Into the Past


Follies belongs to the tiny category of great impossible musicals. Despite all the wonderful artists involved, the original production wasn’t a success, and I doubt that any other production could be. Yet Follies is great: It has, unarguably, a great score. There is a great conception behind it. And it makes—unhappily for our shrunken, scrimping theater—great demands. That the work, as written, doesn’t live up to its aspirations is only the first of the great problems shadowing it. The dramatic climax of Follies—the moment when a huge, lavish, Ziegfeld-era spectacle goes haywire—is a purely directorial moment. Though presumably now part of the script, conceptually it belongs to Hal Prince, who originally produced and directed the show back in 1971—a time that now seems almost as remote as the ultra-ancient 1930s, when Dmitri Weissmann’s Follies were allegedly a big annual event.

Goldman and Sondheim began with something smaller and simpler in mind: a murder mystery about ex-chorus girls and their wealthy husbands. It was Prince’s idea to expand their work into a requiem for a whole way of producing theater, one that would also reflect the crumbling of America’s self-image from the hopped-up cheer of ’20s boom times to the miseries of the Vietnam quagmire and urban decay. The concept’s breadth is equaled by its density: The four central characters are surrounded not only by their ghostly younger selves and those of the theater’s history, but by authentic survivors, whose tangible presence is a rebuke to both the characters’ failure and to their fictiveness itself. Phyllis and Sally and “the famous Benjamin Stone” are merely a scriptwriter’s jottings, but Ethel Shutta, who brought down the house in the Shuberts’ Passing Show of 1922, was as real as you or me—probably more real than me—and watching her belt out “Broadway Baby” on the same stage 49 years later was a genuine emotional event. In this respect, Follies gets less producible every year, as people with a real link to that era are supplanted by those nurtured on an electronically supported musical theater that just isn’t the same thing.

Even nostalgia, though, isn’t what it used to be: The people who embody theater history onstage in any production of Follies are bargaining chips, used to empower the work’s fictitious historicism. The mode of showgirl-spangled spectacle it celebrates was in fact virtually dead by the time its characters supposedly began their careers. A product of the pre-World War I “progressive” era, it peaked in the mid ’20s. By the 1930s, it had waned, replaced by smaller-scale revues that were intimate or raffishly satirical; the grandiose display of young female bodies migrated to film, where Busby Berkeley gave it a demented apotheosis. Follies‘ pastiche songs, iconic survivors, and smart-set attitudes evoke the teens and ’20s; the struggles of its four leads evoke Depression scrimping, wartime upheaval, Eisenhower-era affluence and neurosis.

Buried beneath the script’s fairly standard blighted-love tale of the two chorines and their stage-door johnnies are the gossipy myths of an earlier era, of Peggy Fears’s diamonds and Peggy Hopkins Joyce’s millionaire husbands. These were “showgirls,” tall, model-like beauties who posed or walked about. The “chorus girls” who sang and danced had their wealthy suitors too, but saw themselves as professionals first; they were the revue’s industrial workers, their crisscross patterns the choreographic equivalent of assembly-line machinery. (An analogy pointed out by Susan A. Glenn in her excellent recent book, Female Spectacle, a chapter of which explores the revue form’s perception of women from a feminist perspective, in intelligent, jargon-free language.)

Playing this multilayered bait-and-switch game with theater history, Follies simultaneously plays a second one with its own form as a work, turning from sung psychological drama into mock-nostalgic hit parade into sung oral history and back again, finally coalescing into the “actual” Follies numbers of its finale, which put the characters’ torments inside the theatrical metaphor they’ve helped create. This piece of postmodern “reading” climaxes in a literal act of deconstruction, as demolition blasts signal the imminent end of the Weissmann Theatre. Astounding as the conception is, its unwieldiness makes the work an unfocusable chaos, despite the laser-sharp brilliance of Sondheim’s score. Goldman’s book never successfully ringmasters this burgeoning circus of ideas, and even Hal Prince, supported by a superb design team and a first-rank panoply of actors, couldn’t keep it from cracking in half.

What Prince and Michael Bennett couldn’t do, Matthew Warchus and Kathleen Marshall, backed by a cost-cutting Roundabout budget, can in no way do for them. Even counting pennies, the designers could evoke more vanished glamour, summon up more stylish ghosts. Good with one-on-one confrontations, Warchus doesn’t have a musical-theater director’s breadth of movement or sense of shape; watching the shift from his work to Marshall’s mostly routine routines is like watching alternate wagons roll on- and offstage from the wings. Four fine actors are miscast in the leads: The women are out of their depth vocally, while the men seem hamstrung physically. And, as usual, the “sound design” makes voices and orchestra alike seem to be coming from the box seats either to your right or your left.

Against this is the vivid presence of some first-quality musical theater icons: Marge Champion and Donald Saddler drift elegantly through an old-style dance; Betty Garrett’s wistful rendering of “Broadway Baby” adds an unexpected color to the show’s palette; Joan Roberts, a mere 58 years after Oklahoma!, still has the crystal-bell tones for “One More Kiss” (a pity no one’s taught them to her younger self). Best of all is Polly Bergen, who sustains the marathonic, verbally tricky “I’m Still Here” while hurdling the setbacks of Marshall’s staging, which has her drift from spot to spot as if working the tables in a cabaret—the exact antithesis of the song’s sense.

Still, it’s Follies, a nightmarishly demanding and costly show that will never wholly work and almost never be performed at full strength. This so-so, underweight, resident-theater production is as much Follies as you’re likely to see for some years. And Sondheim’s score, however tinkered with, orchestrally reduced, and electronically mucked about, only lives and has meaning in the theater. Besides, for all its built-in flaws, the work is so teeming with life that even in this underwhelming form it offers more secondary pleasures than I have space to list.

Gary Sinise confronts a different past in the Steppenwolf revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: the rebellious ’60s—not as they were, but as they were marketed. I’ve always shunned Ken Kesey’s novel, mainly because of exposure to Dale Wasserman’s clubfooted 1963 stage version. A 1971 Off-Broadway revival ran interminably, leading to the 1975 film. Now here’s Sinise, with a gleam in his eye and Jack Nicholson’s inflections in his inner ear, stomping his way through this one-dimensional claptrap, in which men aren’t really crazy, just beaten down by “ball-cutting” mothers, wives, and nurses with unpleasant names like Ratched. Amy Morton plays the “big nurse,” sensibly if wanly, as if she were the only sane person onstage. But, you know, it’s Steppenwolf, so in Terry Kinney’s staging everyone, including Morton, has to scream and go apeshit at least once. Accordingly, this is the evening in which a psychiatric R.N. behaves as though she’s never seen a dead body before. But everything up to that point is so specious it hardly matters.

Not so much specious as two-faced is Stones in His Pockets, a mild cabaret entertainment padded out to theater length. Two droll and gifted performers, Sean Campion and Conleth Hill, directed with some ingenuity by Ian McElhinney, nevertheless manage to outstay their welcome by a good hour while chronicling the clash between a movie company on location and a townful of Irish extras with brogues and resentments thicker than peat. They do so not only because the material in Marie Jones’s script is so familiar, but because it’s weighed down with reverse-snob attitudes and other tiresome forms of self-importance. Jones hasn’t noticed that siding with the peasants against the moguls is a strictly Hollywood thing to do—even when the moguls are from Hollywood; she seems to think all the clichés about Ireland were invented in Southern California. Someone should explain to her about Boucicault and Fiske O’Hara.