Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ Once More Shown In All Its Grandeur

In Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Follies,’ daytime drama aspires to the condition of ‘Götterdämmerung.’ Dominic Cooke’s dazzling London revival pretty well achieves that. (National Theatre production photos © Johan Persson)
By Matthew Gurewitsch

LONDON — Follies is back, this time at the Olivier, largest of the three houses under the roof of the National Theatre citadel on the South Bank, a mid-20th-century cave of dreams in the spirit of the open-air amphitheaters of Delphi, Epidaurus, Athens, and Olympia. Follies is back, more dazzling than ever.

Whoever called Follies the first Proustian musical was definitely on to something. Or you might say that in Follies — music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Goldman — daytime drama aspires to the condition of Götterdämmerung. Aspires to, and, in Dominic Cooke’s revival, pretty well achieves it. The production opened on Sept. 6; happily, for the legion of Sondheim fans who won’t see it in situ, international screenings begin on NTLive on Nov. 16.

Showgirls of the past reunite on their stage, shadowed by ghosts of their youthful selves.

The year is 1971, which happens to be the year of the legendary original production; the scene, a Broadway vaudeville palace marked for imminent demolition. Before the wrecking crew moves in, generations of showgirls party onstage, shadowed by ghosts of their youthful selves. In cameos, old-timers dust off their antique acts (“Broadway Baby,” “Who’s that Woman?,” “Ah, Paree!”) for a last encore, except for the scrappy Carlotta, the survivor (“I’m Still Here”) who never looked back. And for narrative continuity, there are Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Ben, best friends and couples out of touch for decades, trapped in Edward Albee marriages, galloping into their Walpurgisnacht.

Follies, it’s no secret, took a while to catch on. The critics who mattered at the box office went away whistling the scenery, underwhelmed by the story line, put off by the disillusioned tone. What impressed people no end was the contingent of spectral glamour goddesses stalking the stage, aloof beneath towering headdresses of black-and-white plumes and sequins — icons of a pre-war American innocence lost beyond recall.

What a shame, all agreed, that such visions would never see the limelight again. The forecast seemed plausible, given the show’s run of just 522 performances, at a loss of its entire $800,000 investment, a king’s ransom at the time. Worse for the prospects of subsequent productions, the original-cast album had been thrown together in haste and heavily cut, leaving no adequate record of the full scope and sweep of the score.

Then 1985 rolled around, and with it the New York Philharmonic’s all-star Follies in Concert, two nights only, providentially captured for all time by Thomas Z. Shepard on RCA Red Seal. There is also  a video documentary about that concert version. Overnight, Follies won its niche as a cult classic.

Yet to this day, every new look at Follies remains a special occasion. Counting that night with the New York Phil, I’ve caught half a dozen over the years, each in its way a tour de force, each bristling with fresh flashes of insight line by line and phrase by phrase. Of course, Cooke’s Follies supplies lots more on that score. But what sets this revival apart is the Big Picture.

Since Follies was new, a general consensus has held that the core action of Goldman’s book is sketchy (a complaint that did not go away when Goldman overhauled it for the London premiere in 1987). Perhaps in self-defense, stars tend to approach the leading roles song by song. This time, without glossing over question marks in the story, Imelda Staunton’s phenomenal Sally and her colleagues transcend them. Uniquely, in my experience, they exist and evolve as characters beyond the fence posts of their isolated numbers.

Vicki Mortimer’s production design restores to ‘Follies’ its power as total spectacle.

That continuity constitutes one revolutionary distinction of Cooke’s Follies. The other is the physical production.

Time at last to let Boris Aronson, who dreamed up the original scenery, and Florence Klotz, who dreamed up the costumes, rest in peace. Vicki Mortimer — credited in the current program simply as “designer” — restores to Follies its long-lost power as total spectacle. Superficial as the last point may seem to some, in truth, it is of the essence, shaping the arc of our experience with cinematic, even epic, authority.

