“Like Rheingold, But With More Tunes”: Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” At The National Theatre

John Groves
Operetta Research Center
29 August, 2017

There are a few ‘musicals’ written in the last seventy years which, because of both the specific quality of their music and storyline, can almost be called ‘operettas.’ One of these is undoubtedly Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, which is being given a lavish revival at London’s National Theatre, on the vast open arena of the Olivier Theatre. With a star-studded cast of 37 and an orchestra of 21. Tickets for all performances were almost immediately sold out, many consider it the must-see musical event of the season. Rightly so.

The official advance pr image for "Follies" at the National Theatre London, 2017.

The official advance pr image for “Follies” at the National Theatre London, 2017.

This 1971 swansong to the end of the ‘follies’ era – i.e. reviews à la Erik Charell or Florenz Ziegfeld with a heavy dose of ‘old fashioned’ operetta thrown in – has not been seen in London since its production at the Shaftesbury Theatre in a two act version, exactly 30 years ago. The new National Theatre staging restores some music rarely performed, as well as being, like the original Broadway version, in one act, lasting all of 150 minutes.

The original Broadway "Follies" poster, 1971.

The original Broadway “Follies” poster, 1971, for the production at the Winter Garden theater.

The director, Dominic Cooke, and designer, Vicki Mortimer, have used the huge space at their disposal inventively with only two major pieces of scenery depicting the derelict theatre in which the ‘follies’ are set, cunningly positioned on the revolve so that many different spaces are available to the those on stage. At times, such as in the ‘Loveland’ sequence, which consumes the final 40 minutes of the show, whispy drapes are flown in, but, on the whole, the stage is left uncluttered and allows the audience to use its imagination.

Follies brings together a group of ageing singers and dancers who supposedly performed in the fictional ‘Weissmann Follies’ between the two world wars, now that the theatre is about to be pulled down. We meet Sally (Imelda Staunton, very powerful in ‘Losing My Mind’), and Phyllis (a charismatic Janie Dee, especially in her song ‘Could I Leave You’), both ex-chorines who married their stage door johnnies Buddy (Peter Forbes – exhausting to watch and listen to in his ‘Blues’ number) and boring businessman Ben (perfectly played by Philip Quast, especially in his ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ number). They have unsatisfying, brittle-plastic marriages, the women ‘wallowing in more neuroses and discontent than could be justified by the worst misfortune,’ as Kurt Gänzl observed.

The party they are attending is peopled by a wide variety of ex-Weissmann girls and boys: Carlotta (a charismatic Tracie Bennett, who is certainly ‘Still Here’), Di Botcher as Broadway Baby Hattie, a song which would deserve an encore in this production, if the show were not already too long! Opera singer Josephine Barstow unfortunately has too little voice left these days to do justice to her glorious song ‘One More Kiss.’ Adele Leigh was far more successful in the 1987 production. And Miss Barstow was never – in her active opera career – anything like an ‘operetta’ performer for whom Léhar or Oscar Straus might believably have written such a knock-out waltz, as the character claims. The nearest Barstow got to operetta was when English National Opera staged Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate where she played Lili. She was awful – couldn’t act and her style of singing was totally wrong! There is/was a 2CD set available, which is a toture to listen to, for me.

Valerie Masterson, ex D’Oyly Carte, is one of the few older British singers today who knew something about operetta – although when she did Bitter Sweet years ago at Sadlers’ Wells, the matinee replacement, Rosemary Ashe, was superior in every respect. Here is Adele Leigh with ‘One More Kiss’ from 1987.

There are many other individual roles, including ‘younger’ versions of all the principal characters, mainly in the final ‘Loveland’ sequence, which tries to show what a Weissmann revue must have looked and sounded like, all of which are sung and danced with an energy and verve that their older alter-egos still try to emulate!

Mention must be made of Bruce Graham, who portrays former master-of-ceremonies Roscoe and who is the only member of the cast who was in the 1987 London production when he played the role of Max.

The evening is an almost total delight: Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations are used, played by a superb, but unfortunately hidden orchestra; the lavish costumes are everything they would have been in Weissmann’s  time, and the choreography reeks of Busby Berkeley.

