A few days after the last performance of FOLLIES at the National Theatre, 17th May sees the CD release of the 2018 studio cast recording of FOLLIES, which has spurred me to write an appreciation of this special show. It’s a long read with some history and a special surprise guest anecdote too. I hope you enjoy it.
Last week I was back at the National to say a personal goodbye to a very special show. FOLLIES had two seasons, in 2017/8 and 2019, and in its two seasons has starred some of our musical theatre’s finest artists – Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Joanna Riding, Tracie Bennett, Claire Moore, Philip Quast, Alexander Hanson and many others.
With an orchestra of 21 and direction by Dominic Cooke, a well-respected man who had never directed a full-on musical before, but with one of the country’s greatest choreographers, Bill Deamer, to make it move like a dream, and a designer with vision in Vicky Featherstone, the stage was well set for a triumph. Which of course they achieved. Five-star reviews flowed from the critics’ pens. The show was nominated in several categories at 2018’s Olivier Awards, and won Best Musical Revival.
The show was broadcast as part of the NT Live season during that 2017/8 season, and is thankfully preserved for posterity.
Let’s take a moment to go right back to the start. The original FOLLIES was produced and directed by Hal Prince, choreographed by Michael Bennett, and after trying out in Boston in March 1971, debuted at New York’s Winter Garden in April of that year. Written by James Goldman (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) the show ran for over 500 performances and still managed to lose its entire capitalisation of almost $800,000. Anyone wanting more information than is here can Google it, but I don’t want to go on too long, and risk telling you what you already know.
If you don’t know the story, this is it: On the eve of their theatre’s demolition, the former stars of Weismann’s Follies gather there to celebrate, drink, reminisce, and try to make sense of their lives – and the disconnect between now and then.
Briefly, the show starred 40s movie star Alexis Smith, singer Dorothy Collins, dancer Gene Nelson, and featured artists including the glamorous Yvonne De Carlo, Fifi D’Orsay and Ethel Shutta, all names from an earlier era who were still active. The show was very fluid during tryouts; Sondheim has said ( in his recent National Theatre conversation, for more, see here) that all of the individual Follies songs for the four main characters were written on the road, with Alexis Smith specifically requesting a song that “showed off her legs” ( which became The Ballad of Jessie and Lucy). Later on, the recording of the show’s cast album was frustrating. Sondheim had sold the recording rights to Capitol Records who released the soundtrack as one vinyl disc (instead of two) to save money, thereby truncating – even omitting – many parts of the beautiful score, leaving fans without a recorded memento for over 12 years. After closing on Broadway, in July 1972 the cast opened a three month Los Angeles run which was meant to lead into a tour but business was patchy and the tour idea disintegrated. FOLLIES then languished until 1985 when a filmed concert version allowed a more complete recording of the score to be made, albeit with concessions being made to the concert format of the show.
My own relationship with FOLLIES started back in 1987 when it was announced that Cameron Mackintosh would be presenting the show in London at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Naturally, box office phone lines (no internet back then, younger readers!) heated up with the demand, which only intensified as the cast was announced – Julia McKenzie, Diana Rigg, David Healy and Daniel Massey- quite a leading quartet. And then the names that popped out of the adverts- legendary musical theatre and movie star Dolores Gray sang “I’m Still Here” to endless standing ovations, husband and wife singing duo Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, (already thirty years together by then) twittered “Rain on the Roof”, tiny powerhouse Maria Charles belted her way through “Ah, Paris!”, Maggie Courtenay lit up “Broadway Baby”, and most surprising, Lynda Baron (then seen on TV as a dumpy middle-aged nurse) was a real revelation, singing “Who’s That Woman?” (the Mirror number), as light on her feet as a feather, glamorous as heck and tapping up a storm.
As this was the version of FOLLIES that I first saw, this grew to be my standard acceptance of how the show was. It was only later that I learned that Cameron Mackintosh had required a more “commercial”, upbeat version of the show than its original incarnation, and that Sondheim had agreed to rewrite, producing new songs for the London production which were captured in the London Soundtrack recording on a deluxe double album (only vinyl back then, folks!). So there were new songs for Diana Rigg, a non-dancer, who would have been ill at ease in dance-fest “The Ballad of Jessie and Lucy”; she was given a new song, “Ah, But Underneath!”, which was an elegant striptease/disappearing act, achieved by sleight of hand and other trickery, the lyrics and clever staging revealing Phyllis’ lack of substance.
Daniel Massey, as Ben, had his reflective “The Road You Didn’t Take” cut entirely, and his breakdown number, “Live, Laugh, Love” replaced with a more up-tempo classy top hat and tails tap routine, “Make The Most of Your Music”, explaining how to “compose yourself”.
Also, James Goldman reworked the book so that in the final sequences, the older and younger Ben, Sally, Phyllis and Buddy “met” themselves and each other, which gave yet another intriguing angle to their “now and then” memories.
The show opened in July 1987, and the Press Night will be one that I will always remember. Here’s why. I was working as House Manager at another West End theatre, and as FOLLIES went up at 7.00pm (as it was Press Night) and my show went up at 7.30, I asked my colleagues if they were OK with me popping in a cab after our show had started, to take some First Night flowers to my friend the Company Manager of FOLLIES, the very dear “Uncle” Bob West. So by the time we had everything settled down, and I could get away, it was around 8.15. By the time I got a cab and got up to the Shaftesbury, people were spilling out of the foyer into the street- it was interval time. As I went past the excited crowds, I ear wigged as many comments as I could and headed round the back to the Stage Door. When I arrived there, it was a very odd scene- it was deserted, except for one dinner-suited man crouching down, side on to me, examining some of the cards on the flowers and gifts in the small stage door area. “Excuse me, can I leave some flowers for Bob West?” I said.
