News of Follies
The reviews weren’t great and Follies was shut out of the awards
Assassins to bow in November; a new Woods scheduled for L.A. next February; Follies prompts some publications
At a Times Talk, Sondheim discusses his work and how he composes
A much-revised Side by Side is canceled in Miami
Forum has a Pacific Islander flavor in L.A.
A Night Music with new touches in San Francisco
Lewis Cleale stars in Company in Kansas City
Saturday Night in Cincinnati, Passion in Chicago
Italian students celebrate Sondheim in Bologna
An exciting production of Company in Rio moves to Sao Paolo
How were the critics? Some were disappointed
Photos from the production
TSR’s critics voice their views about the show
Polly Bergen kept a journal from the first day of rehearsal to opening night
Sondheim and Matthew Warchus talk about the production
Opening night party photos
For Your Amusement
Once again, our anniversary issue’s puzzle by Sondheim
Barbara Cook records her “Mostly Sondheim” concert at Carnegie Hall
The Eos Orchestra premieres the “Concertino”
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
How were the critics? Some were disappointed.
There was a time when the views of New York critics could make or break a show. Now, with Internet chat rooms and message boards giving new meaning to word-of-mouth, the critics have even less influence on whether the public will see a show.
Still, the reviews are important–a rave from The New York Times can still sell tickets.
So there was considerable speculation on how the critics would react to the Roundabout Theater Company’s version of Follies. Would it be as spectacular as the 1971 original?
In terms of numbers, Variety recorded seven favorable, nine negative and three mixed. Among the major New York reviewers, however, the theme was disappointment. While everyone praised Sondheim’s score- -“brilliant,” “incandescent,” “magnificent”–they faulted Matthew Warchus’ direction and the singing abilities of the four principals.
In The New York Times, Ben Brantley, who had been enthusiastic about the 1998 production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., called the Roundabout’s Follies a “pale and tentative interpretation” with “a bone-dry emotional center.”
“The beauty we fell in love with 30 years ago isn’t looking so good these days. I ran into her at the Belasco Theater the other night. She’s turned all brittle and cynical, and she’s thin to the point of emaciation. Worst of all, she seems to have lost any real sense of who she is. Sad, isn’t it, what the years can do to a great musical?”
Questioning Warchus’ decision to emphasize James Goldman’s book, Brantley declared: “What is widely remembered as a ravishing musical elegy for an era in American show business has resurfaced as a small, bleak and pedestrian tale of two unhappy marriages.”
In the New York Post, Clive Barnes criticized Warchus’ “drab and unimaginative staging…which has little idea of the style needed.”
Newsday’s Linda Winer found Follies an “oddly dowdy, often miscast production” with a “flimsy” book and “mawkish dialogue.”
On the other hand, Howard Kissell in the New York Daily News applauded Warchus’ approach:
“The current revival does best with an area that often suffers–telling the basic story of the two former chorus girls, Phyllis and Sally, and their then-beaus, now husbands Ben and Buddy.
“By casting good actors in these roles, director Matthew Warchus has reinforced the spine of the show. They can make scenes convincing that often seem forced.”
But because Warchus had cast actors, rather than singers, in the leading roles, critics found fault with their singing.
“The four leading actors, Blythe Danner, Gregory Harrison, Judith Ivey and Treat Williams, are under a certain disadvantage because only one of them, Harrison, can really sing,” Barnes wrote. Kissell went farther: “None of the four is a really powerful singer.”
In Newsday, Winer became vehement about the issue:
“So what,” she wrote, “if the exquisite Danner, as society-wife Phyllis, can barely sing and looks trapped in headlights when required to dance? Who cares if the feisty Ivey, as Sally from Phoenix, sings with all the abandon of a conscientious student and has been sentenced to fight for love in a matronly dress? But care, we do. In this city of unemployed musical talent, it is incomprehensible that such a massively desirable, highly scrutinized, wildly adored and historically significant project is not bursting with one breakout performance after another. Warchus has said he wants this Follies to be driven more by story and character than was the lavish Harold Prince-Michael Bennett original. This sounds like a serious, modern approach, but not if it skimps on musical excellence.”
Brantley even faulted the leads’ acting abilities. Danner, he wrote, “delivers her acid zingers expertly, but she looks physically ill at ease throughout the evening in ways that have nothing to do with the pangs of lovelessness. None of these performers, in fact, seem at ease in the skins of their characters.”
Harrison, he added, “doesn’t begin to suggest the nervous tautness of a man about to snap,” and “Ivey seems less to inhabit the unsophisticated Sally than to patronize her. The performance is too shrill by half.”
In the Daily News, Kissell wrote that “Ivey is a mass of insecurities, a study in pure vulnerability. After a while, this begins to pall.” Danner, “who looks ravishingly beautiful, is icy throughout, never giving us a moment where we can find her sympathetic. As their husbands, Gregory Harrison and Treat Williams are engaging, but little more.”
