Encores! Follies: let’s hear it for the girls upstairs

I discovered Follies in my first Sondheim year, when I was 19. I didn't love it until I turned 23 and spent one entire long, dark, cold night (from sundown to sunup) listening to a loop of the London revival recording on my cool CD Walkman while I formatted Excel spreadsheets for the president of the ad agency where I worked. It became background music after a couple of hours, steady and familiar, like listening to my own breathing, or my own heart beating, simply a sound when sound was needed.

The outline isn't complicated, though the presentation is: showgirls from an early ‘40s musical revue (and their beaus) reunite one last time before their old theater is demolished. Characters confront and cling to past selves, trailed by their own ghosts, going crazy one by one and then slowly picking themselves up again. Returning at the end to the lives they've built, the only thing they know to be true. What are the options? Throw everything else away? Start over?

Perhaps. If it were someone else's show. Lesson #1: Choose honest over happy, because sometimes they are the same thing, even if you cannot see it. (Those cracks in the marble of aging theaters and faces? Illusions shattering.)

What I remember best about that night is "Too Many Mornings": former lovers meet after 30 years apart; both imagine they’ve married the wrong people. For 30 years they’ve dreamed of each other, of the choice they didn’t make: All that time wasted, merely passing through, he sings. Was it ever real? she asks. Did I ever love you this much? (My god, what a question!) Always, he promises her: we can always be this happy. And somehow, for a moment at least, they both believe him. (Lesson #2: Always is a flimsy word to hang a life on. Translations taught me that.) The melody builds with the drama: If you don’t kiss me, Ben, I think I’m gonna die. (Is it any wonder I’ve always found Sally silly? I hate women who are desperate for love.) Lush and romantic, it soars to a climax: "Sally standing at the door / Sally moving to the bed / Sally resting in my arms / With her head against my head."

This—such promise!—is followed by the rise and fall of one lonely oboe, which is then echoed by a single violin: a swoon and a sigh, a question and an answer. And it’s all right there, written in music: you know from that one sad wordless line what their ending will be. (See Lesson #1.) It is both haunting and heartbreaking.

Anyway. I’ve waited a long time to see a live production of Follies (too long, really). The Encores series at City Center is semi-staged (try saying that five times fast), a la Ravinia, with the actors carrying scripts for dialogue scenes (one week to rehearse, what are you gonna do?). But what’s missing? Nothing but time. I can live without a staircase.

Among the highlights: The Mirror Scene (“Who’s That Woman”?), led by JoAnne Worley, choreographed to kicky perfection. Christine Baranski saying anything, or just strutting across the stage (“I’m Still Here” wasn’t a knockout, but it wasn’t a cheat, either, except for the final note), and Mimi Hines stopping the show with “Broadway Baby”—literally, after losing the words and asking the orchestra to begin again (which the audience loved, and which is why people love Encores).

Neither of the male leads (Michael McGrath as Buddy and Victor Garber as the famous Benjamin Stone) seemed quite in step with the spirit of the proceedings, especially when singing—both felt too reserved—although the book scenes carried them through (there’s a reason Victor Garber plays lawyers and shady double agents all the time).

In any event, it was an evening that belonged to two women: Victoria Clark as Sally and Donna Murphy (Donna Murphy!) as Phyllis Rogers Stone. (Lesson #3: Always trust the ladies.) Clark nailed that deluded, fluttering, flippity housewife vibe Sally needs without being matronly and dim about it, and Jesus Christ, that voice. You could feel “Losing My Mind” coming up through the floor. And Miss Donna fits one of my favorite Sondheim ladies like her sleek red satin elbow glove: elegant and angry, damaged and cruel, bitter, resigned, honest, and hopeful. Her "Guess!" at the end of “Could I Leave You” (ah, the greatest "fuck you" song ever) was choked and painful, more fear than dare, and "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" was a saucy, sad, tongue-twisting high-stepper. I think Donna Murphy can do anything.

And what do you say after something like that? More, please.

~ Photos lifted from the New York Times