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  • Finian Hackett

I'm Still Here: 50 years of Follies

The photo above is of legendary film actress Gloria Swanson in the rubbled grounds of the Roxy Theatre - a 5,000 seat movie theatre in central New York City. The building was knocked down in 1960 when this photo was taken and published. In my opinion, this photo is the perfect introduction to what Follies is all about.

Inspired by a New York Times article, Follies focuses on the reunion of performers from the fictitious 'Weismann Follies' (based upon the famous Ziegfield Follies) as they reunite and reminisce in the now run-down theatre before its demolition. It focuses mainly on two couples, Sally Durant Plummer and her husband Buddy and Phyllis Rogers Stone and her husband Benjamin. As they reunite, bumps and scars reappear and their seemingly perfect lifestyles are ripped apart by the memories of the past. Throughout the show, younger versions of the company appear - portraying the reignited memories.

The score features pastiches of many composers including Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen. It also features some classic musical theatre tunes such as 'Losing My Mind', 'I'm Still Here' and the iconic 'Broadway Baby'.

The musical, originally entitled The Girls Upstairs, was first written as a murder mystery and featured a duel, a dodgy gun and people being locked in phone booths! It was going to be produced by Leyland Howard and David Merrick (who had produced a tonne of shows, including Gypsy, Hello, Dolly! and Oliver!) however this fell through. It was then passed onto Stuart Ostrow before making its way to Hal Prince who went on to help produce the first production.

Broadway, 1971

Follies opened on Broadway on April 4th 1971, but it was not a smooth process. During its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston and during it's week of previews in New York, it underwent many changes. Songs were added, taken away, replaced or even written during tryouts! The show had an interval, then it didn't. Scenes were cut and the book was significantly shortened. The production team also had to contend with a hugely elaborate set by Boris Aranson and 150 beautiful costumes by Florence Klotz.

When it opened, the show had cost $700,000 which in today's money doesn't seem a lot for a Broadway show (the average now is $8-$12 million) but Forbes had called it the most expensive show Broadway had seen. With a cast led by Alexis Smith as Sally, Gene Nelson as Buddy, Dorothy Collins as Sally, John McMartin as Ben and Yvonne De Carlo as Follies girl turned film star Carlotta, you would expect a smash hit. The show had a mixed response from confused audience members who became restless with no interval. After 500 performances, the production closed with a loss of nearly $800,000! Not a great success. It wasn't however a complete critical failure and won 7 Drama Desk Awards and was the most nominated show at the Tony's that year with 11 nominations. It won 7 including Best Costume Design and Set Design (so that big budget was worth it, I guess). Surprisingly it lost Best Musical to the largely forgotten musical adaptation of Shakespeares Two Gentlemen of Verona.

West End, 1987

Follies didn't hit the West End till 1987, 16 years after the show opened on Broadway. Producer Cameron Mackintosh wanted to rework the production, so the show's original book writer James Goldman and composer Sondheim worked together to rejig the show. The interval was reinstated, four new songs were written to replace others and the book was rewritten. Though Sondheim was apprehensive about this, he decided that they could always revert back to the original script if it all went wrong.

The production originally starred Diana Rigg as Phyllis and Julia McKenzie as Sally. They were joined by a fabulous company which included Daniel Massey, David Healy, legendary Tony winner Dolores Gray as well as Lynda Baron who British audiences will know from Open All Hours and most notably as Auntie Mabel in the iconic children's TV series Come Outside. Millicent Martin took over from Diana Rigg later on in the run alongside Eartha Kitt who took over from Dolores Gray.

The production was fairly successful and ran for 644 performances. Critics claimed it was more enjoyable and upbeat than the original but I don't really think this is what the creative team wanted! It won Musical of the Year at the Olivier Awards and Julia McKenzie gained a nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.

Broadway, 2001

Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey, Treat Williams and Gregory Harrison headlined the first Broadway revival in 2001. This production, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, was directed by Matthew Warchus (current artistic director of the Old Vic) and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall (best known for her work on many shows including the recent revival of Anything Goes). It had a HUGE buzz surrounding it. It was the hottest ticket in town.

After opening on April 5th 2001, the show was not well received with critics disliking the production. Though originally scheduled to run until September 30th it ended up closing after only 117 performances on July 14th. Though a slightly disappointing run, it still managed to gain 5 Tony nominations though didn't win any due to The Producers dominating that year.

