That Old Feeling III: The Ghosts of Broadway

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A Broadway show! Decades ago, that phrase had the heft of glamour to it, especially for people who never got to New York. It conjured visions of Manhattan swells in white tie and tails, of elegant ladies with throaty, knowing voices; this was the audience. On stage were matinee idols, speaking elevated dialogue in a mid-Atlantic accent that suggested both class and masculine assurance; surrounded by haughty showgirls who strung the vanquished hearts of zillionaire playboys on their charm bracelets.

None of this may have existed, but audiences knew it was the truth because they saw movies that, time after time, told the story of a driven hero putting on the big show. It was Hollywood, immensely more potent as a dream factory, that canonized Broadway, while deriding its own gift for myth-weaving. The many '30s movies whose subject was the theater ("42nd St.," "Morning Glory," "Stage Door") were about creating magic. The few movies whose subject was moviemaking ("Boy Meets Girl") were about getting away with mischief.

At the time, Broadway had a much more intimate relation to Hollywood. It was the produce market that fed the movies. Virtually all of the new stars of the talkies — Cagney, Davis, Hepburn, Grant, Robinson, Muni, Tracy, as well as Astaire and Rogers — had grown up on the New York stage. Some of Hollywood's most successful films came from hit plays ("You Can't Take It With You") and flops ("Everybody Comes to Rick's," which became "Casablanca"). Playwrights, directors, songwriters migrated from New York to California, confecting a word-and-picture medium quite similar to the one they had left behind. Films of the period had a three-act structure, actors with distinctive deliveries and lots of fabulous talk talk talk.

So the American theater lived in the world's consciousness partly by renting itself and its talent out to Hollywood. But it also poured honey in the world's ear. For 60 years Broadway shows provided many of America's enduring, indelible tunes. Writing for specific characters and situations (say, a love song to a man named Valentine in "Babes in Arms"), Rodgers and Hart could fudge it into universal wistfulness ("My Funny Valentine"). Among the most electric thrills the theater can offer — a real out-of-Broadway experience — is the great performance of a terrific song in a musical, when the lyric is enriched by what the play has told us about the character; it becomes not a stand-alone declaration but the most poignant chapter in a life story. To be in a big room at a great moment of incandescent, evanescent theater: You don't get that at the movies.

(Insert requisite paragraph about how the theater is kaput and the musical an embalmed corpse, how the movies are poorer for it and ain't that a shame, how modern show-tune-writing and the public taste in pop music have sundered so hopelessly that there's no such thing as a hit Broadway song any more... — waiter, my usual bottle of domestic whine, please.)

Last week Broadway welcomed the long-awaited revival of the 1971 "Follies," a sour, sparkling comment on theater nostalgia. The premise: Imagine the reunion, 30 years later, of veterans of a Ziegfeld-style revue that ran in the years between the wars; now the theater, owned by the impresario, is to be torn down, and among the aging chorus girls convening there to renew old friendships and animosities are sweet Sally (Dorothy Collins in the original) and chic Phyllis (Alexis Smith). They are close to cracking — in unhappy marriages with men they knew back when (Gene Nelson and John McMartin) — and this trip back to the scene of their early promise depresses and spooks them. Here are angry women haunted both by the specters of their younger selves and by their dawning realization of the walking cadavers they have become. How are these complex emotions expressed? In some of the most cunning, powerful, heart-hurt songs Stephen Sondheim has devised.

The original production, directed as an exercise in splendiferous irony by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, was by my lights the finest musical of its decade. My wife, Mary, and I saw the show when we were in our 20s, about the age of the "Follies" quartet when they were kids. Now we're in our 50s, the age of those kids after they've let themselves sleepwalk into the quicksand of marital misery. (Note to worried reader: we're doing fine, thanks — still crazy about each other.) It made me eager and anxious to see how "Follies" would feel exactly 30 years after it opened.

Appropriate to the setting, the revival features some middle-aged showbiz stalwarts: Judith Ivey and Blythe Danner as Sally and Phyllis, Treat Williams and Gregory Harrison as their husbands who met them back when. Among the Broadway and Hollywood semi-legends in supporting roles are Jane Roberts (the original 1943 Laurie in "Oklahoma"), Betty Garrett (from MGM's 1949 "On the Town"), Polly Bergen ("The Helen Morgan Story") and Marge Champion (who preceded her dance career by serving as the live-action model for Disney's "Snow White" in the mid-'30s). Who's not to adore?

So the other night we went to the Belasco Theatre, erected in 1910 by the impresario and playwright David Belasco for his own shows. The entrance and aisleways are disconcertingly cramped; if anyone had yelled "Fire!" we'd all have been crushed trying to get out. The people entering the Belasco with me were no ritzy opening-nighters of history or myth; they were hardly better dressed than if they'd gone bowling. Perhaps they'd pawned their best togs to pay for the tickets: A "Follies" ducat costs $90. For that price I got a sixth-row seat that should have been sold with an "obstructed-view" warning, since the hugest man in New York was sitting in front of me, blocking the middle third of the stage. Also, we learned before curtain time, Marge Champion was out sick that night — you don’t get that at the movies. ("In this evening's showing of 'Cast Away,' the role usually played by Tom Hanks will be filled by George Spelvin.")

