Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Road They Didn’t Take: Fixing Follies

When I walked into the Belasco Theatre on Wednesday, June 13, 2001, I was entirely clueless about Follies. By this point, I had seen quite a few Broadway tours, had been following Broadway online often, had been to New York once before where I had seen quite a few shows, and had gotten into the habit of buying Cast Recordings quite often. Yet, I didn’t know exactly what Follies was or how significant Sondheim is (trust me, I’ve since made up for it and then some).

But in seeing Follies for the first time, all that worked to my benefit because I also didn’t know how “Loveland” was supposed to look or how Phyllis was supposed to sing or how “I’m Still Here” was supposed to be staged or anything.

So that night when the lights went down . . . Oh, what a show!

Immediately when the ghosts of the follies past entered, I was captivated. They were humans on stage, but it really was as if they were from another world. As the story unfolded, I was stunned by the storytelling, the past commenting on the present, the present living in the past. I can still remember how my insides churned with excitement during “Who’s That Woman” and after that, how Polly Bergen stopped the show with “I’m Still Here” in the way that stars used to stop shows. Then came “Loveland,” and I just couldn’t get enough of those songs and what they were expressing and how. The entire evening was astounding, exciting, imagination-inspiring.

At the end of the night, I left the Belasco almost speechless. The story seemed like that of a straight play, but the music pulled it deeper psychologically. I wanted to get my hands on the libretto because I felt like I had been so dazzled that I needed to read the ending again to understand it all.

When I returned home, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t fully communicate to people the excitement that was Follies. Unless you see it for yourself or read the libretto with a vivid imagination, I don’t think an average person could fully grasp that show.

But now matter how excited I was about the show itself, the story that really piqued everyone’s interest happened at the stage door.

At this time, I was still waiting at the stage door to meet the stars of the shows I had seen. In this cast, I knew who Marge Champion was and knew who Betty Garret was from Laverne and Shirley. Marni Nixon I knew, as well as Treat Williams and Erin Dilly. But by the end of the show, I was a big fan of everyone involved and so desperately wanted to meet them. Unlike most other shows I had been to that week, only a small gaggle of fans gathered outside this theatre, but we still scrambled as each diva exited.

As if each performer wasn’t generating enough excitement, Blythe Danner walked out with daughter Gwyneth Paltrow (star of the movie Emma, which I love) beside her. Thankfully, people were very respectful, though, as you can imagine, excited to see such a film star. I was more interested in meeting her mother after such a riveting performance in a riveting show. I politely asked Ms. Danner if I could have my picture taken with her, and she said yes, but because I was alone, I didn’t have anyone to take the picture. Used to this, I turned to the people around me and said, “Could anyone take our picture?” to which a certain Academy-Award winning actress said shyly, raising her hand timidly, “I could.”

“Oh my gosh, I just had my picture taken by Gwyneth Paltrow!” I said after thanking Phyllis Rogers Stone for a spectacular performance and Gwyneth Paltrow for taking the picture. At that very moment, Marge Champion came out, so I let other people grab at the movie star while I met Ms. Champion who, for the record, is much sweeter in person than she is on stage in Elaine Stritch’s show.

When I got pictures with a few other stars from the show, I turned to see mother and daughter movie star walking down the street, knowing that now away from the stage door, they deserved their personal time without my interruption. I never regretted not getting my picture with her because, well, she wasn’t in the show. I am, after all, a movie fan who is a die hard Broadway baby.

For the record, Gwyneth Paltrow takes a very fine snapshot, and I’d sell my camera on eBay for oodles of money if I could prove her fingerprints were on it.

So anyway, about a year or so after seeing the show, I discovered that the Follies libretto was available and bought it.

It’s amazing how truthfully Follies deals with the issues of the past and our response to it. Every time I read it, I connect with the events and the characters more deeply. And the more people I know getting married, getting divorced, and even re-connecting after divorce, the more I can see how the show mirrors life.

