By Rick Pender
Follies, Sondheim’s seventh Broadway production, began as The Girls Upstairs, a collaboration with bookwriter James Goldman about some young women in a Ziegfeld-like extravaganza and the stage-boy Johnnies who courted them. With Hal Prince as the show’s producer and director, it evolved into Follies, a more profound drama about past and present colliding in various none-too-happy ways. At a reunion at the doomed theater where Phyllis and Sally worked years earlier, the women and their husbands recall their younger selves, while other former performers reminisce in songs recalling an earlier era. “Follies is about the past, revisited, embraced, rejected, relived, denied,” wrote Ted Chapin in When Everything Was Possible, his memoir about the show’s original production, “It is really about the effects the past has on the present and the future.”
The lavish production that had 522 performances on Broadway is etched in the memory of many who saw it. Despite its beloved status, it provided no return to its investors who had fronted $800,000, making Follies one of the costliest shows ever mounted on Broadway as of 1971. Perhaps its tales of marriages gone bad, consummating in “Loveland,” an over-the-top set of numbers in the style of the Follies, felt like a downer to some audiences. But Sondheim’s memorable, tuneful score has kept the show as a favorite of many musical theater fans.
A dusty curtain goes up on the stage of the deteriorated Weismann Theatre. It’s 1971, and a party is being thrown to honor Weismann’s Follies and the chorus girls who performed between World War I and II. The unseen ghosts of young showgirls drift through the theater.
Anxious Sally Durant Plummer, age 49, is the first to arrive. One of the ghostly showgirls, a younger version of Sally, begins to follow her, undetected. Sally receives a sash denoting
her year in the Follies, 1941. More former showgirls arrive with husbands and dates, people ranging in age from 50 to 80. That includes Sally’s friend, Phyllis Rogers Stone, with her husband Ben, a philanthropist and renowned public figure. Their younger ghosts approach them, too, also invisible. Sally’s husband, Buddy, a boisterous salesman, enters, very eager to get the evening started.
Impresario Dimitri Weismann greets the guests for the “first and last” reunion of the Weismann Follies. He announces that his theater will soon be demolished to make way for a parking lot. Roscoe, once the master of ceremonies, wearing top hat and tails, introduces the Weismann Girls for one final, grand entrance (“Beautiful Girls”). They descend a staircase wearing sashes emblazoned with the year they performed.
In attendance are Max and Stella Deems, former radio stars now with a store in Miami; Solange LaFitte, once and still a vibrant coquette; Hattie Walker, who burned through five younger husbands; Vincent and Vanessa, dancers who now run a ballroom dance studio; Heidi Schiller, an elderly coloratura soprano; and Carlotta Campion, a film star who has expansively embraced life.
Guests reminisce while the histories of Sally, Buddy, Phyllis, and Ben are recalled, sometimes reenacted by the ghosts of their younger selves. The women were roommates; the men were college pals who courted them. Ben was once in love with Sally, although he chose to marry Phyllis. Sally still carries a torch for him and fears what he will think of her now (“Don’t Look at Me”). The couples reminisce about the old days (“Waiting for the Girls Upstairs”). A vaudevillian pair, the Whitmans, perform an old routine (“The Rain on the Roof”), and Solange demonstrates her stylistic panache (“Ah, Paris”). Hattie proves she’s still a trouper (“Broadway Baby”).
Buddy warns Phyllis that Sally still yearns for Ben, who wonders if he made the right choices (“The Road You Didn’t Take”). Sally feels trapped in one-way marriage (“In Buddy’s Eyes”). Phyllis tells Buddy that she has compromised her life for material possessions.
Phyllis and Sally have a harsh encounter about Ben, cut short by Stella Deems, who recruits a half-dozen onetime chorines for an old routine that no one has performed in years. After some protests, they sing about an unhappy woman who never knew real love (“Who’s That Woman?”). The ghosts of their youthful selves join in.
Both couples argue bitterly about their marriages and what might come next. Buddy admits to an affair on the road, but he always returns to Sally, whom he adores. Carlotta transforms a Follies number into her own anthem of survival (“I’m Still Here”). With their young ghosts swirling around them, Ben confides to Sally that his life is empty (“Too Many Mornings”), and then impulsively kisses her while Buddy secretly observes. [An intermission is sometimes inserted here.]
Buddy wonders why he stays with Sally; he contrasts his frustrations with Sally to his happiness with his mistress, who asks little of him (“The Right Girl”). He begins to rehearse a speech to end his marriage; Sally enters and naively announces that she and Ben will be married.
After too many drinks, Ben propositions Carlotta, who turns him down. Heidi Schiller, shadowed by Young Heidi, sings one of her romantic numbers about the end of a love affair (“One More Kiss”). Phyllis has been off in a corner enjoying the company of a young waiter. Ben tells her he wants to find real love again and suggests that she leave him. She angrily lists reasons why she might but refuses to say if she will (“Could I Leave You?”).
The couples see the innocence and idealism of their ghosts and blame them for making choices that have led to unhappiness. Ben tells Sally he will not marry her, and the couples’ angry exhortations to their younger selves dissolve into an ironic fantasy production of “Loveland,” a gaudy, surreal Weismann extravaganza in which everyone supposedly lives for love. Young Ben and Young Phyllis sing a duet about their happiness (“You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow”), while Sally and Buddy’s younger selves imagine overcoming each other’s irritating traits (“Love Will See Us Through”).
Still in Loveland, the adult Sally, Buddy, Phyllis, and Ben perform individual songs reflecting their inner turmoil. Buddy, dressed as a clown, sings a vaudeville number, revealing his feelings and fears about love (“The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues”). Sally, dressed as a 1930s torch singer, performs a song about how she can think of nothing but her lover (“Losing My Mind”). Phyllis is up next with a dance number about two unhappy and distinctly different women who envy one another and need to become one person to be truly happy (“The Story of Lucy and Jessie”).
Finally, Ben begins a song about a sophisticated man who denies his fears (“Live, Laugh, Love”), but he loses track of his lyrics, and the song ends in disarray with him frantically justifying his choices to the chorus members and crying out for Phyllis. The performers blithely ignore him and continue to sing and dance. He breaks down completely amid the chaos, and the “Loveland” scenery disappears.
Finally, the hubbub fades and the madness dissipates; the real world of the crumbling theater returns. The sun is rising. Phyllis and Ben gather themselves to go home together; Buddy helps an emotionally devastated Sally to her feet and they too leave as a couple. Young Buddy and Ben call to “the girls upstairs” one last time. The Follies — literal and metaphoric — are ended.
Rick Pender previously edited The Sondheim Review and Everything Sondheim. He is presently assembling The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia for the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. This comprehensive, one-volume resource is scheduled for publication in 2020.