Monday, December 3, 2007

The Follies of Love

Few of us can claim to have gotten this far in life without, at one time or another, having made complete fools of ourselves in the name of love. Unfortunately, the sentimental emotions we attach to our memories frequently warp our ability to understand what might really have happened in the past. "Whose fault was it that we broke up?" "Could he really not have known how I felt about him?" As time moves on, the answers to such questions stray further and further from reality until, when given a choice, we soothe our wounded egos by replaying the tapes of those conveniently self-serving scenarios which we'd much rather believe.

High-level drama queens, who like to act out their love affairs on a grand scale, frequently construct soap operas aimed at inflating the importance of their daily trials and tribulations. In between love affairs, they don't hesitate to bore their friends to death by relating -- in excruciating detail -- each petty insult they claim to have suffered in the course of pursuing that all-too-perfect man who (unknowingly and often against his own free will) has become the object of their unrequited love. It's an old story which tends to get repeated many times over to anyone who will listen. It's also a story which, despite its urgency to the narrator, can have a surprisingly small impact on an audience.

Nevertheless, as we continue to dramatize the ups and downs of our love lives, the ways in which we rationalize our actions vary from one person to another. Two lavish musicals rooted in the era of the Ziegfeld Follies recently proved -- beyond any shadow of doubt -- that the dismal ends we achieve in the process of justifying our behavior while rationalizing failed romances rarely justify the foolish means we employ to convince ourselves that we were right and those who did not, or could not appreciate our shining assets, were destined to be wrong.


I first saw Stephen Sondheim's Follies in 1971 during its pre-Broadway tryout at Boston's Colonial Theatre. Although it ran for a year on Broadway (and enjoyed a limited engagement at the Schubert Theatre in Century City) mainstream audiences never really took to the show. Why? Many middle-aged couples, seeking escapist fantasies of the style they imagined an old-fashioned Follies show might offer, were horrified to see the bleakness of their own marriages paraded across the stage as a sorry reminder of what can happen when people continue to base their lives and relationships on a ridiculous pack of lies.

Since 1971, Follies has achieved cult status as the ultimate expression of the Broadway musical comedy art form. In September of 1985, it was re-recorded during a live concert performed by the New York Philharmonic with an all-star cast featuring Lee Remick, Barbara Cook, Elaine Stritch, Carol Burnett, Licia Albanese, Erie Mills, George Hearn and Mandy Patinkin. A television documentary about the "re-making" of Follies which aired on PBS sparked new interest in the show.

In 1987, when Follies was finally staged in London's West End, its creators took advantage of a rare opportunity to rethink, rewrite and restage the show. For those privileged to have seen the London production, it's interesting to note some of the changes that were made. James Goldman's script has undergone severe alterations as a result of which the personal tensions between Ben, Phyllis, Buddy, Sally and their youthful ghosts have all become much more carefully focused. The "Bolero D'Amour" number (written for a ballroom dance team) and Ben's "The Road You Didn't Take" have been dropped from Act I while a cold-war feud between Phyllis and Ben entitled "Country House" has been inserted in its place. Phyllis's tongue-twisting "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," has been replaced a less impressive number entitled "Ah, But Underneath..."; the order of certain musical numbers in the Loveland sequence has been changed and Ben's "Live, Laugh, Love," has been replaced with "Make The Most Of Your Music."

While these three new numbers are well-crafted Sondheim songs, I got the distinct impression that, having written them seventeen years further into his development as a composer and lyricist, they stand out in a funny sort of way from the rest of the score. It's almost as if Sondheim were not quite convinced that these numbers would really solve the show's structural problems but was willing to give them a try, anyway.

What I find infinitely more fascinating is how, in so many of the musical bridges between the show's mini-scenes, tiny bits of the score have been rewritten so that each character's musical motifs accelerate toward the show's climax, giving Sondheim's contribution to Follies a much more solid sense of through-composition. Along with Goldman's revised script, the late Michael Ockrent's direction helps to clarify certain moments which were vague in the original staging. Without denigrating Boris Aronson's magnificent set for the 1971 version, Maria Bjornson's physical production (particularly the "Loveland" sequence -- which is an absolute visual knockout) is a triumph of stagecraft.

The cast for the London production was incredibly strong, with Diana Rigg's Phyllis and Daniel Massey's Ben revealing plenty of bitterness boiling beneath their carefully manicured airs of sophistication and worldly accomplishments. Julia McKenzie's Sally was more aggressive than I'm used to (a definite improvement) and, as Buddy, David Healy did a much better job of capturing the spirit of an aging, overweight traveling salesman than anyone else I've seen in the role. Dolores Gray (Carlotta Campion), Hope Jackman (Hattie Walker), Lynda Baron (Stella Deems) and Maria Charles (Solange Lafitte) contributed solidly-crafted cameos in supporting roles. Gillian Bevan (young Phyllis) is definitely a talent to watch in the future.


In every way that Follies succeeds brilliantly, Ziegfeld is genuinely awful (my hat goes off to Len Cariou for having had the good sense to leave the show soon after its West End premiere). Misconceived, lamely choreographed and appallingly directed by Joe Layton (with an equally abysmal book by Ned Sherrin and Alistair Beaton) this musical extravaganza which was meant to glorify the life of Florenz Ziegfeld proved, instead, to be little more than an expensive rip-off of Broadway history.

Despite the help it received from such musical giants as Irving Berlin, Noel Coward, George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, Ziegfeld stank to high hell. Even such old standards as "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "Second Hand Rose," "Look For The Silver Lining," "It Had To Be You," "Make Believe," "Who?" "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down On The Farm After They've Seen Paree?" "Shine On Harvest Moon," "More Than You Know," and "By The Light of the Silvery Moon" were unable to prevent this total abortion of a musical from imploding under its own weight.

The only musical number which worked well was "A Girl For Each Month Of The Year." Otherwise, the passing of time was not very kind to the memory of the Ziegfeld Follies (which, in their heyday, might have been a lot tackier than many of us would like to believe). Old-fashioned vaudeville numbers that were once acted out in blackface (as well as some nasty anti-Japanese sentiments) became profoundly embarrassing when inserted into Ziegfeld. As Fanny Brice, Anna Held's lame renditions of "My Man" and "Second Hand Rose" fell flat on their face.

Lines like "Just remember this, Flo: You can write me out of your show, but you can't write me out of your life!" became sheer poetry when compared to the rest of the script. At the end of the evening, Ziegfeld's egomaniacal and thoroughly execrable insistence that he be allowed to restage his death in the way he would like it to be remembered became just one more bad idea from Ziegfeld's creative team.

While Marc Urquhart (who stepped into the title character's shoes following Len Cariou's hasty departure) has my sympathy for being asked to understudy and assume such an ungrateful role, set designer Robin Don deserves credit for two absolutely stunning production numbers. One had a dozen chorus girls posed as statues of antiquity (gingerly balancing themselves nearly 20 feet above the stage as they posed atop Grecian pillars). The other was a star-studded extravaganza in which the Ziegfeld girls, dressed in Theoni V. Aldredge's outrageous costumes, circled wildly above the stage while representing the various planets in the solar system. This was Joe Layton's idea of a musical astronomy lesson.

As you may already have guessed from the tone this review, Ziegfeld was the kind of show that you have to see in order to believe. Unless you have no taste at all, you'd probably even hesitate to tell your friends that you attended a performance for, in too many miserable ways, a turkey like Ziegfeld makes one wonder if history will regard Kelly as a neglected masterpiece.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 4, 1988.

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