Recently, I finally read Ted Chapin’s soon-to-be legendary book Everything Was Possible, in which he describes with great detail the laborious rehearsal period for the original Hal Prince/Michael Bennett production. In addition to being a fascinating read because it details the creation of Follies, it gives you a stripped-away, glam-less documentation of the making of a Broadway musical (which, for the record, has a great many similarities with directing plays at the high school level, which I found fascinating).

Reading it shed a great deal of light on why Follies is the way that it is, which is brilliant but, to my opinion, not perfect.

The Cause
As a writer, you generally have an idea of where you want your story to go. The journey getting there might be unclear, but you have a clear idea of where you want to go and how. You then build your work to ready your audience for that end.

The problem in the creation of Follies was that there were several key pieces missing from the plot puzzle for a significant portion of the rehearsal period. With the exception of “Losing My Mind,” the songs for the final follies sequence—“You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow,” “Love Will See Us Through,” “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,” “The Story of Lucy and Jesse,” and “Live, Laugh, Love” were not written. And Phyllis was actually set to sing “Losing My Mind.”

The older actors were really struggling with some of the material. In fact, Chapin says that, for the entire run of the show, several of them regularly botched their songs. “Who’s That Woman” was particularly challenging for the older women, and Michael Bennett and his team worked tirelessly with them to get it down. Because of that, can you imagine what it must have been like to have only begun to conquer all that dancing and music . . . then to be handed “The Story of Lucy and Jesse” or “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues”? When reading Chapin’s book, by the time these songs are ready and the show is complete, you can almost feel the sigh of relief from everyone involved in the production just at the thought of having a complete show . . . and that’s without having the show entirely on its feet. There would have been no way to make major changes to the conclusion or to the opening without threatening the ability of the cast to pull it off. Also, I doubt there was time for anyone to really sit back and objectively observe and reflect on how the story came together and how it should be altered. The result was that the show never fully comes together thematically.

Unjustly, James Goldman tends to get much of the brunt of this criticism, but if you look at the timing when those songs were completed, the amount of work that was still before the cast, and the break-neck pace at which everyone was working . . . The guy deserves a break for even having had a chance to write anything for the actors to do after Ben’s breakdown. Even if he had had the time to understand what changes needed to be made, there would have been no way he could actually implement them without risking the whole show.

The Problems
I humbly submit these as the key problems with Follies. Please note that these thoughts are largely derived from the edition of the play published by Theatre Communications Group after the 2001 revival, carrying a copyright date of 2001 by James Goldman. If you haven’t seen Follies, I highly recommend you pick up this relatively inexpensive book and read it as soon as you can. I know that there is an older edition published with the text of the original Broadway show. In my dream world, I would have copies of each libretto; however, right now I don’t, so my comments reflect the currently published edition.

First of all, as Steven Suskin points out in his Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001, the placement of Ben’s song as last and the show pivoting on his breakdown sort of makes him the main character. The problem is that the show isn’t about Ben Stone. Suskin does mention how the actress playing Phyllis Rogers Stone typically gets top billing, which would indicate Phyllis as the main character; however, billing isn’t always connected with the size of the role. For example, Dorothy Brock gets top billing in 42nd Street (and wins Leading Actress awards), but it is the character of Peggy Sawyer on which the major dramatic question of the show rests (and who gets the most stage time). This structural dilemma in Follies is understandable because of the stress in constructing the show. As Suskin points out, a show about follies girls should not be centered on a man. With this ending the show seems to be about Ben, but I don’t think the creative team could have done anything to set it up differently at that stage.

Secondly, the characters leave the reunion returning to their original spouses without there being any indication of their ability to do things differently. Each character goes through a moment of self reflection in the follies sequence’s songs, but they never come to a conclusion. For example, Phyllis identifies her problem, but there’s no resolve. The ending never indicates that Lucy and Jesse will finally combine. This makes for an unsatisfactory ending because the characters never really make a decision; their choices just seem to happen as if there’s nothing better to do. The audience cannot believe that these couples will be truly happy, and an unhappily ever after ending doesn’t comment on any other part of the show or fit into a grand thematic statement. There’s nothing elsewhere in the musical to suggest that there’s a good reason for them to have to be unhappy.

