Follies @ National Theatre: An Essay from Five Songs

cheer them / in their glory / diamonds and pearls

Stephen Sondheim, for all his genius, is not generally considered a consistent writer in terms of tone. Only in one case (Sweeney Todd) do I think that the tone encompasses the whole world of the show, and in almost every other case there is a significant problem in either structure (he loves a two-act structure (Sunday in the Park with Feckin’ George)) or massively inconsistent tone (Company/Into the Woods (which has the distinction of being two-acts and wildly inconsistent.)) Sondheim also has a penchant for wildly unsympathetic characters (case in point: Passion) – not necessarily a bad thing, but when his lyrics are as complex and superficially unemotional in the first place, it can lead to problems when the shows are staged as pageants, as they so often are.

Follies has all of these problems. It’s one act, not particularly common in a musical, and careers wildly from high drama to high comedy. The great success of Dominic Cooke’s production is that it coheres these elements into a single, glorious whole; it finds a centre of the world and plants itself there, inhabited by people who are deeply unlikeable but nonetheless understandable.

Cooke’s production, through Vicki Mortimer’s designs, chooses not to revel in spectacle and grandeur as other previous productions have, but instead it chooses to explore the thinness of the realities we construct as people. The set, while completely evocative of an old, crumbling theatre is basically a single wall and a staircase on a revolve. Even when Loveland invades the space, it’s not total and solid, the illusion remains exactly that; thin billowing drapes that cascade from the flies, translucent, retaining the architecture of the theatre behind.

Similarly, Mortimer’s costumes are rather pedestrian, even the ghostly showgirls that haunt the space are not ridiculously extravagant. The idea of colour and cut is emphasised, Sally and Phyllis in the same sea foam green that eventually bleeds into Loveland – but Sally is dressed up, her self-consciousness clearly visible, whereas Phyllis looks effortlessly cool, collected and chic. Then there’s Carlotta in bright red, drawing all the attention in the room, but it’s still not horrendously over the top. The level of simplicity, the cleanness of the lines serves to frame the actors within the space. These are people that ‘do’ stuff, they don’t just show up to a reunion party.

What I’m getting at, is that Cooke treats Follies like drama, not like a musical. And yes, there’s a difference, and it’s to do with psychology. This Follies completely lacks pageantry; everything is on stage because it would be there, not because the conventions of musical theatre dictate that it should be there.

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Message from housemate after seeing Follies.

first you’re another slow eyed vamp / then someone’s mother / then you’re camp

Even on its own terms, Follies is an interesting creature. Set in 1971, it’s about the first and last reunion of the ‘Weismann Girls,’ the stars of a musical revue that played in the theatre between the First and Second World Wars. It focuses on two couples, Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Ben. Both couples are deeply unhappy. Obviously. And there’s history there. Obviously. Sally (Imelda Staunton) seems to still be deeply in love with Ben, (Philip Quast) a love which may or may not have been reciprocated in the past, and this question re-emerges over the reunion as Phyllis (Janie Dee) and Buddy (Peter Forbes) wrestle with the fallout.

The original production notoriously flopped; it was incredibly extravagant, with something like a cast of 50 and apparently spectacle the likes of which had never been seen on Broadway before. None of that spectacle hides the fact the Follies is at its heart an incredibly bleak, upsetting study of marriage and the collapse of relationships over time. American audiences don’t – or at least didn’t – like watching their marriages vivisected in front of their eyes, apparently Brits don’t care because the whole run has sold out. Or maybe we’re all just masochists.

The idea of 1971 is an interesting one to me. Specifically, it’s the year Charles Manson was sentenced, the Pentagon Papers were published in the press, the War on Drugs is launched, Vietnamization is in full swing… American culture seems to be fraying at the edges. But more broadly, the 1970s seems to be a period of real shift. It’s not defined by a culture the way that the 1960s or the 1980s are, in fact it feels comparably… dead? It seems more marked by what fades away in the period, the death of New Deal socialism in America, the aging of whole generations that fought and survived the World Wars, a loss of a sense of American optimism. There’s a major sense of existential crisis – what the hell is America’s role in the world?

*

The sign that lights up the back of the stage reads ‘Weismann’s Follies: Glorifying the American Girl.’ The follies are from a period of hope, where beauty and glamour ruled – but those girls are older now. Some of them are mothers, some of them have had failed marriages, and it does feel, I don’t know, tragic, that they’re descending on this theatre for a last glimpse at the past, having their old numbers coaxed out of them, hoping and praying they’ve retained some of that poise and composure. Most of them haven’t.

