“Follies” is some kind of masterpiece. It haunts you, even as its’ many, youthful glamorous ghosts haunt all the now middle-aged showgirl characters, and their husbands. I saw the original something like eight times. In 1971, and its’ flaws and delights along with every line of every song was ingrained on my young mind like some kind of Show Biz acid. The acidity being the brilliantly brittle, as well as exultant, Stephen Sondheim songs and lyrics. Has he ever been better? And all these years later they hold up magnificently. I wish I could say the same for the book.
Based on the rather flimsy idea of a Ziegfeld (here called Weisman) girl reunion in an about-to-be-torn down theater, it is a an original musical with a rather glaringly bad libretto by John Goldman, that unfortunately hasn’t gotten any better with time.
The splendiferous musical numbers still alternate with the aggravating clunky book. Those four squabbling heterosexuals with two disintegrating marriages between them, always annoyed the living daylights out of me, and made it impossible to really relate to or care about these cheesy characters, and their half-baked problems.
That is,until now. And the whole holy mess is now made sense of by the incredible central performance of the Broadway legend herself, Bernadette Peters. Peters tackles this main problem I’ve been discussing about the abominable book and makes it well, bominable.
She’s a consummate actress as well as one of the greatest of living Broadway singers and a great interpreter of Sondheim. Her Dot in “Sunday in the Park with George” was definitve. And she’s cast here in the pivotal leading role of Sally Durant Plummer. Originally played by the TV singer Dorothy Collins of “Your Hit Parade”, Collins was such a shock to see onstage in a Broadway musical acting, as well as singing that she impressed simply by getting through it. And her climatic song “Losing My Mind” was and is one of the best songs Sondheim ever wrote. And Collins sang the living daylights out of it, barely moving and losing it, night after night after night, unforgettably, breathtakingly.
Sally Durant is a Phoenix housewife now and Peters plays her as a manic-depressive, delusional hot mess, which suddenly makes that irritating book make sense. It’s Sally’s delusion/illusion that the successful Benjamin Stone, the husband of her salad days friend, Phyllis, who is also at this ill-fated reunion, is still in love with her, as she still is with him. Sally had an affair with Ben way back in the day, and she’s never gotten over it and thinks that she can re-kindle that old flame, when we all know of course that she can’t.
But Peters pulls us all in to Sally’s dementia, and makes us care about her pathetic impulses, so that when in the fantastic finale Loveland, when she gets to simply dress up in a glittering off-the-shoulder night club gown, and sing “Losing My Mind” it is a kind of heroic triumph as she breaks down crying. Peters sings through her tears. And we know that yes, she is crazy. But she is facing up to it. At last. As the rose-bedecked turns blood red behind her, we the audience is behind her, too. In her struggle to survive love and the loss of love and most importantly, the loss of illusion.
“The sun comes up. I think about you.
The coffee cup. I think about you.
I want you so. It’s like I’m losing my mind.”