On the other hand, Winer praised the male leads. “Williams is very touching as Buddy (and) brings a gnawing, whip-lashing unhappiness to ‘The Right Girl’ and a scary, comic poignancy to the ambivalent-romantic’s vaudeville anthem, ‘Buddy’s Blues.’ Similarly, Gregory Harrison has a dark, flinty intensity as Ben, the self-loving, self-loathing lawyer stuck on ‘The Road You Didn’t Take.’ Since when, however, can a lawyer and the salesman dance and sing, but the old Follies chorines cannot?”
Apart from the New York papers, critics’ views ranged widely.
Michael Kuchwara, drama critic for the Associated Press, found Follies a “modest, uneven revival.. .minimal on several accounts, not all of them successful, particularly in the vocal department.”
In USA Today, Elysa Gardner called the production “superb” and gave it three stars out of four. “Follies may not be Sondheim’s most brilliant or consistent work, but it is a gem, and the cast does it full justice.”
Variety’s Charles Isherwood admitted that he was seeing a Follies production for the first time and reported:
“The Roundabout Theater Company’s eagerly awaited new revival is not perfect; it has its glories and disappointments, good times and bum times. It is, in general, finely acted, directed with intelligence and craft, middlingly sung, minimally designed. Above all, and with or without flaws, Follies is welcome on Broadway, where its uncompromising air of regret is particularly bracing amid the juvenile cheer that marks most musicals these days.”
In The Washington Post, Nelson Pressley wrote that the show “isn’t a great production; in places it’s badly flawed, even perversely misconceived. Yet the greatness of this legendary musical is palpable and occasionally overwhelming.”
In The Los Angeles Times, Michael Phillips found “many first-rate things” but “Goldman’s book doesn’t give the actors a lot to go on.”
However, Clifford A. Ridley in The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a virtual love letter to the show. He said that the problems with the book were surmounted because of the casting of Danner, Harrison, Ivey and Williams.
“The fact that the four can handle Sondheim’s vocal demands is a bonus, though it yields some stirring moments–Ivey’s impassioned ‘Losing My Mind,’ for one, or Danner’s lacerating ‘Could I Leave You?’ What really counts is that these actors, far more than the roles’ originators or than the principals in a 1998 revival at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, infuse their characters with depth and emotion. What librettist Goldman failed to supply, these performers furnish on their own.
“The result is a Follies in which, for the first time, I didn’t have to pretend to care about the story that makes the evening go.”
In the magazines, John Simon wrote in New York: “You may have seen the Paper Mill Playhouse revival of 1998, which was appreciably better but because of some ugly behind-the-scenes politics did not make it to Broadway. That need not stop you from seeing this one; Follies has enough life to survive even in a half-alive revival.”
Now that the Internet has developed a myriad of Broadway web sites, there are just as many critics in cyberspace. The reviewer on Broadway.com is Ken Mandelbaum, a theater historian and unabashed Follies enthusiast (see his essay in TSR’s Winter 2001 issue). While finding a “cornucopia of imperfections” in the Roundabout production, he wrote:
“I found this Follies an abundantly rewarding evening, succeeding in crucial areas where previous revivals of the show have failed. With four fine actors in the leading roles, Warchus has managed to delineate the past and present conflicts of the central couples, along with the show’s road-you-didn’t-take thematic content, sharply and powerfully. If the small-scale spareness was dictated by the budget, Warchus uses it to his advantage; the simplicity of the design and staging adds to the evening’s clarity, and if a sense of opulence has been lost, this Follies is as bleak, dark, and elegiac as it should be….Follies remains an endlessly rich, fascinating work; this production gets the most important things right, and proves to be the most dramatically effective revival I’ve encountered.”
While they may have disagreed on some elements of the production, the critics were unanimous in their praise of the supporting actors, singling out Joan Roberts, Betty Garrett, Marge Champion, Jane White, Carol Woods and, especially, Polly Bergen.
In the Times, Brantley wrote that Bergen transformed “I’m Still Here” “from the usual defiant anthem into something darker, suggesting the toll exacted by survival.”
In perhaps the most thoughtful of the reviews, Nancy Franklin wrote in The New Yorker, “I suspect, without having seen the original, that little that was important has been lost in the current, more modest production, since the show’s real grandeur lies in its imaginative structure and in the unfolding of its lyrically rich, resonant songs. The cast on the stage of the Belasco may be smaller, the orchestra may have fewer musicians, and the costumes may be less opulent, but the interplay of the show’s composite parts has not changed, and, under the direction of Matthew Warchus, the relentless, unblinking intelligence of Follies is intact.”
One thing was uniform in the reviews: praise for Sondheim’s score. Isherwood in Variety was typical:
“Sondheim’s score, of course, is a marvel. Thirty years on, the pastiche songs retain all their inherent musical charm and pizzazz, to say nothing of their verbal wit, and the book songs are exemplary examples of Sondheim’s unparalleled knack for turning knotty pieces of introspection into musical and lyrical jewels.”