Dispatch from Washington: Is this full-scale 'Follies' bound for Broadway?
Starring in an out-of-town revival of a Stephen Sondheim musical has been a good route to Broadway lately -- the Raul Esparza "Company" came from Cincinnati in 2006, and Patti LuPone's "Gypsy" began at Chicago's Ravinia Festival before opening on Broadway in 2008.
The big question for musical theater fans this summer: Will the stars of the Kennedy Center's deluxe staging of Sondheim's 1971 musical, "Follies," be enough to move it to New York after its brief run closes on Sunday?
It's been 10 years since "Follies" was seen last on Broadway, but there is no consensus about whether this $7.3-million production -- reportedly the most expensive musical ever staged in the nation's capital -- is going anywhere else. "Follies" takes place on the last night before an old theater is demolished. Will this production, like the Follies of the story, end when the curtain comes down?
Director Eric Schaeffer says it was never intended to tour -- but that he wouldn't rule out that it could. "We did it just to do it right here," he said, "and if something happens, it happens."
Die-hard Sondheim fans, of course, aren't waiting to find out. The Kennedy Center reports that 20% of the tickets are going to out-of-towners. Bernadette Peters, who plays Sally Durant, said, "People are definitely coming here to see it." On Memorial Day weekend, she said, she took the train home to New York and "a number people of on board said they had come down just for the show."
Peters recently starred in another Sondheim revival that transferred to Broadway, "A Little Night Music." But "Follies" is a tougher sell: It's less broadly comic, and though the score has some Sondheim classics ("I'm Still Here," "Losing My Mind"), it lacks a song of the magnitude of "Send in the Clowns." The deciding factor may be the cast. Peters says she would "probably" do it, but it would be tough to wrangle all the talent involved: multiple-Tony nominees Peters, Jan Maxwell, Linda Lavin and Danny Burstein in lead roles -- plus actors such as Elaine Paige (the original Evita and Grizabella in "Cats") and opera luminary Rosalind Elias in smaller roles.
The fact that these in-demand stage actors chose to spend two months in Washington testifies to the passion for "Follies." Maxwell, who said she had never heard of the show before, now calls it "a beautiful piece.... I've never experienced this type of artistic expression in a musical." Peters, who in "Night Music" was accompanied by only an eight-piece band, admits that "when I first heard the 28-piece orchestra start playing at run-through, I just started to cry."
"It's fascinating how many people are obsessed with it, who think it's the Holy Grail," Schaeffer said. He said he hasn't re-imagined the show in any novel way: "We wanted this to be the closest thing to the original people could experience."
Nor has he solved the trickier elements of the piece. As Clive Barnes noted in his review of the original 40 years ago, the high level of writing in both the dialogue and music raises "expectations that are never fulfilled" by the drama of the story as a whole.
Still, that production of "Follies" ran for more than a year, and Lavin, who plays the role of Hattie Walker in D.C., was at opening night on April 4, 1971.
"I remember the overwhelming sight and feel of it," she recalled. “It was just this huge, impactful, passionate piece of work ... with moments that I'll never forget."
A veteran of 15 Broadway shows, Lavin said she is aware that "people have been saying it's too expensive to take to New York." Indeed, the things that make this revival so special -- its 41-person cast, 28-piece orchestra and big set pieces -- will make this show less attractive to potential Broadway backers.
"This may be it," Lavin said. "Seeing 'Follies' in its full capacity, not a concert version, is a very rare occurrence. It's not the 'Rocky Horror Show' that you can count on coming around every other week."
-- James C. Taylor in Washington
Above: Jan Maxwell in "Follies" at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Credit: Joan Marcus