Sondheim – Today’s “Follies”

I have seen more shows where the music and/or lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim than I would have guessed: West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion, and Side by Side by Sondheim. I count nine.

But as of today, nine has become ten, as I saw a revival of Follies (originally written in 1971) at the Kennedy Center. What an odd show (oh, yes, this is Sondheim). It takes place in 1971, in an old theater building, about to be torn down so that the site can be converted into a parking lot. The building has had many tenants, but thirty years earlier, it was a legitimate theater, home of the Follies, and the musical director has decided that it is about time for one last reunion with his cast of many “girls”. They come, many of them bringing their spouses with them.

Two of the girls married two men, friends who hung around the theater with the sole goal of meeting the dancers. One of these men is very successful, a politician and a businessman. The other, less so, a salesman for an oil company. It turns out that the wife of the salesman had been in love with the future politician (who professed love to everyone), that both couples are unhappy, and that the reunion provides a time for the unhappiness and old loves to come to the surface. Everything appears to be falling apart, but by the end of the second act, things appear to be coming together once more. Really not much of a plot.

But the music is something else – the show has 20 musical numbers, according to the program. These include numbers supporting the dynamics of the two central couples, and individual diva pieces for many of the other former dancers. It also includes several choreographed numbers – real production numbers, filled with dancing, singing, staging, costumes and all the rest.

The music is not music you are going to be humming on your way home. It varies in style. Most of the songs tell a story; some do not. Most fit in with the plot; some do not seem to. And the end of the play features six musical numbers as a part of the “Loveland” sequence – more a musical review which parodies the show you are seeing.

So what is Follies? A musical comedy? No. A play with music? Not exactly? A review with only an incidental plot? Perhaps. It is hard to categorize it.

My reaction? Better music than you often find in a show (some of the numbers like I’m Still Here and Buddy’s Blues, and Losing My Mind especially), but a much weaker plot and book than you would expect.

But, and this is crucial in a Sondheim show, the cast is fantastic. Bernadette Peters, Elaine Paige, Jan Maxwell, Terry White, Danny Burstein and others. His songs require performers, not just singers, and everyone in the show performs. And, by and large this is an older cast – so you do get the feeling you are at a reunion.

The girls starred in the Follies, their lives have been torn apart by their individual follies, and they (along with the cast portraying them) have come together to reminisce.

A fine afternoon. Recommended.

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