Fuck Yeah Stephen Sondheim: Thoughts on Follies, Nostalgia, and Growing Up on Sondheim

Originally published on Fuck Yeah Stephen Sondheim.

I’ve been brewing on Follies since I saw the show about a month ago. I still don’t have a big, coherent statement, but here’s some of what I’ve been thinking. 

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Bernadette Peters is playing Sally for every ounce of her breakdown. It’s definitely supported by the script, but it’s a far less entertaining portrayal than I had hoped to see. My sense of other Sallys past is that they held it together despite a simmering despair always threatening to bubble over. Maybe when your version of the script eliminates references to Sally’s prior suicide attempt you compensate by making it clear exactly how broken down Sally is, but I for one would prefer subtlety.

***

My sense of other Sallys comes almost entirely from cast albums. Although I have seen one previous production of Follies, I don’t remember much from it.  But I have every note, every nuance of the original cast album and particularly the 1985 All-Star Concert version memorized. Despite making a conscious effort to experience this production for what it is, it was impossible for me not to hear echoes of Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, Phyllis Newman, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin… And I realized that my nostalgia for the cast albums — which I have been listening to for over twenty years (I first fell in love with Follies around the fifth grade) — this nostalgia did for me what the nostalgia for the actual Follies of the Ziegfeld era must have done for the audience of the original production.

***

But my nostalgia for Follies is not just a longing for the days before Mandy Patinkin was a parody of himself and the realization that skinny, blonde ingenues grow up to be bloated-but-regal cabaret singers. I am a member of the first generation of theater queens to be weaned on Sondheim, or at least SONDHEIM as we think of him today — I was born during the original Broadway run of Side by Side by Sondheim. I was listening to Company when I was still watchingSesame Street. My first trip to Broadway included the original Broadway production of Into the Woods. Most of my ideas of what it meant to be an adult were shaped by an early (perhaps premature) exposure to and submersion in Stephen Sondheim musicals.

Chew on that for a moment. My ideas of adulthood were shaped by the marriages of Company, the infidelities of A Little Night Music, and the collapses of Follies. Perhaps that’s why I’m nearly 34 and single. Maybe that’s why I broke down sobbing uncontrollably when Norm Lewis sang “Being Alive” on the closing night of Sondheim on Sondheim as I sat next to my first-ever long-term boyfriend at what I already knew (however subconsciously) was the tail-end of our relationship. It’s possible that I spent too much time in the Act II worlds of Sunday and Woods before fully internalizing the happily ever after perfect parks that Sondheim was responding to.

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So much of what Sondheim writes about is tied up in the ideas of youth and age, innocence and experience, expectations and realities. But what does that look like if Sondheim’s work itself was the soundtrack of your youth?

The first time I saw Company, I attended with an older friend. I was a freshman in college. She was in her mid-thirties and single. I was acutely aware that the show might have been more vivid, more poignant, more painful for her.

The last time I saw Company, I was nearly thirty, single, and acutely aware that I was approaching the ages of the characters without ever having been in a meaningful, long-term relationship and the show had a great deal more urgency for me than ever before.

Do you remember when you realized you were older than Franklin Shepard is on the rooftop? When you were older than Anne and Henrick? When the couples in Follies more resembled your peers than your parents? Yesterday is done.

***

So for me, part of the emotional pull of Follies, or at least the Follies we have at the Marquis in 2011, is not only about the loss of innocence, of yesterday, and of a modern (that is, pre-post-modern) approach to musical comedy. It’s about the realization that I never had those things to begin with. While the audience of Follies at the Wintergarden in 1971 felt the loss of these things because they once had them, I feel the absence of these things through the acute (and dare I say post-modern) awareness that I never even had a chance at having them.

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