lost none of their considerable charms, talents, and talons.  Many  of the individual performances are hard to forget, performed as they are at peak energy and commitment by longtime pro hoofers.  One would think by now they would be relaxing on the front porch of a retirement home.  Not these folks.  Still, the oldsters are haunted by the ghosts of their former selves, as they piece together their lost hopes and betrayals, their foolish young dreams, and the emptiness of their current lives and marriages.  All of them are magnetic characters, full of contradictions and complications.  I didn’t want to leave them, which made Act II extremely frustrating, as Sondheim veers off into a long, elaborate “Loveland” psychedelic dream extravaganza.  I suppose it’s intended as a  surrealistic portrayal of various mental breakdowns, but it only  left me impatient to return to the real world of the characters I had come to care about.  They tell the truth, unvarnished, and that’s what I prize in the theatre.

It’s all a matter of taste.  There are plenty who evidently feel the Dreamland stuff captures the essence of Sondheim’s style and skills.   What do I know?  But the people Sondheim has created in this play do embody the uneasy essence of what it is to grow away from the impossible dreams of youth toward a more comfortable acceptance of life’s unpredictable realities.  I’m still working on that.

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