Magazine article The Sondheim Review

The Evolution of Follies

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

The Evolution of Follies

Article excerpt

In a 1996 interview, Sondheim discussed two versions of the show

A reprise from the Fall 1996 issue of The Sondheim Review

Follies opened to a drum roll - "soft tympani, like thunder from a long time ago," as James Goldman described it in the published libretto. The Winter Garden curtain rose on the deserted stage of the crumbling "Weismann Theater." A showgirl appeared, spectral and impossibly tall. She slowly began to move, and the stage came to life as figures from past and present commingled to the strains of an ethereal waltz - guests and ghosts together - participants in a showbiz reunion unlike any ever seen before.

The musical had its genesis in Stephen Sondheim's admiration for James Goldman's 1960 play, They Might Be Giants. The composer had expressed an interest in musicalizing the play, but Goldman was reluctant. In 1965, Sondheim asked once more, and while the playwright was still reticent, he was agreeable to collaborating on a musical play. He had come across a brief piece in The New York Times on a Ziegfeld Girls Club, and it was on this premise that he and Sondheim began to work on a musical about a reunion of some performers from the old "Weismann (read Ziegfeld) Follies" called The Girls Upstairs, which Harold Prince eventually agreed to produce after Company. (Goldman and Sondheim also worked together on the one-hour television musical Evening Primrose in 1966.)

When Sondheim agreed to be interviewed on this, the 25th anniversary of the original production, we asked him about that opening sequence and about the evolution of his and Goldman's musical play, The Girls Upstairs, into the phenomenon called Follies.

The Sondheim Review: Who came up with the visuals, with using the concept of the ghosts and the instrumental (a song from The Girls Upstairs called "All Things Bright and Beautiful")? Theatre lore had it that the final opening was the brainchild of Michael Bennett, the show's choreographer and co-director. Had the collaborators always intended the show to begin this way?

Sondheim: There was one other version. Michael Bennett staged our opening as outlined in the script. What we had wanted was a collage of sound - old songs from the "Weismann Follies" on scratchy recordings, together with voices from performers, stage managers, choreographers, etc. When we opened in Boston, it seemed to confuse the audience. We had a conference, and Michael said we had to clarify the opening, instead of it being a collage. He said, "Let me hear all the songs you cut from the show."

"All Things Bright and Beautiful" was from the original, in which the women performed in a kind of "Follies."

In the rehearsal for this number, Ben - who was still deluded about his romance with Sally - brought her a bouquet of flowers, and Sally had a fugue (psychological, that is) in the middle of the number. She went up the staircase to Weismann's office and the others - Ben, Phyllis and Buddy - followed her. This was done before we got the show to Hal Prince. So I played that tune for Michael, which he'd never heard.

TSR: When did the show begin to evolve from The Girls Upstairs to Follies? Before Prince came in, or after?

Sondheim: It's the same show, essentially, just under a different title. Hal said, "It sounds too much like whores."

TSR: It was said at the time of the 1971 production that the final script for Follies was the 25th draft. Which draft had Prince read?

Sondheim: Hal read the 11th draft. The numbers are misleading, because James writes two working drafts for every full draft - 11 full drafts being 22 drafts over a period of four years.

[Several Girls Upstairs songs ended up in Follies. Aside from "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" and "All Things Bright and Beautiful" as an instrumental. Sondheim recalled the others as "One More Kiss" ("the first song I ever wrote for the show"), an early version of "Beautiful Girls" called "Bring on the Girls," "Can That Boy Fox Trot," "Who's That Woman? …

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