Screen Shot 2017-11-04 at 1.07.21 PMSince its original 1971 production, “Follies” has been Stephen Sondheim’s most controversial masterwork, though over time it has gradually earned its status as just that: a masterwork. Its brilliant score combines pastiches based on the work of earlier Broadway and Hollywood composers with character songs that express – musically and lyrically – regret, hope, romantic ardor and loss. The show has no plot, but James Goldman, the book-writer, creates four complex main characters – two married couples – at a reunion of Follies girls at their old theater that is in the process of being dismantled by the wrecking ball. All of their regrets and missteps come back to haunt them, and the play and the place are haunted too. The ambition of the show – not always understood – was grand: it’s a metaphor for the condition of the American Dream, written in the depths of the Vietnam War and as the fractiousness of the Civil Rights movement was beginning to show signs of exhaustion after some substantial gains. Like Gypsy, it’s not about show business, but uses show business to talk about human relationships in a drastically and alarmingly changing world.

This production at the National Theatre in London is, to me, the best since the original, and the first time since the original that the show has been performed without an intermission. In that form, at 2 hours and 20 minutes, it is either mesmerizing or frustratingly tedious. At the 1971 original, there were many walkouts. At the National the night we saw it, no one in the audience moved a muscle. In general this production is a triumphant expression of the show’s greatness – it has never been better acted, the design is gorgeous, and while some of the conventions of the American musical are a bit misunderstood by the British, the overall impact, to us, was stunning. And in an America that once again seems to be facing the wrecking ball, it could not be more timely.

When I first saw the show, as a college student, I was at the age of the young ghosts who haunt the four protagonists. And I saw all the mistakes that my parents made that I was certainly not going to make, and not let our country make. The next time I encountered it, I was at the age of the characters themselves, and had already made many of those mistakes. Now that I’m almost old enough to be a parent to those characters (who are supposed to be in their late 40s) I simply find the whole thing brilliantly prescient and an expression of the inevitability of human – and national –  frailty. And I can’t think of another musical play about which that can be said with a straight face.

Jack Viertel


[Note: “Follies” will be telecast in the U.S. several times in November and December by NT Live.]


Previously Posted:

Posted: 10/06/17 by Howard L. Morgan


Eleanor and I were fortunate enough to have booked tickets for the new National Theater production of “Follies” before it went into previews. By the time we got to London two weeks ago, it had opened to rave reviews and was a very tough ticket. It’s a spectacular production, and we’ve seen several major productions. This one is two hours and fifteen minutes with no intermission, as was the original “Follies.” Imelda Staunton as Sally was a bit of a surprise, but her singing was superb. The wonderful dancing of Zizi Strallen as Young Phyllis was terrific. And this was the first “Follies” where the final “Follies” (“Loveland” through “Live Laugh Love”) made real sense to me. And I prefer the Lucy/Jessie number to “AH But Underneath” that was written for the big London production because Diana Rigg couldn’t dance. All in all, it was a thrilling evening of musical theater, and we came away understanding the characters better than any previous production. If you have the chance to be in London, or to watch the National Theater live event coming on Nov 12th to theaters around the world, take it.

Howard Morgan


One Response to “Follies”

  1. Jack,
    Thanks for the review. We’ve always been amazed by Sondheim’s insights, to say nothing about the notion that he was only 40 years old at the time.

    Thanks for the contextualization and the deeper understanding.

    Finally, thanks for causing me to look at NT LIVE which might actually get us through 6 months in Palm Beach’s cultural wasteland.

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