The mirror’s getting blurred

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Sally should have died the first time. Phyllis tells a drinks waiter he’s getting her all wet. Weismann hits on a waitress. There’s no interval, so slamming down a venti Americano before you take your seat probably isn’t a good idea unless you’re wearing Depends. We are, thank God, back in 1971 in more ways than one: for this production, the cut-down-and-smoothed-out revised version of James Goldman‘s book for Follies has been well and truly buried. May it never return.

Follies, more than most, is a show with a bumpy production history. The original Broadway production ran for more than 500 performances but lost a then-unheard-of $800,000. A 1987 London production had a completely rewritten book; it had a longer run but also lost money. There have been two Broadway revivals since 2000; they each used the watered-down rewrite of the book that has become the standard version, and neither was a hit. This is a show fans obsess over – yes, me too, I even wrote about it for part of my MA thesis. The score, underappreciated by critics in 1971, is an embarrassment of riches; Goldman’s original book, though, is probably too bleak ever to be a long-running commercial success. Set at a reunion of former showgirls in a now-defunct Ziegfeld Follies-style extravaganza, the show ostensibly focuses on the unhappy marriages of two ex-chorines, Sally and Phyllis, and their less-than-completely-faithful husbands, (respectively) oil rig salesman Buddy and politician/businessman Ben. On one level, the slender plot is simple: Sally and Phyllis danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. Sally married Buddy, Phyllis married Ben – but Sally and Ben had a fling before their engagements, and Sally arrives at the reunion having spent the past thirty years pining for what might have been. Actually, it’s about far more than that: during the reunion, the show’s characters are confronted by their younger selves, dredging up questions of memory and identity that locate the book in a surreal no-man’s-land between Pinter and Pirandello, with a hefty dollop of Fellini thrown in and a sprinkling of Albee on top. And on top of THAT, the whole thing is a metaphor for America’s postwar decline. It’s wonderful (if you don’t get one of the various watered-down rewrites), and I love it, but if you just want tap-dancing chorus girls you’re better off at 42nd Street.

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God knows what the National had to do in order to persuade James Goldman’s widow to allow them to use the not-watered-down bleak-but-brilliant original book, but we can all be very glad they did: Dominic Cooke’s production more than does it justice, although it isn’t without flaws. This isn’t quite precisely the unadulterated original text; there have been a few interesting tweaks here and there, and they’re all intelligent choices – although none of them amount to life-or-death changes. In the dumbed-down rewrite that has become the standard published text, there are a couple of crossovers in the final scene – minor characters leaving the party, given a couple of lines each. Those are inserted earlier in the show, before the surreal Follies-as-metaphor Loveland sequence, and it’s perhaps useful, by that point in the show, to emphasise the lateness of the hour as the four central characters succumb to a combination of alcohol, obsession, and spectacular self-loathing. Cooke keeps the “ghosts” onstage far more than the stage directions suggest; they’re almost always present somewhere, and all the party guests are mirrored/stalked/haunted by their own pasts. Accordingly, in the long opening sequence, the first fragment of song (as opposed to underscoring) comes from two of the ghosts: Young Ben and Young Buddy get a “hey up there/way up there/whaddya say up there?” (the opening phrase of ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, a song that arrives twenty minutes or so later) before anyone else has sung a word. ‘Bolero d’Amour’, on the other hand, has been cut, although it was apparently in the show during early previews (I saw the last-but-one preview before press night). And – purists will seethe, but this is London not New York and this choice makes sense – in ‘I’m Still Here’ Carlotta sings that she got through Shirley Temple rather than Brenda Frazier. I suppose they could have explained Brenda Frazier in a programme note, but who reads those?

(I do, actually, and in this case you should too: the programme includes fine, informative, well-written essays by David Benedict, Russell Jackson, and Gary Yershon, and a snippet of Ted Chapin’s wonderful book about the making of the original production. It’s well worth the £5.)

A big part of Cooke’s achievement here is that he understands the rhythm of the piece, and with Follies that is by no means always the case. Until the ‘Loveland’ show-within-a-show at the evening’s climax, Follies is structured as a continuous tapestry rather than as a succession of individual scenes, using a theatrical equivalent of cinematic crossfades – as one piece of the action ends, another begins somewhere else on the stage and your eye is drawn to it. Harold Prince’s original Broadway production achieved this effect using several moving platforms (there is some archival footage available); here, Cooke makes judicious use of the Olivier’s revolve (though not the drum) and Paule Constable’s perfectly-eerie lighting to keep the action spinning, and to shift focus between different areas of Vicki Mortimer’s desolate-but-beautiful derelict-backstage set.

He understands the rhythm of the dialogue as well, and that’s something that also appears to have eluded some directors. Goldman’s script starts out looking naturalistic, at least if you look past the ghosts, but it really isn’t. These are emblems rather than fully fleshed-out characters – remember, the whole show is a metaphor – and that’s a deliberate choice. The characters are simultaneously slightly larger-than-life and slightly less than three-dimensional, and there’s a surreal, arch theatricality to the dialogue that can feel painfully stilted if the actors don’t catch the correct rhythm. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Restoration comedy, only with a darker edge, and it requires the same kind of discipline and pace. Cooke makes it make perfect sense; in this production, the dialogue crackles with electricity and the pace never lets up. Dark as the material becomes, though, the delivery in this production stays just the right side of being too arch; there are laughs too – though not in the last ten to fifteen minutes – and they’re all present and correct, and again that isn’t an easy thing to achieve in material as ostensibly bleak as this.

And those ghosts are everywhere. There’s a ghostly entrance parade (way) upstage behind the older women during ‘Beautiful Girls’, the Whitmans dance with their younger selves in ‘Rain on the Roof’, Carlotta’s ghost looks down on her as she sings ‘I’m Still Here’. It sounds like embellishment, but it’s a choice that consistently pays off; everyone in this Follies is haunted by the past, but some are much better than others at facing it down.

Cooke also draws fine performances from his actors, right down to the smallest roles. Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are absolutely charming as the Whitmans, and their ‘Rain on the Roof’ is a delight. Geraldine Fitzgerald is a drily funny Solange. Di Botcher cannily underplays ‘Broadway Baby’, so that a song that these days can seem like a cliché feels absolutely fresh. They get to do the trio ending combining their three numbers, and it’s a showstopper. Bruce Graham is a golden-voiced Roscoe, and Gary Raymond is a fascinatingly haunted/haunting Dmitri Weismann. As Stella Deems, Dawn Hope sings the hell out of ‘Who’s That Woman?’, the memorable tap number in which the ex-chorus girls literally dance with their younger selves.

The score is an embarrassment of riches, but so is this cast. As fading soprano Heidi Schiller, Josephine Barstow is simply beautiful. ‘One More Kiss’, a mock-Viennese waltz with a sting in the lyric, is the score’s loveliest song; as sung by Barstow and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi, it has possibly never been lovelier. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta Campion – the show’s great survivor, a former Follies girl who became a film and television star – seems to be channeling (pre-breakdown) Judy Garland, but that’s a choice that works for the role, and that impression is probably reinforced by having seen Bennett’s powerhouse performance as Garland in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow. Bennett’s Carlotta is strong, unsentimental, almost flinty – but at a certain point Bennett lets you see vulnerability too, and her I’m Still Here isn’t quite like any other performance of the song I’ve encountered. It starts as a reminiscence to friends, but then once she’s left alone onstage, halfway through the number, it becomes something darker and more complex: simultaneously a triumphant shout of survival and a more introspective acknowledgment of the emotional toll that comes with enduring adversity. It’s surprisingly moving, and an original, subtle take on a song that too often just gets steamrollered into the ground.