Elsewhere in this Sampler, friend Zoglin has the official TIME theater-critic word on "Follies." I'll just say I found Matthew Warchus's production a fascinating facsimile of a great show. Of the four leads, I most respected Judith Ivey's performance — the self-conscious giggle that tries to mask suburban despair — though I wish she could act as confidently when she sings; Collins on the '71 album makes art of the reverse coquetry in "In Buddy's Eyes" and the emotional catatonia of "Losing My Mind." Some of the old stars strike more resonance in anticipation than on stage. Bergen has stage authority to spare, but her habit of coming in a half-beat late on each phrase of the past-her-prime aria "I'm Still Here" deprived me of the expected pleasure shiver I get from that great song. I was most touched by Roberts's duet with her younger self (Brooke Sunny Moriber); she still reaches those high notes, like a granny somehow getting to the canned peas on the top shelf. The song also has the show's key couplet: "Dreams are a sweet mistake/ All lovers must awake."

I'm sorry the cast was reduced from 52 to 38, the orchestra from 26 players to 14. The sets (indeed, the entire theater, with the walls of distressed wood bearing the stamp of the Acme Demolition Co.) are carefully tatty, to cue playgoers from the start that the dreams expressed in the following songs are not the opinion of the management. That's clever, but it's also drab. Besides, the point of the original version's visual extravagance was not to show off; it was to contrast the grandeur of the characters' silly young dreams with the puniness of their old, educated bitterness.

To appreciate the revival, you must buy into James Goldman's book, which is peddling a panoramically bleak take on marriage. This is, after all, a musical in which two, maybe three of the four main characters at some point go mad with regret. These defeated middle-agers might want to flame floridly into violent action, but the propriety bred into them allows only clenched spite and self-hatred. Kill themselves? Kill someone else? They haven't the guts or the flair. And maybe they don't believe that the bilious emptiness inside them justifies a melodramatic act. So, at the end, each wife returns to her husband. The revival makes clear that the two couples have exactly enough strength to live together in mutual disappointment. I admire the boldness of this skewed view, and the artistry with which it is rendered in music and performance.

Put it this way: I was transfixed but not transported. (For sublime transportation, rush to Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love," a block up from "Follies." Both works portray the pain of the road not taken; Stoppard pushes the trope further, into an epic meditation on the twin tragedies of repressing desire and following it. The play so seduced me into its wit and heartbreak, I could feel my face literally flush; its radiance made me feel sunburnt.)

Even in its more modest incarnation, "Follies" has, no question, the best score on Broadway. In '71 Sondheim was on the roll of his life: He had done the Burt Bacharach-y "Company" the year before, would complete the operettish "A Little Night Music" two years after and, in his spare time, created the first important American-style cryptic crossword puzzles for New York magazine. But from the moment I heard his "Follies" score, I thought it his finest. One reason may be that Sondheim, the most brilliant of pastiche artists, was in much of the show synthesizing and parodying an idiom (the pop, torch and novelty songs of the '20s and '30s) whose originals I cherished. But he wizened the old sentiments into something deep and dour — a cry from the stricken heart — without betraying the ingenious buoyancy of the old tunes.

"I'm Still Here," for example, is an ego anthem in the brassy, blowzy old-broad genre: a movie actress writes her own episode of "Biography" in four minutes of irony and defiance. On the original cast album, Yvonne De Carlo, herself a survivor of sloe-eyed vamp roles, doesn't so much perform the song as relive it, in her Dewar's-and-Chesterfields voice. She hangs onto a melody that builds like "Bolero"; she caresses every swerve of the lyrics' ups and downs. And what lyrics! Here is a portrait in poetry that's up there with Robert Browning’s "My Last Duchess":

I've been to Reno,
I've been to Beverly Hills,
And I'm here.
Reefers and vino,
Rest cures, religion and pills,
But I'm here.
Been called a pinko
Commie tool,
Got through it stinko
By my pool.
I should have gone to an acting school,
That seems clear.
Still, someone said, 'She's sincere,'
So I'm here.

"I'm Still Here" is one of the few straightforward songs in the show. "Follies" tests the musical convention that people sing what they feel. Sally sings "In Buddy's Eyes," about her loving husband; it has an asexual ecstasy worthy of Rodgers and Hammerstein at their most liturgical. Yet we soon learn that Buddy cheats on Sally, that she can't stand him, and that the man she does love, has always loved, is Phyllis' husband Ben — the man to whom she's singing. Perhaps she wants the world to think she lives in a bower of bliss, or perhaps she thinks she can subdue her attraction for Ben if he believes she's happily married (when she's really mired in an almost suicidal depression). In the next song they share, Ben sings the wistful "Too Many Mornings" ("Wishing that the room might be filled with you"). But though he's singing to Sally, he's remembering the young Sally with whom he had an affair before he married Phyllis. That Sally is gone, and so is his love for anyone, including himself. In each of these songs, you have to listen close, and listen twice, to hear the lie behind the lilt.

"Follies" is about the lure and lie of musicals, that most optimistic art form. The hope of young love is crushed into cynicism, inertia. Happy tunes have a queasy undercurrent that may be suggested by the irony of the situation (we know they're kidding themselves, even if they don't) or by the music itself (in mid-song, Jonathan Tunick's canny orchestrations will sometimes bolt off into a different, darker direction, as if suddenly exasperated by the cheerful lies being sung).

But "Follies" never makes fun of the honorable musical tradition to which it belongs. The show and the score have a double vision: simultaneously squinting at the messes people make of their lives and wide-eyed at the lingering grace and lift of the music they want to hear. Sondheim's songs aren't parodies or deconstructions; they are evocations that recognize the power of a love song. In 1971 or 2001, "Follies" validates the legend that a Broadway show can be an event worth dressing up for.