Holy cow, you guys. I think I just watched one of the most amazing, underrated movies ever.
Julie Andrews is having none of your american shit today.
If the fifties and sixties were the years Stephen Sondheim found his musical theatre voice, the seventies was the decade he shouted that voice from the rooftops. After writing the lyrics to two of the most acclaimed successes of Broadway’s Golden Age, followed by a chequered series of hits and misses, Sondheim “erupted on Broadway between 1970 and 1973 with a creative explosion” (Block, 336). In a three-punch knockout, Sondheim delivered a trilogy of shows—Company (1970), Follies (1971), and A Little Night Music (1973)—that were so innovative and daring in design that they collectively established a whole new paradigm for musical theatre, the so-called concept musical, and pointed Broadway in new directions for years to come.
Sondheim was not of course the singular creator of these shows or, for that matter, the sole force behind the emergence of the concept musical. Musical theatre is, by nature, a collaborative art and, like all musical composers, Sondheim’s work has always relied on, and benefitted from, the valuable contributions of creative partnerships. As Geoffrey Block (2009) reminds, “Sondheim, although arguably a central figure in these collaborations, was not entirely responsible for all the remarkable qualities audiences and critics appreciate in [his] shows” (337). Thus, the breakout trilogy of ‘concept musicals’ mentioned here was just as centrally dependent on the creative efforts of others—such as, notably, producer-director Hal Prince, who was instrumental in conceiving and shaping the vision of these shows, and with whom Sondheim would work closely on three further musicals—just as later Sondheim efforts would develop as the fruit of future artistic partnerships (Hirsch, 1989; Ilson, 2000).
Follies (1971) is a case in point. The show started life in the mid-sixties as a tentative collaboration between Sondheim and playwright James Goldman. Inspired by a newspaper piece about a reunion of former Ziegfeld Follies chorines, the pair set about drafting a show around the theme of ageing Broadway showgirls. Originally titled, “The Girl Upstairs,” the musical went through multiple drafts and was, for the longest while, organised around, of all things, a murder mystery. A series of revolving door changes in producers meant the project stalled for several years. It wasn’t till producer-director Hal Prince decided to take it on that the show really took shape. Prince’s proviso for doing the show was that Sondheim should first help him complete another project on which he was working, Company. That show proved a substantial critical hit, earning Tonys for both Sondheim and Prince, and was even a modest commercial success, helping cement subsequent Sondheim-Prince collaborations (Chapin, 2003).
Turning his attention to Follies, Prince was intrigued by the idea of ageing showgirls as a metaphor, and he set about dramatically overhauling the project, less as a realist narrative treatment and more as a surrealist meditation on memory, ageing and loss (Chapin, 2003). His ‘concept’ for the show was as a “dream play, a memory piece” in which the older showgirls confront their lost youths, rendered as ghost-like figures, who would “wander as silent memories across the paths of their present selves,” until “ultimately, in a kind of collective nervous breakdown, they [take] over” (Ilson, 180-81). More abstractly, Prince envisaged the show as a meta-commentary on “the death of a certain kind of musical theatre and its evolution into one…more sophisticated, more knowing, more nuanced and entirely devoid of sentimental illusion” (Secrest, 204).
Sondheim and Goldman were responsive to Prince’s ideas and worked on yet another draft, their thirteenth, of the book and score. Prince also brought in innovative choreographer Michael Bennett and together Prince, Sondheim, Goldmann and Bennett crafted a distinctive kind of musical quite unlike anything seen before of a Broadway stage. ”Simply put,” asserts Anne Marie McEntree (2000), Follies “replaced the formulaic musical comedy which came to fruition under Rodgers and Hammerstein with a postmodernist treatment…this ‘concept’ musical was conceived and staged as a fragmented detsabilized collection of memories and events…which followed a Brechtian more than an Aristotelian time construction” (89).
