Have you ever experienced a show/cast recording (even movie) that simply got under your skin? A show that was inexplicably mesmerizing, not necessarily because you loved or hated it; and you just had to go back and listen to the piece again and again to try and fully grasp what you had just seen/heard? Back in 2011, I had such an experience that still lingers on my iPod today: Sondheim’s flawed-yet-misunderstood Follies.
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: James Goldman
Broadway Debut: April 4, 1971
Tony Nominations/Wins: 11/7
Follies concerns a reunion in a crumbling, soon-to-be-demolished theatre, of the past performers of the "Weismann's Follies," that played in that theatre between the World Wars. It focuses on two couples, Buddy & Sally and Ben & Phyllis, who are attending the reunion. Sally and Phyllis were showgirls in the Follies, and Buddy and Ben their adoring Stage-door Johnnies. Both couples are deeply unhappy with their marriages. Buddy messes around while on business trips; Sally is still as
much in love unhealthily obsessed with Ben as she was years ago; and Ben is so self-absorbed that Phyllis has become bitter and emotionally abandoned. The couples, along with several of the former showgirls performing their old numbers, are frequently accompanied (and/or haunted) by the ghosts of their younger selves. They endure an evening of tearing open old wounds, delusions, and self-deceptions, climaxing in a devastating realization of the “follies” of their youth.
The History Lesson:
Though my fiancé is relatively “historically informed,” I don’t know why I automatically assumed that he – let alone anyone born after WWII – knew about the Ziegfeld Follies (the basis for the musical’s “Weismann Follies”). The Ziegfeld Follies were a series of elaborate theatrical productions on Broadway in New York City from 1907 through 1931. Florenz Ziegfeld’s extravaganza was a successful marriage of just-enough naughty sex appeal and grandiose spectacle. Colossal, elaborate, designer sets framed incredibly beautiful girls in scant, sparkly costumes and ornate headpieces. The Follies were also the birthplace of the “variety show” and “Vaudeville” as we know it today (well, as anyone born before WWII knew it). Performers of all flavors gathered on one stage to showcase their acts to the masses.
The Ziegfeld Follies were most well-known for the famed bevy of stunning, strutting chorus girls; the trademark “Ziegfeld girls.” A bit of a hornball, Ziegfeld often personally selected the Follies Girls himself. He wanted to glamourize and glorify the All-American Girl. On top of the requirement of being strikingly gorgeous, Ziegfeld Girls had to possess All-American wholesomeness and sex kitten allure, simultaneously. These girls reached demigoddes status among the nation’s young men. They were often pursued and propositioned by the most wealthy and prominent men of the day.
While trying to explain this now-dead-and-buried art form to my man, I apparently got kind of excited talking about it. He asked why I spoke with such passion and appetite for such a bygone era of history and entertainment. I guess I view the Ziegfeld Follies as something that represents a more wholesome and innocent time, culturally and aesthetically. Entertainment wasn’t as half-assed or soulless as it is now. The tried-and-true, beaten-to-death formulas we know by heart now were brand new and exciting. Sometimes, there was no formula at all, but just a collage of varied, unrelated acts, showing what they can do. Sure there was mindless shock value and sexuality back then too, but it was all live, un-Photoshopped, and real-time. Performances were grand and “special effects” were actually special. Ziegfeld Girls weren’t just pieces of meat; they were appealing, charming, desirable pieces of meat you’d love to take home to the folks.
I saw this show with my father and fiancé (then boyfriend). Both men either did or almost fell asleep at one point and avowed they did not care for the show. I will admit it was not the easiest show to get through, especially after walking around NYC all day and still being so “up” after a fantastic production of Godspell that afternoon. In all fairness, about 90% of the show’s setting resembled a cobwebby, tired, decrepit theatre; the majority of the dialogue was painfully slow; the subject matter was a real downer; and the lady seated next to us had extreme B.O. and was breathing loudly through her trache ring the whole time. Like most Sondheim pieces, this show doesn’t pull its punches. It throws so much story and interaction and emotion at you, it’s almost impossible to digest it all in one sitting. However, I’ve got that weird lure towards offbeat characters. The characters in Follies may have had depressing stories and questionable morals, but I still found their lives and interactions and ultimate disappointments interesting to watch.
My dad found the show and characters to be tired and unenergetic with few redeeming qualities. But I saw the setting as an intentional anti-energy that meant to suck the life out of the room, because that’s how these characters feel. They’re trapped in the tattered remains of a once-glorified time and place and can only look back at their lingering ghosts. They used to be youthful and idealistic and in love, but time and reality have erased those “follies” from their lives, leaving them sad and jaded. The characters try desperately to regain their youth through re-creations of their past performances, but it’s just not the same. They can revisit the theatre, they can dance the same dances, and sing the same songs, but it only reinforces the fact that they're hollow, regretful shadows of what they once were and they can’t go back.
My brother likes to believe that his high school years were his magical, golden time and he’ll never be that happy again. My fiancé often responds to his wallowing reflections with the sage retort, “Look, don’t stare.” That is the issue with the four leads in Follies. They look longingly at their past with rose-colored glasses and are stuck in the belief that the present can’t ever be as satisfying as the past was. It must be tough spending your every waking moment, literally unable to move on from a time in your life that is long gone.
I think that Follies is, at its core, a cautionary tale about realizing the importance of learning and growing from your past/youth instead of trying to remain there. If you compare the rest of your life to a time you've spent years glorifying in your brain, you set yourself up for disappointment.
Look, don't stare.
"If you are depressed, you are living in the past.If you are anxious, you are living in the future.If you are at peace, you are living in the present."
- Lao Tzu