Follies – the jewel in Sondheim’s crown – ahead of the NT revival

The National Theatre is about to present its version of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies – one of the most awaited theatrical events of the year.  To some, Follies is one of the most assessable Sondheim scores being one that is part a tribute of the great American composers that have gone before him.  It is not difficult to find the Irving Berlin influence or the Gershwin or the Romberg.  You are meant to recognise them, it makes you, the audience, become part of the celebration of the past.  But Sondheim’s score, perhaps his best, is far more than a set of pastiche numbers, it goes far further than that, it presents some of the best theatre songs ever written.  

The premise of the show is simple, a reunion in 1971 of cast members of Ziegfeld like revues some 30 or so years after the last was presented.  In fact it was inspired by an actual Ziegfeld Follies reunion that had been reported on in the New Yorker.  The theatre where the party is being held is being demolished but before it is, it is time to revisit the ghosts that inhabit the place and the ghosts that still inhabit those who were in the revues together with the dreams of youth and the reality of age. 

The core of Follies is rather intimate.  Two couples, the wives ex chorus girls and their husbands, youthful friends who had wooed the girls and had since gone their own ways in very different life styles.  The problem being that one of the girls always loved the other boy.  After years apart the desperation of the situation comes into the open at the night of the reunion in a mix of truth and fantasy.

This intimate story, fashioned by James Goldman, became in the hands of Harold Prince, who directed and was involved in its conception, a physically large show glorifying the past and mixing fact and fiction.  Remember this was in the days in the early seventies when theatrical dreams could become reality and originality was a joy, a time before the accountant and multi producers were needed to produce a show.  However, Follies took its time in getting to the stage.  Its first conception was as called The Girls Upstairs which was to have been a mystery musical but gradually the themes expanded to become the Follies we know today.

Follies opened on Broadway on 4 April 1971 and ran for 522 performances.  Not quite the hit it should have been.  Virtually all the original cast took off to Los Angeles where it played the Shubert Theatre (and where I first saw it).  It went nowhere else.  It was a show that could boast a wonderful score, sets of perfection by Boris Aronson and stunning costumes by Florence Klotz.  Prince’s direction was enhanced by the choreography of Michael Bennett which mingled vaudeville and Broadway – has there ever been a more perfectly staged number than the Mirror dance?  The problem was that Follies is not a comfortable show, it is adult, it has leading characters that are not easy to warm to and it ends in what is close to a nightmare.  James Goldman’s book was blamed for the show’s relative failure – totally unfair when you get close to the intimate core of the show.

When Follies eventually arrived in London under the Cameron Macintosh banner.  Macintosh ordered a revisit to the plot and a new song appeared.  The changes were not radical but tried to make the couples more in tune with the audience.  It made little difference in the long run and now revivals go back to the original.  The London run was longer than the Broadway one but it was not a show to put on the road and it has now only reappeared mainly in Concert form.  There was a successful brave production on the small South London’s Landor stage which allowed Goldman’s book to shine and make the characters more accessible. 

What the National Theatre production has to offer we await to see.  What itself is a revisit to the past and the uncomfortable reality of the present has become a precious piece itself and that is being revisited – welcome to the reunion.  

Rexton S Bunnett                                                     Illustrations from the Overtures Archive