As with everything in this world, there is a system of gatekeeping for musicals. And according to this metric, I am very much a musical philistine. Sure, I’ve seen The Lion King, Book of Mormon, even Phantom of the Opera. But until I saw Follies, I’d never heard of Sondheim (I honestly thought he was the bloke that directed Ocean’s Eleven).
The result of this is that I when I saw Follies there’s a good chance that I’m not appreciating on the level it’s ‘supposed’ to be enjoyed.
With all of that in mind, it’s actually important to note that Follies doesn’t rely on any love or knowledge of musical theatre in order to be an enjoyable story. National Theatre Live opens their broadcast of the musical with an interview with Sondheim. He talks about how he saw years ago that there was a reunion of the stars from the original Ziegfeld Follies and this is what inspired the plot. Ignoring a large amount of cultural and musical history, all you really need to know is that Ziegfeld’s Follies are more or less where we get the trope of 1920s showgirls from. Sondheim explains that many of the songs in his musical are a ‘pastiche’ (which here means “an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period”) of the original numbers from the 1910’s – 1930’s. Of course unless you’re a fan of the original Follies, these references will go straight over your head.
Sondheim also spoke about how, in writing the story, he struggled to tie everything together with a plot. And at some point he realised that it actually didn’t need one. So the story is, in his own words, “Four people talking, getting drunk, hating each other and going home.”
He’s not wrong. The film is set in 1971, (which is when it was first performed) and is based in the ruins of an abandoned theatre that’s about to be demolished. The ageing starlets of the Weismann’s Follies are returning one last time for a reunion, hosted by Weismann himself (played by Gary Raymond). The neon sign above the set flashes “Weismann’s Follies, Glorifying The American Girl”.
Each of the reunion performers is ghosted on stage by her younger self, in full costume from when she performed, with the exception of the two lead actresses. The structure of the story, such as it is, is incredibly loose. The first two acts take place in the theatre itself, featuring conversations between the lead characters, Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and Ben, interspersed with musical numbers by other reunion members.
It’s a pretty great setup that made me question a lot of what I knew and felt about the representation of women in musicals. The reunion members are all older women, with the youngest being in her 40s and the oldest being in her 80s. Each of them has their own well developed character and persona and by the end of the show you do feel like you’ve just met them at a party, to the point where I had mentally decided who I wanted to go out for drinks with.
Sally and Buddy, and Ben and Phyllis have been married almost since their stage days. Each of them is deeply unhappy and have their own unique set of neurosis. Sally is still in love with Ben, and it slowly emerges that they had an affair together behind Phyllis’ back. Buddy is desperately in love with his wife, Sally even though she seems indifferent to him. Phyllis is obviously in love with Ben, but hides her sadness at his ambivalence towards her with sharp barbs and cutting asides. Ben is oblivious to the two women who love him and is completely involved in his own existential crisis. All of this unfolds slowly, over snippets of conversation and watching the characters past selves interact.
As a musical philistine I often struggle to make sense of the role of musical numbers within the world of the musical. Here, however, a song choice will help give a greater insight into a particular character and their motivation or back story. For instance Tracie Bennett as Carlotta Campion with a husky pack a day voice and her musical number “I’m still here” which detailed a litany of delightful exploits through the preceding decades. Her number was a perfect insight into her character, making me feel like I’d met her at a dinner party and decided I simply must have her in my life.
However, Di Botcher as Hattie Walker left me stumped. When interviewed by the reporters at the start of the show, she presents as a complete badass. A stocky woman in a pantsuit who talks about having 5 dead husbands who all liked to live fast. She was quickly becoming my favourite character, and then out of nowhere she starts singing “Broadway Baby.” First of all, I find any person referring to themselves as baby to be off-putting in the extreme, but the song seemed so out of character for this powerhouse of a woman that I couldn’t figure out whether she was simply re-performing a number from her youth, or whether it was meant to represent an insight into how she still feels; desperate to be back on stage.
The “Mirror” musical number required no such deep thought however, as it was exactly the showgirl extravaganza I’d been hoping for. Tap dancing, sequins, choreography up the wazoo, it was delightful. And it helped break the darkening atmosphere that had begun to surround the four main characters.
The third act starts in the midst of a heated argument between Sally, Buddy, Ben and Phyllis. Seemingly out of nowhere we are transported to “Love Land” which sports its own world building musical number, followed by vignettes showing us the two couple’s early married days. We then segue into each of the character’s “follies”. While this provides an opportunity for some great set pieces and brilliant musical numbers, the whole thing honestly feels a bit “Do you get it? Do you get what’s wrong with them?” All of these are things you can establish for yourself from the dialogue in the preceding two acts. But hey, I guess musicals aren’t known for their subtlety? After the final folly we see the four characters once again back in the theatre. Each of them returns to their respective spouse with a renewed sense of empathy and understanding, but with no real sense that it’s going to get immeasurably better.
At 155 minutes, Follies is a substantial experience. Unless you are a dedicated fan of musical theatre, you will find yourself fidgeting through some of the musical numbers, and wondering when the damn thing is going to end. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t an altogether enjoyable experience. The spectacle of the larger numbers is undeniable, and some of the tunes are quite catchy. But ultimately having front row seats to two marriages breaking apart is incredibly compelling. There are no heroes or villains, just four flawed people struggling to make sense of things. I have found my thoughts wandering back to the four of them in the days since seeing Follies, and it’s hard not to find at least a little of ourselves being reflected back at us.
Follies is screening at Cinema Nova from 17 February 2018.