A walk down Follies memory lane.
By Shoshana Greenberg (Lyricist/Bookwriter)
I'm thrilled that theater-lovers of my generation finally have a chance to see and fall in love with Follies this Broadway season, finally able to see what I saw at the age of 15 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. My parents had the foresight to take me to that fantastic production (starring Tony Roberts, Donna McKechnie, Dee Hoty, Ann Miller, and Phyllis Newman), and it has been one of my favorite musicals ever since.
I could touch the back wall of the balcony from my seat, but the minute those opening "Prologue" chords sounded and I saw the first ghost emerge from what seemed like the air, flickering in and out of sight and memory, I "never looked back."
"Prologue" from the Paper Mill Playhouse production. It's too dark to see the flickering ghosts in the beginning, but, at about a minute in, they come into view.
Many people I've spoken to who had never seen the show before love the current revival. It's a great revival, but this is my fourth major production of Follies (I saw the Paper Mill version, 2001 Roundabout revival, and the 2007 Encores production before this one). Since I've been around the Follies block, so to speak, I love comparing the different interpretations I've seen, as well as the original production.
"Could I Leave You?" is a great moment for Phyllis, one of the former Follies girls and the show's breakout character. In the current revival, Jan Maxwell is a tour de force, but I thought her interpretation of the song brought too much rage to the surface. Phyllis has endured much rage, to be sure, but at this point I believe her character is beyond rage and that the song is more about sticking one to her husband Ben instead of unleashing the anger within.
Jan Maxwell sings "Could I Leave You?" in the Kennedy Center production, currently on Broadway
Donna Murphy, who played the role in the 2007 Encores production, also brings rage to the part (here in Sondheim's birthday concert). I like her creative musical phrasing and expressions, but ultimately the interpretation doesn't feel quite right to me, especially her pause and look of fear in the "wait a god damn minute" moment. I do appreciate her attempts to belittle Ben, though.
Donna Murphy sings "Could I Leave You?" at Sondheim's Birthday Concert, 2010
I'm a big fan of Dee Hoty's performance from the 1998 Paper Mill version. I love her deep, hefty voice, which imbues Phyllis with the strength she deserves, and I especially love how she handles the word "what" before launching into the next verse. Her performance has some residual anger but never goes over the top. She remains cool and collected, and Ben is the worse for it. Plus, her final "Guess" goes for the juggular.
Dee Hoty singing "Could I Leave You?" on the 1999 DVD "My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies."
Then there's Alexis Smith in the original production. She's performing for the camera in this clip, but you still see how in control she is throughout the entire song, becoming forceful, not angry, at the key moments. I especially love what she does with her eyebrows at "Could I leave you? Yes." Her "Guess" at the end is not uttered out of exasperation but as a "What the fuck do you think?"
Phyllis is a diffcult character to get to know, and Alexis Smith doesn't let us inside her too early. We have to wait until the final moments of "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" and her last scene: "I'm here, Ben. I'm right here" to see deeper.
Alexis Smith singing "Could I Leave You?"
There are many more interpretations of this song (I skipped over Blythe Danner's and Lee Remick's) and a plethora of Follies clips on YouTube, so make sure you know your Follies history. The Paper Mill Playhouse production used the song "Ah, but Underneath" in place of "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." I believe "Ah, but Underneath" to be an infinitely better song, and no Follies production really seems complete without it. Bernardette Peters has her own take on Sally, but you can check out Donna McKechnie, Judith Ivey, Barbara Cook, and Dorothy Collins and compare interpretations.
There will always be major productions of Follies with illustrious stars, and they will always be must-sees. And just as when we visit the ghosts of memory, every time we return to Follies the story and characters are reinterpreted and illuminated again and again.
SHOSHANA GREENBERG is a writer, lyricist, bookwriter, and playwright. Her musical Lightning Man will be part of ANT Fest at Ars Nova this fall. http://about.me/shoshanagreenberg
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