As for the central quartet and their younger counterparts, it’s mostly good news there too. Peter Forbes is an ideal Buddy – affable, ingratiating, sad around the edges. He isn’t a tap-dancer, but ‘The Right Girl’ is reconceived as an almost-adversarial dance duet with Fred Haig’s equally ideal Young Buddy, and it works very well indeed. Philip Quast brings tremendous gravitas to his portrayal of Ben, and in his hands ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ – Sondheim’s baldest statement of the show’s overriding theme – is as affecting as it has ever been. And you’ll probably want to go home and erect some kind of shrine to Janie Dee’s Phyllis, because she’s perfect.

That leaves Imelda Staunton’s Sally, which is an impeccable performance in every way except one. Staunton does not fall into the trap of making Sally manic or bipolar from the top of the show. She very carefully charts a slow descent into madness, and it’s a very, very fine acting performance. Sondheim’s music, on the other hand, is not a good fit for her voice. She doesn’t commit the kind of crimes against the human eardrum perpetrated by Bernadette Peters on the most recent Broadway cast album, but Sally’s songs demand a soprano and she just isn’t one. That said, she more or less gets away with it: her ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ is absolutely transfixing (and yes, she does hit all the notes, though I think it’s been taken down a step for her), because the acting performance is compelling enough to carry the music with it – and to be fair, she floats a lovely pianissimo whatever-it-is on the last note of the song. She takes the middle of ‘Too Many Mornings’ down an octave, but does hit the high notes at the end of the song. Her Loveland number, ‘Losing My Mind’, is less successful, but that’s partly because the staging is too busy: she sings a good part of the song in profile to the audience, sitting at a dressing table, and it would help if she was allowed to face the audience from the beginning.

Part of the problem, though, is undeniably the mismatch between the song and the performer. Staunton is a brilliant actor with a versatile voice that can encompass a wider range of musical roles than you might imagine – but she does not have the kind of glorious one-of-a-kind singing voice that could stand in the same league as some of her predecessors in the role. When Dorothy Collins, Barbara Cook or Julia McKenzie sang the song – and all three are/were superb actors too – their voices could do some of the heavy lifting. McKenzie literally just stood completely still then raised both arms on the penultimate line of the final verse; as careful as her acting choices in that moment were, she also has the kind of voice that makes an entire theatre stop breathing until she’s finished the number, and her physical stillness was a powerful statement in itself given that the song essentially spends four minutes describing a state of emotional paralysis. Staunton doesn’t have that kind of voice, so the song is given more elaborate blocking (in profile, face forward, pick up a glass and take a drink, stand for the final verse, yada yada) as if to compensate. The acting choices make perfect sense, and she (correctly) plays the performance pastiche rather than the nervous breakdown underpinning the song – but the song benefits enormously from a thrilling voice, and it doesn’t get one.

And having said all that, Staunton’s performance in the final scene is so heartbreaking that you’ll probably forgive her more or less anything for her delivery of the line “Oh dear God, it IS tomorrow.”. Her presence in the role brings gains and losses; she’s wonderful, but she’s also imperfect – and perhaps all the more so next to the marvellous Alex Young’s Young Sally, because Young has the acting chops and the voice.

The Loveland sequence as a whole, in fact, is somewhat problematic. Cooke’s direction, so perfect in the preceding scenes, goes off the rails a little with the onset of the climactic show-within-a-show. Loveland is basically a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies performance in which the four principal characters each perform their own individual folly; the transition into Loveland is handled well enough, although the Loveland set could usefully look a little more opulent, and the scene-setting numbers for the Young quartet are perfectly charming. Forbes’s “Margie” and “Sally” in ‘Buddy’s Blues’ are chorus boys in drag; it’s not a damaging choice, and there’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it is a definite choice, and there’s no discernible reason for it.

[Edit – I’m informed by friends who would know – and I should have known too because I’ve read the same books – that using two chorus boys here was the way the number was originally conceived and staged, although that version of it didn’t make it as far as the Broadway opening. Oops.]

