Two couples — former chorus girls and the successful men they married — and the crumbling ruin of a Broadway theater are the setting of a show called Weismann’s Follies. The couples are survivors of twin relationships turned sour. Victims of their own follies, they’re surrounded by the ghosts of their pasts and fighting for a way to save their emotional lives of the present.
Stephen Sondheim’s Follies opened in April 1971 in New York’s Winter Garden Theatre. The show, with a book by James Goldman and directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, ran for 522 performances and lost $792,000. It also earned 11 Tony Award nominations and won seven of them, prompting New York Times critic Frank Rich to wonder whether Follies was “a great musical or the greatest of all cult musicals.”
“Follies is a great musical,” insists Jillian Smith, artistic director and president of Soulstice Theatre, which is mounting a concert version of the show June 6–21. “The concept is accessible to audiences, the emotions are extremely real and palpable, and it’s arguably Sondheim’s finest work as a composer and lyricist.”
Central to the show’s success, Smith says, are the songs themselves — torch numbers that have stood the test of more than 40 years of time.
“The audience is moved to feel for these characters, to ache for their broken hearts, broken dreams and broken lives,” Smith says. ”Sondheim’s surgical attention to lyrical content as a means of developing character is at its finest in Follies.”
The narrative focuses on couples Buddy and Sally Durant Plummer (Stephen Pfisterer and Laura Monagle) and Benjamin and Phyllis Rogers Stone (David Ferrie and Liz Norton), who have reunited in the remains of the theater that saw some of the women’s finest performances. Both couples are deeply unhappy in their marriages.
Some of the songs have become standards, including “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings,” “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind,” perhaps the most familiar and moving of the show’s 22 numbers.
“The melodies are haunting and stirring and inescapable,” Smith says. “These songs and these characters will stay with you long after the lights come up.”
Follies is less plot-driven than some other Sondheim works, and much of the second act takes place with little or no dialogue between songs. The show’s unusual structure may challenge fans of old-school musicals who expect a plot with conflict and resolution. But it’s precisely the absence of those standard elements that drives the show’s success, Smith says.
“The realization that our past choices may not have been good ones, the pain of lost love, the feeling we missed something big, the emptiness one can find if you don’t follow your heart are things to which many people can relate,” Smith says.
Sondheim has embodied those strong emotions in characters as theatrical as the ghosts that walk the stage and as real as any couple struggling to understand the consequences of their actions. The characters’ self-examination makes Follies more emotionally accessible than some of Sondheim’s more familiar works.
Smith says the show lends itself beautifully to a concert format, which focuses the audience’s attention more squarely on “the emotions, the relationships and the way the music brings those things to the forefront.”
On stage: Soulstice Theatre, 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave., St. Francis, presents a concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies June 6–21. Phone 414-481-2800 or visit www.soulsticetheatre.org.