I got suckered in again, by all those musical theatre mavens who insist:
it’s a wonderful show
I just haven’t seen the right production,
but once I see this production, I’ll surely see the merit in it.
I’ve read the script. I’ve played through every note of the score. I’ve now seen five different productions, including two on Broadway and one in the West End. And I hereby declare something bound to ruffle feathers: Follies is not a very good musical.
It seems to be the show that, more than any other, musical theatre people think is, somehow, the best. And there’s a disconnect, there, with the general public, which has always seemed indifferent to it. I wouldn’t deny it possesses a pretty good score; there are some very fine numbers. But as an evening in the theatre – and shouldn’t that be the mark of merit for a musical? – it’s decidedly dreary.
Observing Aristotelian unities, James Goldman’s book is set at a reunion for people (seemingly all are female) who appeared in a set of Broadway revues between the wars. At the party, most amusingly, the gray-hairs perform some of the songs they performed in their youth. Other songs are non-diegetic, concerning the middle-agers’ feelings in the now. And then there’s a fantasy section in which four characters perform Follies-style showstoppers that have some relation to their true feelings about their lot in life. It’s Stephen Sondheim’s most entertaining score because he’s bound, by the premise, to write in the crowd-pleasing styles of yore. The contemporary reality songs, in marked contrast, aren’t crowd-pleasing at all.
It’s worthwhile, I think, to look at musicals and ask the question “What’s happening here?” What is the principal action the main character is doing in most of the show? Professor Harold Hill is actively involved in bamboozling River City, Iowa, to sell band instruments. Professor Henry Higgins is trying to pass off a Cockney as a princess. And that’s just characters who answer to “Professor H.H.” In Follies, two couples, mired in loveless marriages, reminisce (a little bit) and mistreat their beleaguered spouses, either attempting affairs or confessing to them. As actions go, well, I think the apt word is “unpleasant.” And those marital lacerations hardly constitute an “action” per se. The four Follies characters comprise a veritable portrait of stasis.
That flaw, the rotten core of Goldman’s book, is something the creative team made great efforts to distract us from. Whenever the non-action between the four “savaged by regret” leads becomes too much to bear, on comes a diegetic song or, quite literally, a ghost. Here, it’s probably important to remember that most people experience musicals by listening to cast albums over and over again. So, when a lot of people say they love Follies, what they really love is the score, those lovingly-crafted numbers that take attention away from that repugnant plot. Seeing the show, one impatiently drums fingers on the armrest, longing for the next number to begin already. Certain minor characters seem far more interesting than the major ones. Old Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben: these are not people we care about, or have any real reason to like. One of them, it turns out, is mentally unbalanced. But that’s a very mildly surprising revelation, not something worthy of our pity. I’d say that none of the things the quartet does affect our emotions at all. And so, most of the songs they sing seem oddly hollow.
Speaking of oddly hollow, how about those ghosts? They seem so much like a director’s conceit. They’re not shedding much light on the proceedings. I suppose we’re supposed to view the younger versions of these well-preserved (or not-well-preserved) matrons as sad, somehow, but they seem merely like manifestations of ironic detachment in a show that’s already long on ironic detachment.
Years ago, Follies fans would condescendingly tell me I wasn’t old enough to relate to the show. Wait until you’re the characters’ ages, they said. Well, the time has arrived, and today I can say that I find the idea of middle-aged kvetches regretting their life choices even more distasteful than I did before. Phyllis and Sally, in young adulthood, got to appear on a Broadway stage, for Chrissakes. Most people I know are young and trying their darnedest to get on Broadway, unsuccessfully. So my sympathy for four winners who’ve turned into whiners is rather limited. I might have some feeling for Buddy, but he has a mistress he seems to enjoy. His failure, either past or present, to dump Sally, is puzzling, a prime example of stasis, and God-there’s-a-microscope-at-Caltech-that-just-might-be-able-to-measure-how-little-I-care. The Stones are fabulously wealthy, owning two pianos, two residences, and paintings by famous modern artists. I’m supposed to feel sorry for them? Sorry. Can’t. I am the 99%.