Not surprisingly, when the show bowed in April 1971, it engendered divergent receptions. There was a definite sense that Follies represented something new and important but many were unsure how to respond to it. Clive Barnes’ review for The New York Times struck the kind of ambivalent note characteristic of many crits when he praised the show as ”stylish, innovative,…[with] some of the best lyrics I have ever encountered, and above all…a serious attempt to deal with the musical form” but also felt it ”lacked something in affection” and had “none of the heart” requisite for a good musical. Martin Gottfried, also writing for The New York Times, lauded Follies as “a landmark musical” and a work of “monumental theatre” but conceded the show “has its imperfections…seems overlong…and the “story…is undeniably simpleminded.” In a similar vein, Time magazine, which considered the show significant enough to feature on its cover, opined, ”At its worst moments, Follies is mannered and pretentious, overreaching for Significance. At its best moments—and there are many—it is the most imaginative and original new musical that Broadway has seen in years.”
The sense of ambivalence carried over to the show’s popular reception as well. Almost from the outset, Follies attracted a strong cult following and many viewers thrilled at its daring. It was however a bit too dark and confronting for more mainstream audiences of the time. As Ken Mandelbaum (1989) reflects, “Audiences didn’t want to hear the message of it, and didn’t want to face its portrayal of ferocious relationships and of foolish illusions destroying lives” (75). It is a view shared by Joanne Gordon (1990) who writes, “Follies presents audiences with things many do not want to accept: youth denies age, and age glamorises youth; the American faith that material wealth brings emotional maturity is inherently deceptive. The musical poses questions, not only about its characters and social milieu but about the validity of the musical form itself” (121).
The original Broadway production managed to run a respectable 522 performances and earned an impressive seven Tony awards, including Best Score for Sondheim and Best Direction for Prince and Bennett. However, due to what was at the time an immense production budget of $800,000 and the burden of on-going running costs for a big show with a sizeable cast, Follies ultimately closed with substantial losses and was deemed a major commercial failure. However, as is typical of Sondheim musicals, Follies has grown in estimation and stature over the years to the point where today it has attained near cult-like status as a major classic of the new American musical theatre.
Indeed, a show like Follies is a textbook example of one of the more curious aspects of Sondheim’s career; namely, the misfit between what Geoffrey Block (2009) terms “his towering reputation” and the “relatively short initial runs of even his most successful shows” (337). As he notes, “The career of Sondheim marks, perhaps for the first time…the consistent failure of a composer of the most highly regarded musicals of his generation to produce blockbusters on Broadway [or] even major song hits” (349). Yet, what his shows lack in initial popularity, they make up for in critical esteem and longevity. As Block goes on to explain, “Despite the[ir] relatively modest, and sometime even less than modest runs,…every Sondheim show has also received a major New York revival of some sort…and innumerable productions in regional and community theatres, colleges, and high schools throughout the United States, and in opera houses throughout the world” (338).
Such has certainly been the case with Follies where, following its spectacular but commercially disappointing initial Broadway run, the show proceeded to enjoy a series of influential and ever more popular revivals. Of particular note was a landmark 1985 concert performance organised at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall by RCA record producer Thomas Z. Shepard, which resulted in a new full recording of the score that enjoyed an “enthusiastic critical response and brisk sales,” as well as a celebratory PBS documentary (Fisher, 80-81). In a deliriously ecstatic review of the concert, indicative of the general enthusiasm surrounding the event, Frank Rich of The New York Times described how “last weekend…Follies filled Avery Fisher Hall with the sound of an audience losing its mind,” to the point where it almost “required the ministrations of a riot-control squad.” “[T]ime and history,” he concluded, have “at last caught up to the perceptions of Follies, ” revealing ”a restored musical treasure.”
Much of the buzz surrounding the 1985 Lincoln Center concert version of Follies came from its star-studded line-up of Broadway greats. Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, Carol Burnett, Elaine Stritch, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, George Hearn, and Mandy Patinkin were just a few of the luminaries keen to lend their talents to this landmark restaging of Follies, itself an indication of the esteem and artistic cachet the show had come to enjoy in musical theatre circles. As Frank Rich notes, the ”stunning cast” were for the most part “all stars …during the last fertile period for the Broadway musical, the 1950’s and early 60’s, and all long gone from the New York theatre.” As such, they “seemed chosen in part to dramatise" the show’s "valedictory” tenor and key themes of “punctured dreams” and “the death…of the classic Broadway musical and the values it propagated.”
