The presentation of “Follies” now at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is going to be one of those events that divides theater fans into two groups, those who were and weren’t there. This greatest of Sondheim musicals, supremely and unashamedly show-bizzy, and laced with the composer/lyricist’s trademark cynicism, is also intensely moving.
This production has an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime cast. Bernadette Peters! Jan Maxwell (a wonder)! Linda Lavin, Regine, Elaine Page and other luminaries in small supporting roles (including Lora Lee Gayer, a former Naples resident — see story on page A1), with just one song apiece (but what songs)! The players give of their best and it all feels like a labor of love.
“Follies” takes place in a New York theater, about to be razed, which housed a Ziegfeld-type show between the wars. It is 1971, 30 years after the last of those shows, and there is a reunion of players to bid farewell to the place. They perform their old numbers and reminisce. The latter-day showgirls and the principal actors are shadowed by figures dressed in shades of grey representing their younger selves, a device that works brilliantly here and creates an opportunity for spectacular costuming.
The action focuses on two couples in particular — former roommates Sally and Phyllis and their husbands Buddy and Ben. All four, individually and as couples, have settled into lives of quiet desperation. At the reunion, issues among them surface and resurface. Sally has never gotten over love for Ben; Buddy’s love for his wife Sally has been frustrated; Ben has had great success but an empty, loveless life, infecting Phyllis.
The emotional connection with the audience goes well beyond identification with the particular characters’ situations. “Follies” is about the follies of youth and their consequences, hopes dashed, roads not taken, dreams unfulfilled. I saw the original production in ‘71 with the girl who became (and still is) my wife. We were the same age as the youthful Ben, Buddy, Sally and Phyllis. I don’t have the troubles as they do — I am blessed in my life and my marriage — but at this stage of life, who can help but be affected when reminded of the plans, the arrogant assurance, the hopes one had at 20, before life intervened with its heartaches and curveballs. We all have our follies.