The crouching figure rose and turned… And it was Stephen Sondheim. As always my sparkling repartee leapt to hand. “Oh!…. Good evening Mr Sondheim” I blurted. “Hello” he said, somewhat subdued. “I’ve just been round the front and from what I hear it sounds like you’ve got another hit on your hands!”. He looked deep into my eyes and quietly said “Do you think so?” “I know so” I said (the brazen-ness of youth!). And he reached out and hugged me. It was utterly dream-like. But, as I quickly realised, I had my own show to get back to.
Somewhat in a daze, I hailed a cab and rushed back to my own theatre, and arrived back in good time to prepare for our own interval. And that was it. The day that Stephen Sondheim hugged me. Funny how these things happen….
FOLLIES ran for 500 performances until February 1989, with several supporting cast changes along the way, including Eartha Kitt replacing Dolores Gray (who sadly broke her ankle), Millicent Martin came in, also Dora Bryan, and others, eventually notching up over 500 performances. We were there on closing night too, when my friends and I commiserated that we would “never see its like again”.
28 years later we were happily proved wrong.
The magic word was Imelda. That’s when the buzz started. Straight off the back of GYPSY, which had earned her many accolades, after a brief stop in Edward Albee-land for the shouting match of VIRGINIA WOOLF, here was Imelda being announced for FOLLIES. Dominic Cooke was to be the director and the Olivier-winning Bill Deamer the choreographer, a brand new creative team that proved to be a marriage made in heaven. The first season and its accolades have already been mentioned, but just to say that the songs were studio recorded immediately after the first season ended, and this is the recording that is now becoming available.
When it was announced that the show would have a second run in early 2019, everyone was excited to know who would be the new cast and who might return. It seemed unlikely that Imelda would repeat a previous performance, ditto Philip Quast. To discover that their places would be taken by the brilliant Joanna Riding and Alexander Hanson was delightful and intriguing. Lovely Claire Moore came in too (can it be she who first covered/alternated Sarah Brightman on Phantom of the Opera thirty years ago? Yes indeed.) And also the production itself – would it be a carbon copy? As covered in my recent FOLLIES interview with choreographer Bill Deamer (read it Here), he confirmed that the team revisited the material with the aim of building upon what they had done before, to take another look, make it better and to allow the incoming cast a chance to make their own contribution to the material, which they have done with aplomb.
Surprised as I am to write it, the show felt more “balanced” in season two; I loved it even more. Please don’t get me wrong, Imelda is a big star, a terrific actor and nobody loved her in GYPSY more than me; but that was a star part, and this is more of an ensemble show, and the fact that we saw less of her than in other roles to me made it feel an uncomfortable fit. In the second season the whole show felt more balanced and the learning from the first season (the ghosts echoing in more complex ways, the interpretations of the songs became more intuitive and layered) caused audiences to see the show afresh, and if possible, to understand it even more deeply than before. It is extremely rare that one gets to do such a large-scale, ambitious and costly show as this. It is rarer still to be given a second bite of the cherry, to look again, and deepen everything that was created; what a gift to have the chance to revisit the elements with all that experience and information to assist you. I have said it before and I shall say it again now, friends; this is why we have a National Theatre.
FOLLIES has a different appeal for every generation, but it is a show which resonates deeply with older audiences. You need to have experienced life’s ups and downs to fully “get” FOLLIES. To sit there and reflect upon one’s own choices that we have made in our own lives, for better or worse, and the highs and lows of our careers, and to celebrate that we are still going, resonates so vividly with older audiences that it was no wonder they took it to their hearts. Nostalgia, regret, lost love- these are things that can only be experienced with time, and when the finish line approaches one appreciates things so differently than when young. As a fiftysomething, I saw this current FOLLIES through very different eyes to the way I saw the show in 1987
For me, the 2019 FOLLIES was the best I have ever seen, or am likely to see in my lifetime. Mature, reflective, celebratory, wistful, sad, hopeful, acknowledging the passage of important eras in our lives, the bittersweet authenticity of FOLLIES in undeniable. It’s the only piece of musical theatre I have seen to have the story power of an Arthur Miller play. To have had the privilege to see it taken back to the values of its original 1971 production proved a hugely emotional experience, a poignant distillation of both joy and sadness which brought audiences to their feet at every performance, at both seasons.
As a final note, you may know that Sondheim came, saw and loved it. With his 90th birthday celebrations next year, my feeling is – what better gift than to take this production to open in New York as London’s tribute to this singular talent?
EXTRAS For those wishing to explore the 1971 original, here below are a few links from YouTube which may satiate your thirst. All of the video is very variable, but you may find something of interest. I know that there is an hour-long David Frost interview programme from New York entirely devoted to FOLLIES which was previously available on YouTube but appears now to have disappeared. I’ll post it if it resurfaces. Meantime, enjoy these. I’ve also added a discussion from the National Theatre from 2017 at the end, along with a brilliant video of the great Bill Deamer at work. With thanks to all YouTube posters