Monday, April 4, 2011

broadway birthday- FOLLIES opened on Broadway 40 years ago today- April 4, 1971

Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies opened at the Winter Garden theatre on April 4, 1971.   It ran for 15 months, closing on July 1, 1972.  The musical was inspired after a New York Time article appeared that documented a reunion of former "Ziegfeld Follies" girls. For Follies, Sondheim was joined by producer/director Hal Prince and co-director/ choreographer Michael Bennett, all who had worked with Sondheim on Company the year before. 

Collins and Smith
The story follows a 1971 reunion party for ladies who were part of the "Weismann Follies" at the abandoned theatre where the Follies closed 30 years before.  The theatre is in somewhat of a shambles as it has been scheduled to be demolished.   The main characters are two couples, Sally and Buddy Plummer, a traveling salesman and his wife and Phyllis and Ben Stone, a more stylish and successful couple.  All four are unhappy with their marriages and their spouses. We later find out that Sally was and still is in love with Ben. The other supporting characters in the show were "Weissman girls" during the various years the Follies ran.  The score is comprised of standard musical theatre songs as well as during the party many of these other "girls" perform their featured solo numbers that they performed as Weissman girls.  The songs represent the various time periods when they were stars of the Follies.  The show itself exhibits a somewhat dreamlike state always referring to the choices one makes from the past that affect the future and dealing with unfortunate truths from the past as well.  The beautiful theatrical conceit the show uses to represent the past is to have actors portray younger versions, or ghosts, of the follies girls as well as the two main couples.   Thus a quartet for the main couples "The Girls Upstairs" becomes an octet when the four younger versions of their characters come on stage and join on.  Or, a solo for one of the Weissman girls shows her now at 60 as well as in the past at 20, thus becoming a duet.  The last section of the musical finds the four leads performing Follies-like numbers that represent the inner real feelings of each, culminating in a frenzy that then dissolves back into reality and haungtingly ends with the ghosts of the four leads on stage with the two younger male ghosts calling once more for their "girls upstairs."

John McMartin and Gene Nelson - waiting for their girl's upstairs.

 The original cast included  Dorothy Collins and Gene Nelson as Sally and Buddy, Alexis Smith and John McMartin as Phyllis and Ben with Yvonne De Carolo as Carlotta, Mary McCarty as Stella, and Ethel Shutta as Hattie.

The show is chock full of Sondheim gems, including songs dropped during the Boston tryout like "Can that Boy Foxtrot" as well as songs written for later reworkings of the show like "Ah, But Underneath.".  Other songs include "I'm Still Here," "Broadway Baby," and "Losing My Mind."

The young "ghosts" of the two couples.
Unfortunately the original broadway cast recording did not include the entire score and some of the songs, including "I'm Sill Here," were recorded as truncated versions in order for the recording to fit on one lp.

Follies is one of those shows that even though it had a fairly nice run of  522 performances it has been reworked and performed numerous times in hopes of fixing the few flaws.  Like Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, the score is rich with beautiful ballads, themes and comical songs, but just like Merrily, the book isn't quite at the same level of the score,  Sondheim wrote several additional songs for subsequent productions (like the 1987 London premiere production) and Goldman has made various changes to the book.  Subsequent productions and concert versions of this show have usually included "names" in the parts of Carlotta and Hattie, since those two ladies individually perform the two songs "I'm Still Here" and "Broadway Baby" that are definite crowd pleasures and have some of Sondheim's wittiest lyrics.

There have been numerous concert productions of the show, including one at New York City's Lincoln Center/Avery Fisher Hall in 1985, which was presented for two nights. This concerrt was recorded for both video and audio release, though the video unfortunately doesn't include all of the show but instead includes highlights from the two concerts as well as behind the scenes and rehearsal footage.  The audio recording of the concert was the first to include the entire score though some of the songs are slightly different from what was performed in 1971.   The concert starred Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin (right) as Sally and Buddy, George Hearn and Lee Remick as Ben and Phyllis and featured Carol Burnett as Carlotta and Elaine Stritch as Hattie.

The Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey presented a production in 1996 that received a 2 cd recording of the score.  This was the first time all of the songs for the show were recorded as the cd also included several of the songs that were cut from previous versions of the show.  The cast included Donna McKechnie and Tony Roberts as Sally and Ben, Dee Hoty and Laurence Guittard as Phyllis and Ben with Kaye Ballard as Hattie, Eddie Bracken as Weismann and Ann Miller as Carlotta.

2001 Broadway revival poster 
A 30th anniversary Broadway revival opened on April 5, 2001 which starred Blythe Danner and Gregory Harrison as Phyllis and Ben, Judith Ivey and Treat Williams as Sally and Buddy with Polly Bergen as Carlotta and Betty Garrett as Hattie.  The production was a very scaled down one and did not receive the best notices.  It only ran for 117 performances.

In February 2007, New York City Center Encores (a series of musicals presented in semi staged concert productions) presented Follies as their 40th production.   The cast included Donna Murphy and Victor Garber as Phyllis and Ben,  Victoria Clark and Michael McGrath as Sally and Buddy with Christine Baranski as Carlotta, and also featured Anne Rogers, Jo Anne Worley and Philip Bosco. The original 1971 book and score were used and it was directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.   Murphy also sang "Could I Leave You?," which she performed at the Encores! production, at last year's Sondheim 80th Birthday celebration, available on DVD.

A somewhat star studded production is planned for this May and June at The Kennedy Center in D.C.  Including Bernadette Peters and Dany Burstein as Sally and Buddy, Jan Maxwell and Ron Raines as Phyllis and Ben, Elaine Paige as Carlotta, and Linda Lavin as Hattie. Many are hopeful that if the reviews are good that this production will transfer to Broadway.

 Dorothy Collins, left and below, singing "Losing My Mind" -


Yvonne De Carlo sings "I'm Still Here"

Barbara Cook sings "In Buddy's Eyes"

Dee Hoty sings "Could I Leave You?" -

Amazon link for Original Broadway Cast Recording - Follies (Highlights from the 1971 Original Broadway Cast)

Amazon link for Libretto - Follies (Playwrights Canada Press)

Amazon link for Follies in Concert dvd -Stephen Sondheim's Follies in Concert

Amazon link for Follies- Complete Paper Mill Playhouse recording cd - Follies - The Complete Recording (1998 New Jersey Cast)

Amazon link for making of Follies book - Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies (Applause Books)

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