Though we may not suspect it, the adventure begins with our first step across the threshold into the house. In shadow, a rocky pinnacle looms before us, placed just so (it would seem) as to block sightlines, like some permanent remnant from the Oresteia. Almost subliminally, layering fancy upon fancy, a first showgirl materializes out of nowhere, up by the flies. The orchestra strikes up the prologue, massive machinery stirs to life, smooth and silent as the unseen hand of fate. Vistas clear, and that Aeschylean crag glides into position to morph into the bustling backstage stairwell behind an iconic stage door. Welcome to the Theater, temple of unbridled longing, where myth meets hokum.

Self-deluded Sally (Imelda Staunton) is still over the moon for Ben.

By the time the diminutive Staunton’s dowdy, winsome Sally bumps into her old flame Ben, the air is already crackling. She’s not just happy to see him, she’s over the moon. “Why am I here? This is crazy!” Sally sings right out of the box, in “Don’t Look at Me.” Throwaway lines? Hardly. If we don’t know why Sally is at the party, we will soon find out that she came to start her life over, this time with Ben, and yes, the idea is crazy. But Staunton’s diction, timbre, and phrasing keep the moment feather-light. Later snippets of dialogue (“sketchy”) point to Sally’s decades of clinical depression, but in the song “In Buddy’s Eyes,” what comes flooding forth is narcotic self-delusion. And for her eleven-o’clock number, Sally has “Losing My Mind,” a nervous breakdown in the convulsive guise of a torch song, staged here in a dressing room worthy of MGM, with Staunton dressed and coiffed and made up to rival Joan Crawford. Thus, from her opening moment of euphoria, spontaneity, and intimate nuance, Sally has evolved into something colossal, a silver-screen diva, if not an archetype, her performance rising to the scale of the setting.

Phyllis (Janie Dee) acidly ponders her marital survival strategy.

As Ben’s wife Phyllis, one of Sondheim’s textbook ladies who lunch, Janie Dee tempers the scorched-earth zingers of “Could I Leave You?” with touches of conspiratorial irony, pointing the way towards her eleven-o’clock number, “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” Coming after Sally’s psychodrama, this snappy little tongue-twister can seem as inconsequential as it is delicious. Here, it’s served up in a burst of supercharged dance theater, with extra characters, a hard-driving chorus line, and nonstop, serious choreography for one very limber leading lady who has finally let her hair down. Sure, there may be trouble ahead. But we’ve found out this about Phyllis: When her war is over, she knows how to pick up the pieces.

As Ben, the foundation head, empty suit, and serial philanderer, Philip Quast disintegrates before our eyes (“Live, Laugh, Love”) from Ralph Lauren fashion plate to yammering basket case — not an edifying development but a scorching one. Peter Forbes plays Buddy, the needy schlemiel Sally married and has driven into the arms of another woman. With an assist from a pair of strapping linebackers in drag as the exasperating loves of his life, his manic clown act “God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” brings down the house.

Hattie Walker (Di Botcher) makes it clear she’s still a gutsy Broadway Baby.

Ovations are in order for the cast and production team from top to bottom. With apologies to all not mentioned, I’ll single out music director Nigel Lilley, who apparently can do no wrong; choreographer Bill Deamer, whose invention seems to know no bounds; the Marilyn Horne look-alike Di Botcher for her gutsy “Broadway Baby”; Tracie Bennett, all angles, for her martini-dry “I’m Still Here”; Dawn Hope, the dynamite lead of the “mirror” ensemble “Who’s That Woman?”; Bruce Graham for “Beautiful Girls,” flung into the house like the blast of a foghorn; Jordan Shaw, for dancing his heart out whether the spotlight is on him or not; the quartet of fresh faces and voices — Fred Haig, Zizi Strallen, Alex Young, and Adam Rhys-Charles — as Sally et al. in youth; and Josephine Barstow, for decades a fixture of top opera houses on six continents, blazing like a torch in the wind in “One More Kiss,” with its echo of “Edelweiss,” a quick tip of the hat, or so I imagine, to Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II.

Memory, you may have heard, plays tricks. Follies, woven of memories, plays no end of them.

After nearly three decades as an international cultural commentator working from New York, Matthew Gurewitsch relocated in Maui to begin a new chapter. For an archive of his work past and present, please visit