Monday, December 04, 2017

stephen's folly

My wife and I spent a pleasing afternoon recently in Princeton, New Jersey - specifically at the campus movie house, the Garden Theater, where we saw the National Theater Live screening of the current London revival of Stephen Sondheim's hugely creative one-act musical, "Follies," from 1971.

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.

The original production was one of the costliest stage musicals ever mounted. Sondheim has referred to it often ( and with a sense of humor, I gather) as a "pastiche" - yes, but a rather expensive pastiche, I'd say. It  was an artistic/critical success but not a financial one.

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. 

But, for all intent and purposes, the taped version of Britian's National Theater revival is the film version of "Follies." Dominic Cooke's staging brings a filmmaker's eye to the material and the work of the director who filmed Cooke's staging, Tim Van Someren, heightens everything with visuals that swoop and sway, moving in tandem with the performers and often zooming upward and looking down at the activity on the proscenium.

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).

There have been filmed stage versions of "Pacific Overtures" (1976), "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (1982), "Sunday in the Park with George" (1986), "Into the Woods" (1991), "Passion" (1996), "Putting It Together" (1996), "Company" (2007) and "Merrily, We Roll Along (2013), all faithful and all of which went to TV (usually PBS).

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.

Currently, Sondheim is represented on screen by Greta Gerwig's marvelous "Lady Bird," in which her teenage characters elect to perform "Merrily, We Roll Along" as their annual school musical. One of its best - and most eclectic - moments in the film comes when Saoirse Ronan auditions for the show by singing Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't!" from 1962's "Anyone Can Whistle," sung by Harry Guardino in the original. Just fabulous.

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* * * * *
(from top)

~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"
~A24 2017©


Riviera said...

i also saw Follies at a movie theater a few weeks ago. Fabulous! And what a fabulous photograph of Gloria Swanson. Thank you for bringing all of this info.

Brian Lucas said...

Don't forget that Sondheim also wrote songs for Warren Beatty for "Dick Tracy" and, I believe, the score for Resnais' "Stavisky."

Kiki said...

I saw a Wednesday matinee of Follies in the early 70s and when it was over, bought a ticket for the evening performance. And I remember saying, "I hope they NEVER try to make a movie out of this." Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds? . . . but it would get so lost in translation which is why I never went to the movie version of Night Music, Sweeney Todd. Into the Woods, etc. When I lived in London, Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, etc etc were always playing somewhere and being politically correct, they would cast black actors as Bobby in Company but it was so gratuitous when they cast a black as Alexis Smith's husband in Follies! The Sondheim that gets me the most is still "Sunday in the Park with George." Maybe because Sondheim finally gave Seurat the credit he deserved.

Vienna said...

Enjoyed seeing this London production on the big screen. Facial close ups added a lot especially when Imelda Staunton is doing "Losing My Mind". She literally does seem to be going mad. I still haven't got round to watching Imelda in Gypsy.
, Janie Dee as Phyllis showed off her dancing as well as singing skills. . ( Janie was also excellent in My One and Only.)
I still recall the 1980s London production of Follies with Diana Rigg, Daniel Massey and Julia McKenzie .
But you beat us all ,having seen the very first production with that wondrous cast!

k.s. said...

The photo of Gloria Swanson certainly captures the essence of the show.

Nancy said...

I forgot how much I loved the music from that show. I saw it on Broadway back when ..
I will look for the National Theater film version.

mike schlesinger said...

I saw the 2011 Broadway revival with Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein, and it was mesmerizing.