Carlotta’s song, I’m Still Here is a tour de force. She charts her life through the social history of America checking off significant cultural markers as she goes, from Beebe’s Bathysphere, five Dionne babies, to Hoovers J. Edgar and Herbert, via Shirley Temple. She’s a Hollywood actress that clawed her way up from the follies, through the bitterness of the McCarthy era to stardom – although now she’s on television (apparently, it’s based on the life of Joan Crawford.) Tracie Bennett tears into and through the song, it’s a real gift to an actress and she stops the show cold with it. There’s a triumph to it, the sheer matter of survival is worth celebrating, and for Carlotta what comes next is irrelevant, because she’s made it this far.

 

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Are you now or have you ever been… etc.

you said you loved me / or were you just being kind?

I mentioned the psychology of this production before. What I think is distinctive about this production is that Cooke has (at least how it seems to me,) cast actors rather than musical actors. This means that the production has a psychological realism and depth that you do not get when all you’re waiting for is the next song. The intent and the thought is more important than the note.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY THAT THE SCORE IS NOT GORGEOUSLY SUNG. Because it is. Imelda Staunton may not be known primarily is a singer but you’d be fooled for thinking she is, because her vocals – particularly in Too Many Mornings – are stunning. Sounding beautiful remains secondary, however, to having it make actual sense, and quite rightly too. I mean, this company. It’s one of the finest I can recall seeing. Every part is cast to the top of its class, every single one. Thankfully, none of them seek to hog the limelight, and the ensemble works brilliantly as a result.

Staunton is clearly one of the very best actors working today in any medium. I didn’t – dammit – see her Mama Rose, but she is clearly in her element with Sondheim. She just sinks into the lyrics, every word becomes her’s. Torch song after torch song she sings, none with more devastating impact than what might be Sondheim’s greatest song, Losing My Mind. Cooke ignores James Goldman’s stage direction, or perhaps he just sidesteps it, and instead of having Sally be a figure of glamourous beauty, she sits, unfinished at her dressing table in a robe. She sings incredibly simple lyrics, ‘The sun comes up / I think about you / the coffee cup / I think about you…’ but she can evoke so much pain in the gaps between the words, and just how she holds herself. It’s as though Sally doesn’t know what her body is doing the way that Phyllis does, forgetting that she’s clinging to her glass of something like it’s the only constant in her life – which it probably is. But in that simplicity, is where the genius of the music unfurls itself; as she sings of dimming the lights ‘to think about you,’ there’s that ascending scale in the background, just heightening the tension, just making Sally’s instability feel tangible. As her voice cracks on that final, sustained ‘mind…’ you know the damage has been done. You presume the worst for her when they eventually leave the party.

I have a suspicion that Phyllis may well be the better part though. She has the humour, the assurance, and she has the benefit of growth instead of disintegration. Phyllis is the only character that isn’t deluding herself, and she manages to deal with her present by removing herself, by detaching herself from emotion. She speaks practically in a monotone, always with a dry, sarcastic edge. She always suggests aggression, instead of being open, capable of coarseness but electing to be cool. Janie Dee navigates all this by always suggesting Phyllis is in on the joke, she knows who she is and she realises very quickly what she wants to change – and how to do it. During ‘Who’s That Woman,’ as Phyllis dances with the other girls, her face is a mask of cool collected assurance, she doesn’t break a sweat, she doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s as if once she’s done something, it’s embedded. We see a little more of this in Loveland, when she radiates pure joy as she recounts ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie.’ She lights up that stage with a precision and a relish and sheer sexiness. She truly knows who she is, and she knows that if Ben can’t see that, or if Ben doesn’t want that, then I think she’ll still be fine.

As for Ben himself, he’s an interesting case. A man who clawed himself up to politics and power, and has a gravity and a dignity that Sally threatens to undermine. His music is possibly the richest, with the greatest musical heft, so it’s a good job he’s played by Philip Quast who has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. But, just like everyone else, this assurance is a façade, it’s all overcompensation for the fact that Ben absolutely hates himself. He’s bitter and a sense of inferiority, without any sense of what his actions might be doing to Sally, or how his ambiguity might be interpreted in a very dangerous way. Quast’s assuredness on the stage makes Ben’s eventual fragmentation all the more shocking, and all the more believable because of its suddenness. On both occasions I saw Follies I heard mutterings as to whether ‘it’ was part of the show or if Quast had drawn some sort of blank.