One thing this production did have was a brilliant cast. Aside from the four leads, you had film and TV star Polly Bergen in a Tony-nominated turn as Carlotta, Joan Roberts (Broadway's original Laurey in Oklahoma!) as the operatic Heidi Schiller, MGM star Betty Garrett as Hattie Walker and dance legend Marge Champion as Emily Whitman. The younger incarnations of Sally and Phyllis were played by recent Olivier nominee Lauren Ward (who is now married to Matthew Warchus!) and Erin Dilly. A young Kelli O'Hara played Young Hattie, four years before her first Tony nom for The Light In The Piazza.

Broadway, 2011

Ten years later, Follies returned to Broadway in a star-studded revival. Originally opening at the Eisenhower Theatre in Washington DC, the show transferred and opened on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre for a limited run from September 2011 to January 2012. Danny Burstein, Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, Elaine Paige, Terri White, Susan Watson, Jayne Houdyshell and Mary Beth Peil were members of this phenomenal cast. A financial and critical success, this was the first time that Broadway had seen a successful production of Follies since its inception. 8 Tony nominations, 10 Drama Desk nominations AND a Grammy nomination, this production didn't fair too badly. However, it didn't manage to recoup its initial investment.

London, 2017

2017 was when the most recent large scale production was performed. Directed by Dominic Cooke, the show starred Sondheim aficionado Imelda Staunton, Peter Forbes, Janie Dee, Phillip Quast alongside Tracie Bennett, Dame Josephine Barstow and Di Botcher. The was originally scheduled to run from August to November but was extended into the January after so much success. One thing from the original production was reinstated, the show being a one-act wonder. Though this was highly enjoyable, you needed a strong bladder. After receiving 10 Olivier nominations (winning Best Revival and Costume Design) it was decided that the show would return in 2019 - with Joanna Riding and Alexander Hanson taking over from Staunton and Quast. The show was also recorded and broadcast live across the world and is regularly rebroadcast in cinemas. This revival, by far, was the most successful production in the show's 50-year history.

Follies elsewhere

Follies has had MANY concert productions - the first major one being in 1985 at the Lincoln Center and the most recent being in Australia in 2016. Below are a selection of the performers who have played the main roles in Follies over the years both in concert and regionally:

Sally Durant Plummer - Barbara Cook, Donna McKechnie, Kathryn Evans, Victoria Clark, Ruthie Henshall, Kim Crosby

Phyllis Rogers Stone - Lee Remick, Dee Hoty, Caroline O'Connor, Louise Gold, Donna Murphy, Christine Baranski, Donna McKechnie

Buddy Plummer - Mandy Patinkin, Tony Roberts, Michael McGrath, Peter Polycarpou

Benjamin Stone - George Hearn, Laurence Guittard, Victor Garber

Young Sally - Liz Callaway, Alex Young, Gemma Sutton

Young Phyllis - Laura Pitt-Pulford, Zizi Strallen

Carlotta Campion - Carol Burnett, Ann Miller, Christine Baranski, Betty Buckley

What I love about Follies

As this is Sondheim September on fintothewoods, I thought I'd talk about what I find so genius about this musical. My first introduction to Follies was the 2017 London production which I went to see knowing nothing more than Broadway Baby but walked out totally in love. The story is hard-hitting and when brought to you in such a jaw-dropping way, you are gripped from beginning to end. It's very different to any other Sondheim piece as he bases many of the songs, particularly in the last 30 mins when the lead characters each perform their own 'Folly', on different composers. The stylising of these sections are so different to his music in shows such as Company and Sweeney Todd. However, throughout the rest of the piece, Sondheim's clashy harmonies and musical gymnastics are abundant. Two of my favourite numbers in the show are 'The Story of Lucy and Jessie' and 'Who's That Woman?'. Both are glitzy, glamorous, toe-tapping songs that even Sondheim haters could enjoy! 2018 was also a Follies filled year for me with my father directing an amateur production of the show. I spent many hours sitting in on rehearsals and I got to know the show inside out and truly understand what the show is all about. One side is the glamour of showbiz and the joy it brings to many and the other is the dark and sometimes deceitful thing that is life and the weird roads it takes us down to get us to our final destination.


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