As I said earlier, when I left the theatre, I felt like I needed to read the ending to fully realize its deeper meaning. When I finally read the play, what I realized was that there were no deeper meanings to get. That’s because, again, the ending seems disconnected from the rest of the show.

Thirdly, the cause of all this mess is never entirely clear. It is known that Sally gave it out, so to speak, too quickly, and she even acknowledges this in her fight with Young Sally. However, why Ben picked Phyllis (who seems to have given it out as well) when he really loved Sally is never clear. And not only is it not clear, but it’s very important because Ben’s choice is the impetus for everyone’s regrets. This lack of meat in the flashback scenes robs the current plot of its substance. Number one, it makes the events seem more like those in a soap opera, and number two, the psychology of the characters that is so brilliantly depicted in the follies sequence lacks drive or substance.

One could carp about the lack of humor in the show, as Michael Bennett did, but to go through adding more zingers would tamper with Goldman’s style. Besides, as Foster Hirsch noted in his book Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre (Expanded Edition), the original production wasn’t lit or set brightly enough for humor. It is my supposition that the show requires a darker set because of the nature of the characters’ struggles and the need to bathe the ghosts in a supernatural light, so adding humor to the libretto would also be somewhat futile.

Lastly, one could argue that the show never really says anything concretely, though the makings of some themes are present. It more so presents ideas—the futility of regret, the dangers of living in the past, the naivetĂ© of youth, the nature of youthful marriage—without ever commenting on them (in the way that straights plays do, like The Crucible, A Raisin in the Sun, Death of Salesman, or Sweet Birth of Youth). Sondheim’s shows tend to contain a myriad of ideas, but Follies, by its serious nature, can’t remain observations, at least not in its current form. It needs to complete the statement its unique structure feels like its building to.

Some Fixes
Ideally, someone would be able to take Goldman’s book and, with a concrete driving theme in mind, restructure it to fit in all of Goldman’s original ideas and align them with Sondheim’s ideas without damaging Goldman’s tone and sensibilities. It would be a cut and paste job with many of the same scenes happening, perhaps just in a slightly different order.

As I outline some potential solutions, I do think it’s important to note that, without the ability to fully cut and paste, I don’t know if anyone could really build to a concrete driving theme. Still, I’d like to propose some fixes within Goldman’s current libretto.

The first big change needs to be a clarification of why Ben chose Phyllis when he clearly preferred Sally. It is made clear that Ben wants to be a big success, so perhaps there could be something that happens to indicate that while he loves Sally’s childlike nature, he wants to love Phyllis’s maturity and sophistication. In other words, he really prefers to shop at Wal-Mart, but he wants to want to shop at Macy’s because it’s classier. Ben’s desire to be rich and have the best is very clear, but the connection of his choice of Phyllis needs to be as clear as well.

There needs to be something in the follies sequence that allows the characters to make a choice that foreshadows/builds to the ending. It would be better to break concept and allow the audience to leave the theatre wholly satisfied than to hold rigidly to the concept and leave the audience cheated. In my mind, these choices look like this:

Buddy: In the final chorus of “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,” he sings it with caricatures of Margie and Sally. On the final line or note, perhaps he could dip Sally with a kiss, while Sally’s extended leg could kick Margie away. This would indicate his choice.

Sally: Sally is really in love with her personal rendering of Ben Stone. Her entire adult life has been whiled away reliving memories of a man who never was. When, at the end of “Losing My Mind,” she sings, “You said you loved me, / Or were you just being kind?” there should be a pause. A spotlight shines on Young Ben passionately making out with Young Phyllis in their follies costumes. Sally hears this behind her and reluctantly confronts the past she’s desperately tried to suppress. She looks back, finally sees the truth that she’s denied up until this point, then turns to the audience, belting, “Or am I losing my mind?”

