I had seen the original - in another lifetime - at the Winter Garden Theater in New York and remember it as an unusually singular, once-in-a-lifetime musical experience. James Goldman's book for the show ostensibly deals with the reunion of former showgirls from decades earlier who performed for Dimitri Weissmann at his eponymous theater which, in 1971, is in the throes of being razed. There are dozens of characters but "Follies" is interested largely in only two of the women, the unpretentious Sally and the imperious Phyllis, their respective husbands, Buddy and Ben, and - here's where the show gets tricky - their former selves as young people.
There is no "plot," per se, as Sondheim himself has been quick to point out, just two pseudo-storylines of bits and pieces running parallel to each other. As the older Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and Ben circle each other, making bitter accusations, their younger selves shadow them, like ghosts, and often, the young and the old characters intermingle. It's quite intricate and, as such, camouflages the fact that "Follies" really has no heft as a story or that, at best, it's a cliche about mismatched, unfulfilled partners.
Still, it's transfixing. And those Sondheim songs! "Broadway Baby", "I'm Still Here", "Too Many Mornings", "Could I Leave You?", "In Buddy's Eyes," "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues," "Losing My Mind" and "The Right Girl." Sondheim wrote a whopping 20-plus songs for the show and, reportedly, tossed just as many more.
I could go on.
Given that, it came as something of a surprise when, in the late 1970s, rumors circulated that Fox wanted to film "Follies" with Doris Day as Phyllis and Debbie Reynolds as Sally, terrific, spot-on casting of those two roles. One can only imagine what the film would have been like, but it was never made and my hunch is that what Sondheim, Goldman and director Hal Prince achieved on the stage was simply resistant to any kind of adaptation - an effective film that would work on its own terms.
Because of its scale, "Follies" has been rarely revived. In 1985, it was staged by Herbert Ross in concert form at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, with Lee Remick as Phyllis and Barbara Cook as Sally, as well as Carol Burnett, Mandy Patinkin, George Hearn, Elaine Stritch, Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green and Betty Comden. There was a full 2001 Broadway revival with Blythe Danner as Phyllis and Judith Ivey as Sally - and Treat Williams, Gregory Harrison, Betty Garrett and Polly Bergen.
But I still have dreams about what might have been with Day and Reynolds in a film version and I believe that a '70s filmmaker with a great imagination (Altman perhaps?) could have conquered the adaptation, especially considering that "Follies" on stage was already quite cinematic.
It is certainly the definitive "Follies," with Imelda Staunton bringing an exciting new dimension (and a movie intimacy) to the role of Sally.
The National Theater version also preserves the original's free-flowing structure. All of the subsequent revivals inserted an intermission break.
It runs two hours and thirty minutes without pause.
Stephen Sondheim and movies have always been an uneasy mix, despite his enthusiasm (often misplaced and too generous) for the few films made from his work. Only the films of "West Side Story" (1961) and "Gypsy" (1962) - his collaborations as lyricist with Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne, respectively - are faithful renderings of their stage counterparts.
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1966), his first solo show, was given an art-film, European feel by director Richard Lester and is fun to watch - but, on film, is not much of a musical anymore.
What happened to all the songs?
A decade later, a truncated movie of "A Little Night Music" (1977) - filmed by its stage director Hal Prince, no less - came along and ... ditto. Where are the songs? One can almost see scissors clipping the songs "The Miller's Son" and "Liaisons" out of the film (and, yes, they were indeed filmed).
Both "Sweeney Todd" and "Into the Woods" were made into feature films that, for some bizarre reason, Sondheim endorsed. "Sweeney" (2007), filmed by Tim Burton, deleted some precious songs, including the necessary "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," and completely eliminated the show's chorus. This meant that the song, "God, That's Good!," no longer included those words among its lyric. As for "Into the Woods" (2013), directed by Rob Marshall, one watches it and wonders why it was such a sensation on stage.
Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials. Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.
* * * * *
~Gloria Swanson, in a photo that inspired "Follies," posing at what once was New York's Roxy Theater in October of 1960.
~Photography: Eliot Elisofon/Life magazine 1960©
~One-sheet poster for the original 1971 Broadway production of "Follies"
~Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds at a studio event in the 1950s; they were once considered for a film version of "Follies"
~Photography: MGM 1958©
~Imelda Staunton in the 2017 London revival of "Follies"
~National Theater 2017©
~Stephen Sondheim, circa 1990
~Saoirse Ronan singing Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't" in "Lady Bird"