Revisiting the Talented Mr. Sondheim

Follies revived

When Follies opened on Broadway in 1971, its prospects couldn't have been brighter. The directors were Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, and the songs—words and music—were by 41-year-old Stephen Sondheim, fresh from his Tony-winning hit Company. When Follies closed, 522 performances later, it had won seven Tony awards and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Musical. But it entered the annals of Broadway history for another reason—the musical lost most of the $800,000 that its investors had poured into it, making it at the time the biggest financial debacle in the history of the New York theater. (If only the folks responsible for Carrie: The Musical, Big: The Musical, and The Capeman could have been so lucky.)

That unhappy distinction has not inspired producers to revive Follies. So it has taken until now for New York's Roundabout Theatre Company to become the first big-city troupe to mount the show since the London production of 1987­89. Follies opens at the Belasco Theatre on April 5, and again, the talent is impressive. The director is Matthew Warchus, who staged Art and the recent revival of True West. The cast includes Blythe Danner, Gregory Harrison, Judith Ivey, Marge Champion, Treat Williams, and Polly Bergen. And there is still a collection of Sondheim songs that have long since passed into "classic" status.

Will 1971's financial flop become a hit in 2001? Sondheim, now 70, would warn against a late-life triumph for himself and his show. He may be the most distinguished artist still working in music theater, and his credits may include such landmarks as West Side Story and Gypsy, but for most of today's Broadway audience, his name evokes a long-gone age—he might as well be Oscar Hammerstein.

Sondheim, ever the realist, would be the first to point this out. Indeed, in recent conversations he has railed against the "spectacles" that have come to be Broadway's most successful fare—Disney-sponsored musicals and revivals of shows so old they carry no relevant message. The serious musicals he cares about, he has suggested, are dead.

And Follies is a prime example of the serious musical. It's a look at New York City marriages, as seen in a reunion of aging showgirls and their husbands. These are unhappy marriages, which leads to the usual speculation about roads not taken. But Sondheim offers no Hallmark answers. "Life consists of either/or," he writes, "Dreams you didn't dare/Are dead."

On the other hand—and this may strike a chord with a boomer audience just coming to appreciate its own mortality—Follies is also about the way we turn our lives into theater and then use that theatricality to keep ourselves going. ("I'm Still Here" anticipated Gloria Gaynor's disco hit "I Will Survive.") In James Goldman's script, that theme is awkwardly expressed; it's the problems with the book, some critics suggest, that doomed the show.

But the final third of Follies is pure Sondheim. Written in the fevered last two weeks of the rehearsal period, the musical climax is a capsule of a follies extravaganza—but with all the emotion that was always absent in those spectacles. The result: a wild breakthrough and a theatrical breakdown. In 1971, audiences couldn't deal with that dissonant originality. Thirty years later, they may be hungry for it.