A commercial failure is not always equivalent to a turkey. Especially for Stephen Sondheim’s shows – a commercial failure is just the start of a long life with fans coveting it as a wounded bird and countless critics, directors and even Sondheim himself spending decades attempting to prove perceptions wrong. “Follies” from 1971 is one of these shows, coming off Sondheim’s great success with “Company”. Sondheim certainly knew how to construct a mainstream musical, having been mentored by Oscar Hammerstein, and having had great success with shows such as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy”, but he was more interested in exploring different structures, more complex characters and emotions, and deeper themes than the typical show. Sondheim was apparently partially inspired by a Life Magazine photo of Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of the Roxy theater, a massive movie palace near Times Square that was demolished in 1960.
The photo was chock full of symbolism and meshed perfectly with a New York Times article about a gathering of former Ziegfeld Follies showgirls, inspiring a storyline for the show about a reunion of performers at a theater that was about to be demolished.
The show was directed by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett (who also choreographed), with book by James Goldman (brother of screenwriter William Goldman) and included Yvonne De Carlo of “The Munsters” fame in the cast, singing “I’m Still Here”, one of Sondheim’s most famous songs (also love “Losing My Mind” notably performed by Liza Minelli with the Pet Shop Boys in a fantastic electro-disco version).
Despite the fact it was not designed to be a feel-good musical and ended up being one of the most expensive in Broadway history up to that time, the show ran a respectable 522 performances, but not long enough, resulting in the loss of the show’s entire investment. However, it was critically acclaimed and won seven Tony Awards, so since that time, they’ve been trying to make a go of it, continually revising it in countless productions, resulting in two successful, acclaimed productions in the last decade on Broadway and in London. Either they finally fixed structural problems or audiences have just caught up.
We saw the 2012 Broadway production, which originated at the Kennedy Center, starring Jan Maxwell, Elaine Paige, and Bernadette Peters. It was magnificent: dark and personal with ironic spectacle. And most excitingly, we actually saw Sondheim himself, as we were wading into the theater and he was taking his seat!
On the heels of the announcement that “Merrily We Roll Along” – another wounded bird that has been revised and successfully revived in the last decade – is now going to become a film (although it will take 20 years to see the results), an announcement has come that they’re now working now on a “Follies” movie. It will be directed by Dominic Cooke, who helmed the 2017 London production at the National Theatre (and brought back earlier this year, plus shown in cinemas) with Imelda Staunton. No word on casting for the film yet, but I’d love to see them prop up Liza Minelli for “I’m Still Here” and have Sutton Foster tackle “Losing My Mind”. Oh, the casting possibilities!
Sondheim released a statement: “Over the years, there have been many attempts to bring Follies to the screen, but not until Dominic Cooke’s brilliant production at the National Theatre of Great Britain did it seem like it could be a real movie. I’m more than delighted, I’m thrilled, that it’s finally going to happen.”
Here’s the trailer for the cinema screenings of the lavish National Theatre production: