But in 1961, the Roxy came down, as did Pennsylvania Station a few years later, the razing of these landmarks being done in the name of “progress” or “urban renewal” which destroyed so much of Amrica’s urban core and replaced it with ticky-tacky, boring office buildings and retail chains. The Roxy would be a viable theatre today, but that is hindsight, and when it comes to developers and city planning, few have real insights as to future needs. Just look at the glut of real estate on the market today with no buyers. Only belatedly, after losing so many of its historic theatres, did the City of New York require a new one to replace an old one within certain historic zones.
In any case, a TGIFridays sits on its former site today. How barbaric. But as the great Roxy Theatre was coming down, the legendary Gloria Swanson paused for a moment in the wreckage, adopted the classic pose you see below, and a photo that changed Broadway history was taken.
Gloria Swanson was not only famous as a film star, but also became the catalyst for two musicals. Her portrayal of Norma Desmond in the movie Sunset Boulevard inspired Andrew lloyd Webber to create his musical version which today is seen more than the original film. Who hasn’t repeated the line “I’m ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille.” Locally we will have an opportunity to see it again this Spring at the Cohoes Music Hall. I traveled to Arlington Virginia a year ago to see the much talked about version at the Signature Theatre which had Florence Lacey and Ed Dixon in the cast plus a 25 piece orchestra which of course sold out the place.
Which brings us to our first coincidence. That photo of Gloria Swanson was the inspiration that propelled Follies forward. The show originated several years earlier under the title “The Girls Upstairs,” which would focus on a reunion of ex-Ziegfeld Follies girls in a soon-to-be demolished theatre. Published in Life magazine with the caption “Swan Song for a Famous Theater,” it provided a visual metaphor juxtaposing glamour and decay, dreams and hard hitting reality. This ultimately seeped its way into Follies with its ghosts of the past mirroring the “follies” of youth while their older, present day counterparts contemplate their own choices and mistakes in life and careers.
And with the impressive Broadway revival cast that opened this past September, is one of my favorites, Florence Lacey, in the lesser role of Sandra Crane, holding her own with legendary stars like Elaine Paige, Bernadette Peters. Jan Maxwell, Rosalind Elias, Mary Beth Pell and Colleen Fitzpatrick. Danny Burstein and Ron Raines joined the ladies in retelling this story about the institution of marriage, focusing on Phyllis and Sally, two former showgirls, and Ben and Buddy. The guys began as stage-door johnnies and eventually they married with resentful results. It is the main theme of the show, a first-and-last reunion within a decaying Ziegfeld-like theatre serving to amplify the decay in their own lives.
If there is a flaw to the show it is that the book keeps returning again and again to the specific relationships of the two couples, focusing on the broken dreams themselves, rather than on the bigger picture. Not everyone is interested in staged relationships that are treated like Gordian knots and absolutely, positively must be unraveled before the plot can move on. So, they married the wrong person. Got it. Move on.
Even so, what is remarkable is that much of the book and music is based on real life. In the original production in 1971, Michael Bennett both directed and did the choreography, and this real life component is one he would use years later in A Chorus Line (which we will have a chance to see this summer in a fresh production from the Berkshire Theatre Group.)
Theodore S. Chapin, who acted as a director’s assistant on “Follies,” said that Sondheim took the trouble to sit down with Yvonne De Carlo who was in the original production, and listen to the story of her life (she was then 49). He came back with the incomparable song “I’m Still Here”.
Good times and bum times,
I’ve seen them all and, my dear,
I’m still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I’m here.
I’ve stuffed the dailies
In my shoes,
Sung the blues,
Seen all my dreams disappear,
But I’m here.
New York Times critic Ben Brantlee wrote that “This Follies looks back as much in anger as in fondness. That’s what makes it so vibrant.” It came across to me as frustration. We don’t always agree, of course. Last summer, he gushed about how wonderful John Doyle’s Ten Cents a Dance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival was and hinted that Doyle’s approach might make Follies more interesting. Gawd, he has to be kidding. Doyle has already had the actors playing instruments in Company and Sweeney Todd, and let us hope that this worn out budget-cutting concept does not make its way to Follies and onto the Williamstown stage anytime soon. It’s a cheap gimmick, though national critics seem to be in love with it. That’s ok. The big guys didn’t like Follies the first time around. I guess we all can be allowed a few bad calls now and then.
Follies has 20 incredible songs, and with the large orchestra at the Marquee Theatre, the sound was simply out of this world. With such Sondheim gems as “Losing My Mind,” “Broadway Baby,” “Who’s That Woman?,” “Beautiful Girls,” and the rousing anthem “I’m Still Here,” what’s not to like? Though it did not immediately garner much critical acclaim, and certainly never made back the money its backers had invested, one young critic was ahead of the curve and certainly liked what he saw even as it was being polished before the New York opening.
Frank Rich, writing for a college daily about the show’s world premiere at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, called it “The Last Musical,” and announced that “a large part of the chilling fascination of Follies is that its creators are in essence presenting their own funeral.” (They lived on, and on.) Sondheim and Rich are great friends and colleagues these days, and travel the country doing fascinating “two-men-talking-about-musicals” events, one of which was held, for free, at Wiliams College a couple of winters ago.
Follies finishes its scheduled run on January 22, 2012. Then it moves to LA in May, though without Bernadette Peters. In the ever changing world of theatre, it represents one of the high points in Stephen Sondheim’s creative output. And it is highly unlikely that a better production will come along anytime soon.
If you are in New York or LA, you simply must see it. If you have seen it, consider yourself among the fortunate witnesses to theatrical history.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Presents Follies with book by James Goldman; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; directed by Eric Schaeffer; choreography by Warren Carlyle; music direction by James Moore; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Gregg Barnes; lighting by Natasha Katz; sound by Kai Harada; hair and wig design by David Brian Brown; makeup by Joseph Dulude II; associate director, David Ruttura; orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; music coordinator, John Miller. Presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, David M. Rubenstein, chairman; Michael W. Kaiser, president; Max A. Woodward, vice president; Nederlander Presentations Inc.; Adrienne Arsht; HRH Foundation; and Allan Williams, executive producer.
Cast: Bernadette Peters (Sally Durant Plummer), Jan Maxwell (Phyllis Rogers Stone), Danny Burstein (Buddy Plummer), Ron Raines (Benjamin Stone), Elaine Paige (Carlotta Campion), Don Correia (Theodore Whitman), Christian Delcroix (Young Buddy), Rosalind Elias (Heidi Schiller), Colleen Fitzpatrick (DeeDee West), Lora Lee Gayer (Young Sally), Michael Hayes (Roscoe), Leah Horowitz (Young Heidi), Jayne Houdyshell (Hattie Walker), Florence Lacey (Sandra Crane), Mary Beth Peil (Solange LaFitte), David Sabin (Dimitri Weismann), Kirsten Scott (Young Phyllis), Frederick Strother (Max Deems), Nick Verina (Young Ben), Susan Watson (Emily Whitman) and Terri White (Stella Deems). At the Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway, at 45th Street; (877) 250-2929, ticketmaster.com. Through Jan. 22. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including one intermission.