Saturday, February 10, 2007

Sondheim's FOLLIES "Encore"

In the early 70s, influential critics at the New York Times panned Stephen Sondheim's first two collaborations with director Harold Prince, COMPANY (1970) and FOLLIES (1971). In spite of those reviews, the musicals garnered much favorable critical attention and Tony Awards. Still, those reviews contributed to a popular conception of Sondheim as "cold," "cerebral," unhummable, and "too clever by half."

This weekend, the paper's head critic Ben Brantley sets the record straight, reviewing a concert staging of FOLLIES in Broadway's "Encore!" series:

The brittle shield of ice that was once widely believed to encase anything Stephen Sondheim wrote continues to melt apace. On the heels of John Doyle’s intense back-to-back revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” on Broadway, this “Follies” definitively tears off the stigma of cerebral chilliness that was attached to it when it opened 35 years ago.
Directed and choreographed with winning sensitivity by Casey Nicholaw, and acted with a blend of complexity and clarity that rarely happens in musicals, the Encores! “Follies” opens a floodgate to a dizzying rush of feeling from the first strains of its overture. That opening music, conducted by Eric Stern, glitters with grandeur, lyricism and an uneasy undercurrent of fragility. It is the sound of beauty with fracture lines, just about to crack.

Another recent article by Gina Bellafonte contains comments about the current revival of COMPANY directed by John Doyle. She, too, corrects earlier failure of perception:

“Company” seems so sophisticated now partly because of its prescience. It opened a few months before the publication of “Play It as It Lays,” Joan Didion’s deadening novel of ... the psychological consequences of a ruptured national morality. “Company” is unquestionably a cheerier affair, however much it resists its own optimism, but no less ambivalent an indictment of the sexual libertinism to which the 1960s gave sanction.

...It has been fashionable to think of “Company” as an endorsement of marriage steeped in resignation and reserve. But the show lacks the dismissiveness that that interpretation implies. This production suggests that a marriage, or a lasting one, anyway, is not about a union of two impassioned souls forged against the world. It is a communal enterprise, its success sustained by the order of social life.

None of this is news to me. FOLLIES has sent shivers up and down my spine since the first time I heard a scratchy LP of it, and finally seeing it on Broadway in 2002 (?)
showed me even more than I'd expected. I've seen several productions of COMPANY, and I played "David" in a production at Duke University in 1979, but it wasn't until I saw a couple of productions in one year that it deeply moved me: one production on a small "mod" set of trapdoors and platforms reminiscent of "Laugh-In" at Actors Express, Atlanta, and the wonderful big production (directed by orchestrator Jonathan Tunick) at the Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration in the summer of 2002.

Following that celebration, Ben Brantley wrote similar thoughts: "After seeing the six musicals in this series, I began to think that Mr. Sondheim may be the most emotional composer in the history of musicals." He points out that earlier productions hadn't the "clarity" of the later ones.

Directors and actors may be better at realizing what Sondheim and his collaborators were doing. Possibly, without the pressure of creating a new thing, later directors have been able to focus their productions more acutely.