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Follies: 2011 Broadway Revival

by B.A. Nilsson on April 4, 2012

BERNADETTE PETERS, ELAINE PAGE, JAN MAXWELL, DANNY BURSTEIN, RON RAINES; MUSIC AND LYRICS BY STEPHEN SONDHEIM

This may be the best cast album I’ve ever heard, and the only reason I equivocate is that I’m unduly fond of the show itself and thus tend to be enthusiastic from the get-go.

Having missed the original 1971 production (I chose to see The Sunshine Boys instead, which I will regret to my grave), I was all the more disappointed by the 2001 revival, which showed how tough this show can be to pull off. That one followed an acclaimed 1998 version at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, which I know only through its commendable recording.

But with Bernadette Peters heading a flawless cast, the production that originated at the Kennedy Center and then landed last year on Broadway was a knockout, relying to a large extent on the actors’ skills to pull off the tricky mix of time and location, song style and emotion.

We’re in a soon-to-be-demolished theater. It’s 1971. A party is gathering to “glamorize the old days, stumble through a song or two—and lie about ourselves,” in the words of impresario Dimitri Weismann, who produced a series of glamour-girl-enriched Follies between the wars.

The script, by James Goldman, is episodic and the songs are unusual hybrids of vintage pastiche and (as it appears now) vintage Sondheim. The new recording incorporates a generous amount of script—enough to make sense of the show without independent study—and even uses lines that didn’t make it into or were cut from the production it captured, but accomplished the task of putting together an effective word picture of what’s going on.

This is very much to the credit of producer Tommy Krasker, a show-recordings veteran who for the past decade has been issuing his recordings on his own label, PS Classics. His taste and technical acuity are such that you can trust anything he releases, but with Follies, he’s outdone himself.

Peters acted the plum role of Sally with an unusual intensity, with such spontaneity that she hit different emotional points the two times I saw the production. Dogged by vocal problems throughout the run, she was captured at her best on this recording, which means that her “Losing My Mind,” the show’s big ballad, is one for posterity—and performers a-plenty have sung the hell out of this number over the years.

Sally is married to Buddy, but with regrets; fellow-showgirl Phyllis married Ben, ditto. Their early dreams are shared by shadow images of their younger selves, who enact the backstage moments when romance sparked and grew and even then started to go sour. The current-day tensions build even as we meet other Follies veterans.

Thus Hattie Walker (Jayne Houdyshell), who’s long experience is described in a song that’s now a show-biz standard, “Broadway Baby.” And still-lovely Carlotta Campion (Elaine Page), whose Cole Porter-esque list song “I’m Still Here” contains some of my favorite rhymes (“I’ve stood on bread lines/With the best,/Watched while the headlines/Did the rest./In the Depression was I depressed?/Nowhere near./I met a big financier/And I’m here.”)

The melancholy truth of aging is revealed in “Who’s That Woman?,” a production number hefty Stella Deems (Terri White) urges the others to help re-create. Even though you can’t see the accompanying dance, the recording conveys the heartbreak the ladies are facing as looks fade and legs fail to respond as deftly.

Follies started life as a kind of anti-musical, its setting of a doomed theater standing in for the doomed state of the big Broadway musical. Now it’s seen as a classic example of the genre. The original original cast recording was a travesty, which is a shame—you can hear a great cast at work in the bootleg recording that exists of that production in its entirety.

Here, then, is the Follies cast recording that can go on record as truly representing the show, better than Paper Mill, much better than the 1985 In Concert recording. Relive the show and its era even as you get awed all over again by the masterful Sondheim score.