Youth is wasted on the young, as the saying goes. Or maybe it just feels that way after going to a reunion: that painful occasion that propels even those with successful careers and youthful faces to feel that their best years are behind them. Follies is Steven Sondheim’s grand tribute to what once was and what might have been. The revival was beautiful to watch, and its threads of nostalgia were woven through each scene and song. In discussing a Sondheim musical, I feel I should admit that I’m not swept away by him as many are. Admittedly, I named this blog after a Sondheim lyric, which presupposes a certain fandom, but I think the topic of his lyrics is the whole point: his brilliance is in the words. With the exception of one song in Follies, the musicis more entertaining than moving, and for a show that grapples with the pain of lost love, it should have more of the latter.
Similarly, the characters are not very nuanced which demands that the actors do much with little material. Jan Maxwell (Phyllis) does that best. She strikes a balance between being hurt by a distant husband and being too proud to admit it. Her scene-stealing dancing, singing, and general gorgeousness made her one of the best parts of the show. Bernadette Peters less so. She portrays Sally as a fragile lost lamb whose excessive voice quiver made her seem about to crumble at any moment. When she reconnects with Phyllis’ husband Ben, the man she had wanted to marry, she deludes herself into thinking they’ll have a second chance at love, a moment that felt heavy-handed where it ought to feel heartbreaking. That said, her rendition of “Losing My Mind” was so beautiful, it almost benefitted from Peters’ diminished voice. The frailty of her high notes was more poignant than had she belted them out.
The sadness of Sally and Phyllis, and their husbands Buddy and Ben, is that they still seem so confused about who they are even after all these years, and each feels in some way that the potential for great love has been lost. The youthful versions of the main characters pale in comparison and not only due to the ghostly lighting cast on them throughout the performance. They come across like vapid young things who don’t have much ambition beyond getting marred. What disappointed me about Follies was that the present day characters are only slightly more fleshed out. Ultimately, these love stories are simple, and if they resonate with viewers, it’s because of the abstract empathy felt toward anyone whose hopes for a relationship don’t quite pan out. What moved me instead was the way that reunions conjure earlier versions of oneself. For Phyllis and Sally, the hardest image to conceptualize is not who they were but who they are.