Phyllis: In a change of the traditional staging, when the chorus boys come on to back Phyllis during “The Story of Lucy and Jesse,” a caricature of Lucy and Jesse also hit the stage. Choreography could echo the problem indicated in the story. In the final moment of the song, perhaps after its ended, Phyllis should take the hand of each caricature to indicate her desire to get them together quick. This could be done in the button of the song or as a bow after the music has ended.

Ben: I don’t think the idea of a breakdown fully suits the moment, particularly a breakdown of the evening’s events. If anything, the breakdown should consist of the Young counterparts re-singing their follies songs in a psychedelic manner, since it is the past that haunts him, not the other present-day characters.

I think it’s okay to end on Ben’s follies because it doesn’t have to be the climax of the show, and the truth is that the fate of the other three characters hinged on his choice of Phyllis back in the day. Because of this, their ability to overcome their present-day problems also hinges on his present-day choice.

In my mind, when the chorus keeps singing and he’s shouted out his whole “Look at me. I’m nothing” realization, the lights change instantly from follies to reunion, and Ben is left alone on stage, calling out Phyllis’s name with great panic.

The End: As Ben is silently, but with great panic, exiting the stage to find Phyllis before she leaves him, Sally enters. She calls out his name. He turns. She’s honest with him and makes the decision to not go with him, with which Ben eagerly agrees.

Buddy runs onstage and sees Sally with Ben. He pulls Sally aside and declares that he won’t let her leave with Ben. This is important because he needs to make the choice to pick Sally over Margie himself. Sally informs him that Ben was only a fantasy, maybe even saying that she just temporarily lost her mind (to tie the dream follies into real life). Now that Buddy is finally getting what’s he’s never been able to get, he realizes that he’s being confronted with his old problem (from his follies song). There’s a beat, a release. He hugs Sally to show that even though he’s got her, he still wants her. Perhaps Sally speaks a line about really loving Buddy, a gentle reflection on something endearing about him that she’s learned in the years since their youth, as if to say, “You were Plan B then, but now I see you were Plan A material all along.”

Some of the other characters come on for their final good-byes and reflections. Someone asks Ben where Phyllis went to, tells him to tell her it was great to see her again, and they leave. After these people exit, Ben is left alone. Young Ben comes behind him and calls out Phyllis’s name, surreptitiously as if in a scene from the past. Young Phyllis rushes on from the other side of the stage, whispering that it’s too late (as in, at night . . . but for the audience to understand differently in present context), for him to go home.

Then Phyllis re-enters through the theatre door. She calls out Ben’s name. The decision is now hers, and the climax rightfully rests on her shoulders. Perhaps a gentle “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” plays from the orchestra.

They key here is that Phyllis can no longer be the caustic, one-line hurling Phyllis of ten minutes ago. Lucy and Jessie have to take some steps toward combining. So she calls Ben’s name. Ben runs to her, saying his lines about “I need you, Phyl” and so on.

Young Ben would say something like, “Phyllis, please” to which Young Phyllis would respond, “Ben . . .”

One of Ben’s problems is that he feels unloved, and Phyllis has become “cold as a slab.” Phyllis isn’t going to feel comfortable enough to throw herself at Ben anymore, but it’s important to show that she’s willing to try, that they now have a chance to make it. Since Ben’s breakdown in “Live, Laugh, Love” has already happened, the audience can see his change of heart. Phyllis’s change needs to be made physical somehow.

So, awkwardly, Phyllis puts out her hand, clumsily caressing Ben’s shoulder. She looks at him a moment, then says, as the orchestra plays the orchestral “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow,” “Come on, let’s get our coats.” At that, Young Phyllis runs into Ben’s arms, saying, “Oh, you know I can never resist you.” Phyllis and Ben exit, awkwardly holding hands, and the lights go out on the Young counterparts in embrace while the orchestra booms the final part of “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow.”

So that’s how I would fix Follies. Though, maybe I’m losing my mind.

Broadway Mouth
June 27, 2007

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