This level of integrity in the acting company is true for every role, including Peter Forbes’ charming but-slightly-desperate Buddy, whose very existence seems to repel Sally. He’s trying so hard it hurts, but he’s still not good enough, and he knows it. There’s also Josephine Barstow as Heidi, the oldest of the Follies girls, who seems to have had a relationship with Weismann himself, still hurting after all these years, depending on her younger self to finish her song. There’s a fragility and a bird-like quality to her, but with a voice-box that rings clear still.

Lucy wants to be dressy / Jessie wants to be juicy / Lucy wants to be Jessie / and Jessie, Lucy

I think that Stephen Sondheim is almost definitely a psychopath. I cannot think that anyone completely sane would come up with the stuff he comes up with. By starting with the lyrics and building the music around them, rather than writing a tune and fitting a story around it, Sondheim builds entire interior landscapes for the characters. The songs consequently function as insights, as speeches rather than interruptions in the narrative. They emerge as the emotion in the scene reaches its peak, when the only noise a character can make is a musical note. And, I should add, the score is played wonderfully by the orchestra – it only sucks we don’t actually get to see them. The sound has also been designed and mixed in an impressive way given that the Olivier isn’t particularly sympathetic to musicals, as long as you’re not too far over to the side the noise that the orchestra makes is really quite something.

The last 30 minutes of Follies are flawless. When every relationship seems damaged beyond feasible repair, when the past cannot help but occupy the same space as the present, when the emotion has reached such a pitch that it cannot be sustained in real life, Loveland crashes in. It’s neither real nor fake, modern nor ancient, beautiful nor ugly. It flips the piece on its head, making delusion literal. We get 5 numbers; one from the Young Versions of Ben, Buddy, Sally and Phyllis, and one each from their older selves. Each is a riff on the tone of the old follies numbers, the vaudeville slapstick of ‘Buddy’s Blues,’ the haunting torch song of ‘Losing My Mind,’ the big band swagger of ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie,’ and the ultimate collapse of it all in ‘Live, Laugh, Love.’

There’s a density to the intelligence and complexity of the piece that is unmatched by any other composer, and only finds its equals among a handful of Sondheim’s other work. It can feel overwhelming, but instead of this distancing you the emotional heft of the acting, as well as the use of the Olivier stage make it infinitely more devastating. It’s been said that when going to a Sondheim show you can leave the tissues at home, but that’s certainly not the case with Follies – it had a higher my-housemate-cried rate than Amadeus, and that was quite a tearful spectacle.

This Follies absolutely makes the case that the staging of musicals absolutely has to shift in the years to come. If the presentational pageantry that all too often rears its head in the west end, and which corrupted the work of Rogers and Hammerstein for too long gets its claws on Sondheim, we’re screwed. It must be treated from the word out, not from the image in. That can manifest itself in many ways, but it means that the stand-on-the-edge-of-the-stage-and-belt school of thought just isn’t going to cut it any more – not if we want the musical to be treated as a serious form of theatre, which it is. This is only likely to come from the subsidised theatre, where the risk can be taken, where directors with experience directing straight plays can use their methods on musicals (sidenote: I cannot believe this is Cooke’s first musical. Show-off.)

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The girls upstairs.

some climbers get their kicks / from social politics / me, I like to live

So, why Follies? Why is the National Theatre, at this time of national – well, I don’t know – disaster? Crisis? National sense-of-imminent-doom? Why is the National Theatre staging a splashy musical about aging chorus girls?

Well, because it can, first of all. There’s no other theatre in the country that could put this show on to the standard it probably requires, with a cast and an orchestra and a stage that could do the piece justice. It’s a significant piece in the American theatre canon, just like Ma Rainey – and I don’t remember complaints about that. It’s accepted philosophy that plays take on the character of their context, but such sentiment remains apart from musicals in many places.

But if Follies must be Topical, then it can be. It’s about the passing of an age, a whole generation, a whole idea of what life could be and the sheer disappointment when it all starts to collapse around you. It’s about relationships you thought you understood starting to atomise, and people you thought you remembered clearly actually being completely different.

It’s about the lies we tell ourselves to get to sleep at night and the sheer terror when the veil slips and the real world bleeds onto your retina. The terror of growing old and realising your life might have been an act of total self-delusion.

There’s almost nothing more contemporary.

 

 

Photo by Johan Persson.

 

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