No single artist looms larger over the musical theatre canon than Stephen Sondheim. Across the second half of the last century, his work pushed the form and explored radical ideas of musical and narrative storytelling, with many now counted among the greatest works of musical theatre. Recently, the National Theatre in London took up the challenge of staging one of Sondheim’s most ambitious works, the 1971 musical ‘Follies’, and Australian audiences have the chance to see this acclaimed production themselves as part of the 2018 National Theatre Live season.
Set in New York in 1971, ‘Follies’ captures one night in the soon-to-be demolished Weisman Theatre. Before the building is torn down, stars from its legendary Follies review come together to reminisce. They share drinks, tell stories and revisit old routines, but the ghosts of the past are always haunting them - who they were, who they wanted to be, and who they eventually became.
‘Follies’ is one of Sondheim’s least-staged works, mostly because of its enormously ambitious scale. At two and a half hours without an interval, and requiring a cast of almost 40 performers, it needs an infrastructure many companies simply cannot support. It’s also the first time Sondheim experimented with the idea of a musical without a narrative (something he would later perfect with ‘Company’), which means that unlike the more commercial musicals, ‘Follies’ demands attention and engagement from its audience. This is what makes it an extraordinary work: a dense and rich meditation on age, growing old, the ghost of the past and abandoning your dreams. Sondheim’s score plays with pastiche, drawing on the many musical forms of the Follies, mixing vaudeville and Broadway ballads with his own exacting, detailed style. James Goldman’s book holds the work together, offering each character their moment to not only shine but to break down. Sally Durant (Imelda Staunton) and Phyllis Rogers (Janie Dee) are the closest thing ‘Follies’ has to protagonists, and their reunion at this party sparks off old affections and deep rivalries, especially around Phyllis’ husband Ben (Philip Quast). Their past selves wander around the theatre like ghosts, always present and watching, and this clever dramaturgical device allows us to see where they’ve come from, and how very unfulfilled they now are. Unlike many musicals, the characters of ‘Follies’ aren’t young and fresh and optimistic. We are seeing them at the end of their lines, and the deep regret they have at not following on the dreams and promises they spun dancing and singing in this very hall is heartbreaking to watch.
SWITCH: 'NATIONAL THEATRE LIVE: FOLLIES' TRAILER
For their production, the National Theatre and director Dominic Cooke spent years in preparation, and that shows off in the enormous spectacle of this production. Vicki Mortimer’s design is extraordinary, the crumbling walls of the theatre liked a bombed-out battleground, with the faded flowers of these women stumbling around lost within them, followed by an endless stream of their ghosts. The performances are tremendous across the board, with Staunton embracing Sally’s crippling regret to heartbreaking effect. The Follies women are the highlight of the show, every one shining in the stunning musical moments Sondheim offers them. The stand-out though is Janie Dee, who bites into the complicated fury of Phyllis with relish. Watching her spar with her fellow characters is endlessly thrilling.
Cooke’s direction is a bit of a mixed bag - moments like the Mirror Dance sequence or the Follies revue that brings the show to a crashing end are handled beautifully, taking advantage of the spectacle in the score, cast and design. The device of having the younger selves present though isn’t always well-handled, and it takes a while to realise this is who these figures represent. The rules of the production around who can see who and when is never clear, which ends up muddying an already complicated viewing experience. There’s so much about this production that works, but this detail in particular lessens its potential impact.
This... is what makes it an extraordinary work, a dense and rich meditation on age, growing old, the ghost of the past and abandoning your dreams.
I also suspect that much is lost by seeing this spectacle on film as opposed to in the theatre, though they do their best to capture its scale, and the intimacy of the camera captures smaller moments and details in the performances that many in the theatre may have missed. Much like ‘Salomé’, ‘Follies’ is far too big a production to be well-served by the NT Live format, but in this case, the attention to detail does still make for an engaging experience.
By not adhering to our traditional concept of what a musical is, ‘Follies’ asks more from its audience than many will be willing to accept. At our screening, there were somewhere around fifteen walkouts during the screening, a befuddling number the likes I haven’t seen before. That isn’t a reflection of the work itself though - it’s an often extraordinary, deeply moving musical, one that takes the time to consider what it is to grow old and to realise you left your dreams behind, to regret and to hurt and to fight for what potential you have left. While the direction isn’t always successful, the design and the performances still make it a great production, and an opportunity to see this rarely-performed work fully unleashed.