The staging of ‘Losing My Mind’ pulls your focus away from what Staunton’s Sally is feeling, and places it instead on what she’s doing. Phyllis’s ‘Story of Lucy and Jessie’, in which she tries to reconcile the chasm between her present and younger selves, is the most completely successful of the four numbers; Dee’s Phyllis, in a black dress that redefines va-va-voom, dances with Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis as well as a gaggle of chorus boys. Again, a definite choice, and not quite what the stage directions suggest, but it works, Bill Deamer’s choreography is terrific, and it’s crystal clear in this staging that Phyllis’s “folly” is her inability to reconcile the persona she assumed after marrying Ben with the (relatively) carefree but unschooled young woman she used to be (I think it’s crystal clear in the lyrics as well, but it’s a point that seems to have come as a surprise to at least one of London’s theatre critics). Quast’s ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ is great until the onset of the breakdown that takes us out of Loveland and back into the derelict theatre. His collapse simply isn’t big enough – and the issue is with the direction rather than the actor, because the scripted chaos/cacophony that accompanies the moment is also more subdued than it needs to be.

And again, having said all that, the final scene – with every line from the orignal version restored – is superb, and well worth whatever missteps the production might have taken during the preceding twenty minutes.

Other reservations? Purists might prefer Michael Bennett’s original choreography for ‘Who’s That Woman?’ to Deamer’s account of the number, in which the ‘ghosts’, in the tap section, take the stage alone before dancing with their older counterparts. It’s different, it works, and the number stops the show – and having the ghosts briefly supplant their older counterparts is entirely in keeping with the way this production uses the ghosts from the beginning as living memories who inhabit the theatre and refuse to be put to rest – but the original choreography is justifiably celebrated (and has occasionally been used in subsequent productions), and it’s momentarily jarring to see such a decisively different take on the song. And when just about everything else in Cooke’s production is executed with commendable subtlety and restraint, it’s (to say the least) a step too far to have the large electric WEISSMAN FOLLIES sign hanging over the stage sputter and fade so it just says LIES during the chaos sequence that takes us from Loveland back to the bare stage of the Weissman Theatre. We already got the point; it doesn’t need illuminating, particularly not with a several-feet-high sign made of lightbulbs.

And – not that this has anything to do with anything on the stage – exercise caution in the National Theatre bookshop after the show. If you care about such things, the new edition of the published script with this production’s artwork on the cover unfortunately does not reflect the version of the text used in this production:

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No, I didn’t buy it. There’s a long-out-of-print Random House edition of the original 1971 book; I once owned a copy but it went AWOL a few years ago; another is on the way. Secondhand copies cost more than the new published edition, but can be found within my pain threshold (and for less than I paid for the theatre ticket). Caveat emptor – and while I certainly understand the impulse to have a copy of the published script on sale to tie in with this revival, the differences between the two scripts mean this leaves a slightly sour taste. The revised script essentially reads as if Goldman went through his original book with a razor and carefully cut out everything that made it interesting. It’s a pale imitation; this production, despite a couple of flaws, offers the real deal.

Goodness, this went on for a long time, didn’t it? Overall, while this production makes a few missteps, a lot of it is thrilling. Cooke’s great achievement is to demonstrate loudly and clearly that despite the show’s “failure” back in 1971, the original book plays beautifully and is vastly superior to every subsequent rewrite. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, sometimes dazzling production of difficult material, and – mostly – an impeccable presentation of Sondheim’s glorious score. You even get Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, courtesy of a twenty-piece band tucked away at the back of the Olivier’s vast stage (the flawless musical direction is by Nigel Lilley). It isn’t quite the idealised revival of the show I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last twenty-plus years, but it probably couldn’t be; parts of it don’t match up, and parts of it are better than anything I’d imagined. Given the National’s budgetary constraints – the transition into Loveland really needs to look as if the designers threw a lot of money at the stage, and here it just doesn’t – and the fact that the show has never turned a profit in a commercial production, this is probably as good a revival as anyone could ever have expected. Cooke and Deamer’s choices, though, mean that devotees of the show – there are people, God help us, who are more obsessive than I am – are going to be arguing about this staging, and about at least a couple of the performances (Staunton and Bennett, and maybe Quast in the breakdown/chaos sequence) for years. Me? I’m just glad I get to see it again before it closes in January.

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