Why only an ‘almost’ total delight? The show feels too long to be played without an interval, at least that was how I felt about it.

I used to know Janie Dee because she was the guardian (and aunt) of a student to whom I taught A level drama. I have not seen her for years – we’re talking about 2003/4 when she was doing a lot of work with Alan Ayckbourn at Scarborough before she became really well known. She also, around the same time, sang a leading role in Opera North’s production of Shostakovich’s Moscow Cheremushki: she was very effective and not at all overwhelmed by the ‘opera singers’ she acted with. When I knew her she was stunningly attractive and about 35 – I suppose she must be 50 now – and she is still very striking, even though she is also one of the youngest members of the ‘older’ cast!

Bruce Graham has been around for years: he was in the 1987 Follies cast, and these days often sings the baritone/bass roles in National Gilbert & Sullivan Company productions: indeed I was surprised he was not in this year’s company, until I saw him in Follies. For a bass-baritone, he does a very good job with Roscoe: some lovely high notes, and is beautifully sleazy in the role: one could easily imagine him when young trying it on with all the chorus girls and promising then all sorts of ‘advancements’ to their careers! In fact, at the performance I saw, there was a problem with the drapes descending for the ‘Loveland’ sequence which Roscoe introduces and which had to be done twice. (This made the total running time 160 minutes with no interval, rather like seeing Rheingold but with more tunes!) About 20 years ago he also ran a musical theatre recording company which produced cheap cover versions of popular musicals: I have Blood Brothers and Chicago which are actually in many respects better than the original cast recordings. They were and still are available all over Europe on budget CDs, not always with him or the original artistes listed.

In the 1987 revival, Pearly Carr and Teddy Johnson were the song and dance couple: they were frequent TV variety performers when we first had a TV in the late 1950s and 1960s and seemed old then! By 1987 they were totally right: they just had to play themselves! The new National Theatre production does not have the luxury of finding ‘old’ variety artistes, as they no longer exist – in 1971 in New York it must have been easy to cast the show with so many Burlesque and Variety acts coming to the ends of their lives. I was lucky to have seen acts live like Arthur Askey, Max Miller, George Formby, Sandy Powell etc. when I was very young: they all had charisma. You had to watch them!

I wish I had seen the 1985 Wythenshaw revival with Mary Millar, a real trouper, Chili Bouchier, Josephine Blake and Bryan Burdon – real variety artistes, which Julia McKenzie and Diana Rigg in the 1987 London production never were!

I would now recommend you all run and get tickets, but you will be very lucky if you can find one. Some ‘day tickets’ are available from the NT box office if you show up in person. The production is unlikely to transfer to a West End venue as there is no stage large enough, and even if it does, it will not have the expansive look that this production gives this very bitter-sweet ‘operetta’. I was lucky to see it, and hope there will be a cast album, too! (Remember the superlative 1995 A Little Night Music cast album with Judi Dench, also a National Theatre production of another highly operetta-like Sondheim show?)

For more information and performance dates, click here.


There are 7 comments

  1. Kevin Clarke

    I guess if I can survive “Einstein on the Beach” by Philip Glass without an interval – five hours of non-stop music – I could survive 150 minutes of Sondheim too. Not to mention “Rgeingold”….

  2. John Maskell

    Another excellent review but I was surprised at the inclusion of so many very personal opinions!

  3. John Groves

    I was also surprised at the inclusion of so many personal opinions: most were intended as background for Kevin!!!

