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In the fall of 1965, Fiddler on the Roof threw a one-year anniversary party on the Imperial Theatre stage. Among the guests: playwright James Goldman and songwriter Stephen Sondheim, who were quietly brewing an ambitious musical of their own. Titled The Girls Upstairs, it would be set at a reunion of Ziegfeld Follies girls and their mates, decades after their Depression-era glory days.
After milling about for a bit, Sondheim had an idea.
"I said, 'Let's go watch the party from the house,'" says Sondheim. "We saw Carl Fisher, the general manager, holding a half-eaten sandwich, looking for somewhere to put it. Finally he looked around to see that no one was watching and dropped it in the orchestra pit. I said to Jim, 'There's our show.'"
In fact, no sandwiches are lobbed into the pit in Follies, the musical epic that eventually premiered in 1971. But amid its lavish razzle-dazzle, the show remains at heart an autumnal tale of disappointment, of settling for half a loaf rather than a banquet. A new revival of the form-breaking musical—only its second on Broadway—opens at the Marquis Theatre September 12.
"I think James was born middle-aged," says Sondheim of Goldman, who died in 1998. "Look at his plays: The Lion in Winter, They Might Be Giants. He was always writing about middle age and regrets. And I was always nostalgic for shows I never saw. So Jim and I were both nostalgic in different ways for that era."
These two perspectives on the past—one personal, one theatrical—forged a complicated blend of bleakness and exuberance. Follies follows two unhappily married former showgirls and their husbands in a plotless amble, alternating naturalistic dialogue and prickly character songs with old-timey pastiches paying homage to Golden Age Broadway. Oh, and there are all those ghostly showgirls hovering around.
No wonder the show isn't revived often. In his seminal lyrics collection Finishing the Hat, Sondheim admits that Follies is "a bit crippled by its size, ambition and mysteriousness." That last bit is key: In addition to its cast of 41 and 28-piece orchestra, the cult around the original production—legendary for its Fellini-meets--Busby Berkeley staging by codirectors Harold Prince and Michael Bennett—may be most daunting for potential revivers.
"When you think this show was written 40 years ago, and you look at the risks they took and choices they made—it's amazing," says director Eric Schaeffer, who originated the new Follies last spring at the Kennedy Center. "And all these people are waiting to see it, so you do feel pressure. But we just had to ignore that and jump right in."
If Follies eulogized the midcentury American musical—and with it, the optimistic national spirit musicals used to celebrate—what does this now-40-year-old memorial have to say to the iTunes age?
"I don't believe shows have anything to say, and as soon as I hear the word relevant, I leave the room," says Sondheim brusquely. Schaeffer feels differently: "I think, if anything, it means more than ever now—for people who are at a crossroads in their life, and for musical theater, which has changed so much that you wonder, Have we lost something?" A colleague who watched a recent run-through told him, "This is 'The Star-Spangled Banner' for theater people."
The comparison is apt on at least one count: Follies is even harder to sing than our national anthem. Schaeffer didn't skimp in this department; his cast includes Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines and Danny Burstein. "You get to hear the score sung in a way you haven't heard for years," Schaeffer says, declining to make the obvious contrast with the wan, poorly received 2001 Roundabout revival.
Indeed, the director seems intent on pulling out all the stops, retaining the show's original scale to the tune of $7.3 million for the D.C. premiere (and an undisclosed "couple million more" for Broadway). In its day, this expensive, experimental show was viewed by many as the last hurrah for huge-cast extravaganzas. And Schaeffer says he told his company, "You're never going to see another Follies like this." There's no other way to do this show, it seems, than to believe it's going to be the last time.
Follies is playing at the Marquis Theatre.