“Do people really enjoy Stephen Sondheim’s sour sentimentality – songs like ‘Every Day a Little Death?’” wondered Pauline Kael in 1978. The answer, these days at least, seems to be a definite “Yes”: so much so that every major revival of a Sondheim musical becomes a cultural Event and even shows that were indifferently – or negatively – received at their premieres are now all treated as classics of the American musical theatre. As such, it’s no surprise that the hype machine has gone into maximum overdrive for Dominic Cooke’s production of Follies (1971) at the National Theatre, with the production billed as the latest dazzling take on a musical masterpiece.
Is the show a masterpiece, though? There’s no doubt that there are some wonderfully enjoyable bits throughout Cooke’s lush and lively production: whether it’s a charmingly staged “Beautiful Girls”; Janie Dee coarsening up to deliver a biting “Could I Leave You?”; a tap-happy “Who’s That Woman?”, exuberantly choreographed by Bill Deamer; Di Botcher’s knowing, gutsy take on “Broadway Baby”; or Imelda Staunton and Philip Quast wringing maximum emotion from a great “Too Many Mornings.”
A problem for me, though, is that Follies is just that: “bits” – a selection of skits, routines and turns in search of a dramatic centre. It’s no surprise that the show has had so much success in concert presentations, since there’s no plot to speak of, just a situation: the reunion of a group of former showgirls (plus spouses) on the stage they used to share, shadowed by their younger selves.
James Goldman’s book (rewritten for some productions but apparently presented in a slightly tweaked version of its original form here) provides scenes that are just sketchy little blurts. The piece seems to have many more protagonists than it knows what to do with, or that can be developed in any depth. As it is, the characters scuttle around Vicki Mortimer’s ever-revolving, crumbling-theatre set, dropping waspish quips or soppy revelations, stopping occasionally to sing. But don’t expect to learn much about most of them, as they’re shuffled on and off.
Clearly the structure is meant to evoke that of Follies shows, but that doesn’t make it particularly satisfying, conceptually or dramatically. There are few arcs, and so the show feels incohesive, thin, unintegrated: a selection of broads, belting. (At first it looks like Tracie Bennett is going to do something really fresh with “I’m Still Here”, starting the song in a more muted conversational style, but by the end the song’s become a generic camp show-stopper.)
Only four characters - Staunton’s Sally, Dee’s Phyllis, Quast’s Ben and Peter Forbes’s Buddy (played in their younger incarnations by Alex Young, Zizi Strallen, Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig, respectively) - really come into focus, and I’m afraid their relations are mostly marked by the “sour sentimentality” that Kael identified as characteristic of Sondheim. Amid the quartet’s quarrels, Dee is the funniest and Staunton is most successful at bringing humane touches throughout – listen to her lovely light pause before Sally delivers her married name - but it’s not a happy development when we’re cued to understand that the character is simply, in Sondheim’s definition, “crazy.” If Staunton’s much-anticipated “Losing My Mind” feels self-conscious and slightly disappointing, to me, it’s possibly because it‘s part of the “Loveland” sequence: an expressionistic dream/nightmare vision of the characters’ different neuroses that I found to be a bit of a kitsch horror.
By this point, in fact, Follies seems to have degenerated into a something of a style exercise, and it seems that most of its number could be shuffled around and placed anywhere without the show losing too much. Compared to other theatre-maker Sondheim musicals, I’d rank it as better than the endlessly blasting Gypsy but inferior to the nuanced and truly touching Merrily We Roll Along. Cooke’s production is going to get lots of praise, and maybe it’s as good as it could be. But, for all its undoubted high spots, Follies is such a bitty piece of work that it’s hard to imagine any production really making the show cohere.