  4. Jim Smith

    Thanks to Mr. Groves for the most informative review. When I noticed “Follies,” National Theatre and Olivier all in the same sentence, I immediately began to salivate.
    “Follies” seems to be one of those pieces, like, for instance, Bernstein’s “Candide”, that almost no one gets completely right. Are there intrinsic flaws in James Goldman’s book, or haven’t all of the elements been selected and guided properly? More on that momentarily, but first let me say, I was a bit stunned to read that NT is playing it straight through, as In the original production…
    I saw the original Broadway production (which I thought was terrific) and I have zero memory of there being no intermission/interval. Yes, I know, all too well, that I am of a certain age, and episodes of unreliable recollection are frequent and troubling. But…but.. isn’t it possible that at some point in the run, it was decided to add an act break? As you can see I haven’t done my homework, but there must be an answer out there somewhere.
    In late ’72, this production and cast came to LA to open the Shubert Theatre in Century City. Again, no recollection of a straight-thru show; worse, it all played like a very chilly downer. Business was poor, the run ended abruptly and years later the Shubert was razed to make way for nothing of artistic note; hello irony, my old friend.
    Fade out, fade in: 1987, London, and a beautifully staged version that I thought worked really well. The issue wasn’t that an interval had been added, but that the crucial Loveland sequence had been rewritten, because, and take your pick, Cameron Macintosh felt the main characters were still the same unpleasant people they were at the outset, and/or Diana Rigg couldn’t dance. Anyway, I bought the changes, but didn’t realize until years later that they were unnecessary.
    In 2011, an ex-gypsy friend told me he was going to New York to see the Kennedy Center revival of “Follies,”* because his old friend, Susan Watson was in it as Emily (Susan had created the role of Luisa in “The Fantasticks” and in 71, starred in the Broadway revival of “No, No Nanette”). I invited myself to come along…
    Well, I was blown away. Director Eric Schaeffer and choreographer Warren Carlyle wove all of the elements with such emotional clarity and balance that by the time Loveland (original restored) had spilled out in its resplendence, i was overcome by the nearly unbearable poignance of it all. And I knew, conclusively, that there was nothing fatally wrong with any of it, that the alchemy was exactly right for this artistic group, and that “Follies” is yet another Sondheim masterpiece.

    *Bernadette Peters, Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, Elaine Paige (Carlotta), Rosalind Elias

  5. John Groves

    Fascinating – many thanks Jim: that is one of the reasons that ORC exists, so that people may share experiences. I remember the 1987 West End production with interval, but never realised until the NT production came along that it was so different from the original! I well remember Adele Leigh’s gorgeous waltz number and the Pearl Carr/Teddy Johnson duet, but after the ‘interval the show seemed to flag. I still think that the show is too long to be played complete without an interval, but I am so glad I have seen it again. It was very exhilarating!

  6. James Murray

    I saw this last night in the cinema and (mostly) loved it. Fine performances all round marred by the dreadful imbalance between the orchestra and singers; much of the time Imelda Staunton & Janie Dee were inaudible. Things came across a little better in the big set pieces & generally the men were less affected by the poor balance. Seeing Josephine Barstow again was a trip down Memory Lane (I was a regular at ENO in the 70s & 80s) – maybe there isn’t much voice left (how many singers in their late 70s could have done better?) but her younger self – whose name escapes me – was superb. I wasn’t bothered at all by the length of the show. Many of us in the full cinema here in darkest Cornwall burst into applause after several numbers and at the end. Would love to see this ‘live’ but only if I could be sure of hearing the singers and more of the text throughout.

  7. Jeffrey Rockwell

    I was a student living in New York when the original production of “Follies” was running at the Winter Garden. I saw it there three times and later at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles. I’ve seen large-scale stagings, stagings in 99-seat theatres, such as the one I musical-directed and conducted from behind the keyboard and another directed by the original Buddy, Gene Nelson. I know the show and its history inside out, having practically memorized the Chapin book, “Everything Was Possible,” from multiple readings. I can guarantee that after experimenting with different placements for the intermission, the original creators finally decided that it served the material best as a one-act, with a running time of two hours and twenty minutes. No other first-class professional production that I’ve seen has had the courage and insight to make the same choice until this one, and that immediately sets it apart from all others as coming closest to matching the power and impact of the original. My vivid memories of seeing it as an impressionable student have led me to argue over the years that inserting an intermission takes the audience off the hook: it interrupts the rising tensions among the characters and allows the viewer time to disengage halfway through, robbing the final moments of the bittersweet closure the characters and audience deserve. So, “Bravi’ to everyone backstage and front at the National Theatre for making all the right choices and bringing the show’s poignancy and wisdom back with respect, imagination, and every kind of skill.