October 4

November 13, 2011

in CST's Courtyard Theater

book by James Goldman
music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
directed by Gary Griffin

Playgoer's Guide

The S​tory

The year is 1971, thirty years after the legendary Weismann Follies ended its decades-long run. The abandoned Broadway theater, haunted by memories of its grand past, is now slated to give way to a parking lot. Impresario Dimitri Weismann invites the surviving members of the Follies to return for a last goodbye.

As the guests gather, mingling with the unseen ghosts of their past, they reminisce about their shared glories, dreams, and the lives that have since intervened. Former showgirls Phyllis and Sally have not seen one another since before their marriages to Ben and Buddy, two former stage-door Johnnies. Phyllis returns, the glamorous fifty-year-old society wife to Benjamin Stone, a successful East Coast diplomat; Sally flies in from Phoenix as Mrs. Plummer, mother of two and wife to Buddy, a traveling salesman. Decades after their brief affair, Sally is still hopelessly in love with Ben, and hopes the reunion will finally bring them together.

As the night evolves, past dreams and present follies are revealed. Weismann's guests come face to face with the choices they have made, inexorably shaping their lives.

Follies in Per​formance

In his recently published anthology of lyrics, Finishing the Hat, Sondheim details the genesis of Follies, a story inspired by an item that appeared in The New York Times about the 35th annual get-together of the Ziegfeld Club. Playwright James Goldman suggested the idea of a reunion to Sondheim, "where emotions and relationships buried in the past gradually resurface with the help of nostalgia and alcohol…" In order to supply a plot for their party, Goldman and Sondheim imagined a murder mystery circling around it (originally entitled The Girls Upstairs). Attending the first anniversary party of Fiddler on the Roof, Sondheim suggested to Goldman that they sit in the orchestra to observe the party on stage. Here they realized that Follies was "…nothing but a social gathering, people beginning in high spirits, getting drunk and increasingly emotional, performing old numbers and opening old wounds." "The show," writes Sondheim, "took on a Chekhovian quality—the less that happened, the better."

Following a pre-Broadway tryout in Boston, Follies opened in New York on April 4, 1971, to stellar reviews from the national press—but not from the crucial New York Times, and it closed after 522 performances. The production received the coveted New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical of the Year and seven Tony Awards, including one to Sondheim for the music and lyrics. The most expensive Broadway show ever produced to date, Follies investors lost much of their capital. For its successful London West End debut in 1987 (with Diana Rigg as Phyllis), Sondheim wrote four new songs and Goldman extensively reworked the book, though in recent years Sondheim has expressed preference for the original Broadway score (used in CST's current production). A Broadway revival produced by Roundabout Theatre Company in 2001 was not a critical success. Earlier this year, Follies opened at The Kennedy Center before transferring to Broadway in August. It opened at the Marquis Theatre on September 12, 2011—finally receiving the favorable New York Times review it had missed the first time around.

From Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat

"Adoring the Broadway canon as I did, the seductive aspect of the show was the opportunity to write two kinds of songs: character songs for the four principals and pastiches for the other performers, in styles ranging from 1918 to the 1940s... [H]ere was a chance to pay homage without ridicule to the genre I loved, the past I had known only through recordings and sheet music. It allowed me to imitate the reigning composers and lyricists from the era between the World Wars, and I grabbed at it with all ten fingers and a rhyming dictionary. Follies is an orgy of pastiche*. "

Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

* "Pastiche" is defined by Sondheim as "fond imitations, unlike parodies or satires, which make comment on the work or the style being imitated".

The Zieg​feld Follies

The Ziegfeld Follies entertained Broadway audiences for well over two decades. Then- Chicagoan Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was sent to Europe by his father to scout out talent for the city's 1893 World's Exposition. He returned from Paris with a taste for the exotic—and beautiful women. The first Follies in 1907 was designed as inexpensive, summer rooftop entertainment, but its remarkable popularity assured that it could be followed annually by evermore extravagant, and revealing, productions. The Follies were lavish revues combining elements of dance, vaudeville and the great music of the time, by such composers as Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert. The production also established Ziegfeld, a promoter and producer, as the most successful showman of the era. While many of the top entertainers of the era (including W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, and Fanny Brice, among many others) appeared in the shows, the Ziegfeld Follies were famous most of all for "the Ziegfeld girls", advertised as "the most beautiful girls in the world." After Ziegfeld's death in 1932, the 1936 MGM film, The Great Ziegfeld, immortalized the work never filmed as a production during Ziegfeld's own lifetime.

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