Rumours have circulated for years that Julie was approached to appear in this concert but, for reasons unknown, she declined. These reports are largely hearsay, so it’s not known how valid they are or, if true, how far negotiations proceeded. Certainly, given the production’s casting rationale of using Broadways stars from the classic era, Julie would have seemed an obvious candidate and would surely have been high on the producers’ wish list. It’s certainly tantalising to imagine Julie in Follies, whether the 1985 concert version or a later revival, and especially intriguing to speculate what role she might have played.
Follies is essentially an ensemble piece with no real ‘star’ role and each of the female principals is given a turn in the spotlight. At the show’s heart, however, are two characters, Sally Plummer and Phyllis Stone, former roommates at the Follies who return after thirty years with their unhappily wedded partners, Buddy and Ben, in tow and these are the nearest thing the show has to lead roles. Of the two, Phyllis is possibly the one closest to Julie’s received persona. Described in the libretto as “a stylish and elegant ” society woman, “even more attractive now” than she was thirty years ago, Phyllis has traditionally been played by actors who, like Julie, project an air of patrician hauteur and regal bearing such as Alexis Smith, Lee Remick, Diana Rigg, and Blythe Danner. Phyllis also gets one of the score’s biggest showstoppers, “Could I Leave You”, which Julie sang with astonishing passion in the 1993 Sondheim revue, Putting It Together, so there’s no doubt she would have made a great Phyllis. On the other hand, the character of Sally gets to sing some of the show’s most hauntingly beautiful songs such as “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind” and it’s exciting to imagine how Julie might have interpreted them. Then, there’s also the scene-stealing part of Carlotta, the faded film star with an irrepressible joie de vivre, who scores the show’s tour-de-force diva anthem, “I’m Still Here”. Ultimately, there’s only one way to solve the dilemma: make it a one woman show and give Julie all the parts!
Block, Geoffrey. Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from ‘Show Boat’ to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber. Rev. ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Chapin, Ted. Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical ‘Follies’. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Fisher, James. “Nixon’s America and Follies: Reappraising a Musical Theater Classic.” Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook. J. Gordon, ed. New York: Garland, 2000: 69-84.
Gordon, Joanne Lesley. Art Isn’t Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
Hirsch, Foster. Harold Prince and the American Musical Theater. Cambridge and New York: University of Cambridge Press, 1989.
Ilson, Carol. Harold Prince: A Director’s Journey. New York: Limelight, 2000.
Mandelbaum, Ken. ‘A Chorus Line’ and the Musicals of Michael Bennett. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1989.
McEntree, Ann Marie. “The Funeral of Follies: Stephen Sondheim and the Razing of American Musical Theater.” Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays, S. Goodhart, ed. New York: Garland, 2000: 89-100.
Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York: Random House, 1998.
Blake Edwards has taken criticism, especially in light of his wife, Julie Andrews, being a frequent lead in his films, that his female leads are strong to start, but fall apart when love collides with them.
That is a valid observation.
But who doesn’t lose their head a little bit in the throes…
I’m pretty sure the WHOLE FREAKING COUNTRY shipped these two okay.
so i watched star! ah this over-long musical epic let me tell you
julie andrews in practically every scene. yes pls.
julie andrews playing a star and looking like a star. serious babetown.
julie andrews being thrown about the stage AND SINGING AT THE SAME TIME
burlington bertie omg fave such talent. bonus julie in tux.
This movie. THIS MOVIE
- Emily Barham from “The Americanization of Emily” (1964)
Julie Andrews and James Garner in The Americanization of Emily is probably the sexiest thing ever.
I completely agree.
I think I just died and went to heaven
Hey, don’t ya worry ‘bout Mama! ;D