The History of Show Biz Gets a New and Rousing Chapter in Gorgeous "Follies" Revival
New York, N.Y.
It is 1971 and the old Weissman Theater, where the fabled Follies show ran for years prior to World War II, is about to be torn down to make room for a parking lot. The proprietors of the theater invite some of the showgirls who were in the Follies show back in the 1920s and 1930s to a last night party on the stage of the theater. They arrive from all over the United States. They bring with them a remarkable ability to still sing and dance and, arm in arm, stage the legendary old choreography that made them famous.
They bring with them, too, not only a scrumptious hit show in this revival of Follies at New York’s Marquis Theater, but an historical bouquet.
Follies, the Stephen Sondheim musical (book by James Goldman) that debuted in 1971, stars Bernadette Peters (Sally) and Jan Maxwell (Phyllis) as two aging showgirls who vied for the same husbands long ago, and still do. They find their old beaus at the reunion party and, with them, their girlfriends from the Follies, and some ghosts, wanted and unwanted. They remember the old days fondly and worry about the new ones. Through several dozens marvelous songs, the girls, and the cast, produce a luscious look at old time show business.
There is something really historically interesting about this revival of Follies. When it was produced in 1971 there were still dozens of showgirls from the real Follies shows still alive who were interviewed by the press for stories. Today, forty years after that opening, they are all dead (the last one died just last year at the age of 106).
Follies, today, then, is second level history. It is now a 2011 show about the history of 1930s Broadway shows, a look back of nearly eighty years. That makes a big difference. The 1971 show was a remembrance of an era that people still knew. The current show is not. It is a genuine look at U.S. history.
I saw Follies back in the seventies, and what I was surprised at the most this time was the number of memorable hit songs by the gifted Sondheim in the show. The tunes stand out as musical highlights but also serve as historical markers that help to carry the story. The first is a slow and languid Beautiful Girls that is sung as the Follies girls come down an old stage staircase for the party. It is followed by Waiting for the Girls Upstairs, sung by two stage door Johnnies who later married the women for whom they waited. Following that was the tub-thumping Broadway Baby by Jayne Houdyshell. Other big hits were In Buddy’s Eyes, I’m Still Here and Could I Leave You (Peters at her best).
Amid these songs drifts the story of the tattered marriages of Sally and Phyllis and their efforts, at this reunion, to go back in time. Throughout the show we meet other showgirls who tell their own stories, some good and some bad. There is a lot of triumph and a lot of tragedy, too.
The show is also a wonderful nod to the musicals of the old Broadway, full of good songs, top acting and, oh my, spectacular costumes. Here, you also have the fabulous showgirl costumes, feathers to the ceilings, worn by the Follies girls.
The choreography is superb and there is the double thrill of older actresses hoofing it once again and looking exhausted from the effort. Director Eric Schaeffer did a fine job of melding the musical numbers to the book and making sure that the story was not overwhelmed by the girls and their costumes.
Schaeffer gets terrific performances from Peters and Maxwell, but they are aided by fine work from Jayne Houdyshell as Hattie, Ron Raines as Ben Stone, Danny Burstein as Buddy Plummer and Elaine Paige as Carlotta Campion.
The story of the Weissman Follies on stage (patterned after the legendary Ziegfeld Follies) is one of the most colorful in U.S. entertainment history. The Follies girls, regardless of the show, were a special club of women. The ‘Follies girl’ was someone special to the American public. Just last week, I was reading through some of he old 1934 movie programs that I collect and found a story with a headline about the success of a ‘Follies Girl.’ It was enough to say ‘Follies Girl;’ you did not need to know her name.
Master showman Florenz Ziegfeld patterned his original Follies show, that debuted on Broadway in 1907, on the Follies Bergere, in Paris, but made numerous changes. That first show, a variety show featuring singers, dancers, comics and the spectacularly dressed and gorgeous ‘Follies Girls,’ was a hit. Ziegfeld used that same format and changed it a bit over the years, bringing in new girls and new acts to please the public. The Ziegfeld Follies, that Weissman Follies is based upon, ran until 1931 and was one of the greatest successes in the history of American entertainment. The show, and Flo Ziegfeld, was the focus of two successful films, The Great Ziegfeld and Ziegfeld Follies. There were several copycat type shows, but most of them failed.
His show, Ziegfeld said proudly, ‘glorified the American girl.’ It did. The Follies was also the launching pad for the careers of hundreds of actresses, including Lucille Ball, who with her husband later created and starred in the television show I Love Lucy.
The beautiful girls were the centerpiece of the show, featured in dozens of revue numbers performed to exquisite music. Men (the legendary Stage Door Johnnies) waited at the door to the theater to meet them and date them. The real stars of the show were not the girls, but the singers and comics. Some of those featured in the Ziegfeld show were Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Josephine Baker, Bert Williams, W.C. Fields and Eddie Cantor. The show was the foundation for all of their stellar careers.
Show business changed when the Great Depression began, though, and the box office for Follies shows fell. By the winter of 1932, Ziegfeld was out of business. Two other shows, that he lent his name to, tried to make it but did not.
Thankfully, though, Stephen Sondheim brought the legend of the girls, and the ghosts of the Weissman Theater back in 1971 and now they have all returned once more.
On the negative side, Sondheim and Goldman might have spent a few minutes explaining to the audience, through dialogue or song, how the shows were constructed and how the singers and comics were the real stars. The Follies was not a Vegas style review show and that needs to be emphasized. We need more of a context, too, to remind people that these shows thrived when the American economy was booming and died when it declined. The showmen, like Ziegfeld, were ground breakers, too. Ziegfeld, as an example, broke the color barrier when he hired Bert Williams to star in one of his Follies shows.
Follies is a sensational musical and a glorious historical start to the new season.
PRODUCTION: Sets: Derek McLane, Costumes: Gregg Barnes, Lighting: Natasha Katz, Sound : Kai Harada, Make Up: Joseph Delude II, Choreography by Warren Carlyle. Director: Eric Schaeffer
Bruce Chadwick can be reached at email@example.com.
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