NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
At long last, I was exactly where I had yearned to be for most of my young life. I had arrived in the holy land, which for me was a show palace in New York City, the world capital of my childhood fantasies. My very first Broadway musical, a form of entertainment I regarded as a religion, was about to begin.
Then the lights went down in the cavernous Winter Garden Theater. It got dark, which I had expected. It stayed dark, which I hadnt. The stage was flooded in shadow, and you had to squint to make out the people on it. Some were tall, spectral beauties from another era in glittering headdresses, and others were as ordinary as my parents, dressed up for a night out. None of them looked happy.
The grand orchestral music seemed to be eroding as I listened, like some magnificent sand castle dissolving in the tide, as sweet notes slid into sourness. This was definitely not Hello, Dolly! or Bye Bye Birdie or Funny Girl, whose sunny, exclamation-pointed melodies I knew by heart from the original cast recordings.
I didnt know what had hit me. I certainly didnt know that it would keep hitting me, in sharp and unexpected fragments of recollection, for the next 50 years.
It was the spring of 1971. The show was Follies, a title that turned out to refer to both bygone Ziegfeld-style spectacles and the delusions of its main characters. It had a score by a rising composer named Stephen Sondheim and was directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, names that didnt mean much to me then. The cast included Yvonne De Carlo, Gene Nelson and the divine Alexis Smith, whom I knew from old movies on television.
Since the show was still in previews, there had been no reviews to cue my expectations. And word of mouth hadnt reached Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I was a 16-year-old public high school student.
My parents had finally succumbed to my pleas to be taken to Manhattan, where my older sister lived. We were all side-by-side in orchestra seats, and I could feel my mom and dad basking in my excitement.
That excitement was tinged with a thrill of illicit betrayal. Yes, Follies was undeniably a big Broadway musical, staged with an opulence that would be unthinkable today. But this tale of two unhappy couples, stalked by the ghosts of their younger selves during a showbiz reunion in the ruins of a once stately theater, was telling me that the optimistic promises of the musical comedies I had been weaned on were lies.
In a cover story that came out a month later its pictures would adorn my bedroom walls, along with posters of Humphrey Bogart and Vanessa Redgrave, until I left for college Time magazine enthusiastically (and accurately) described Follies as anti-nostalgic, a modern corrective to the cheery, escapist camp of hit revivals like No, No Nanette.
Times assessment was the opposite of that of the New York Times critics Clive Barnes and Walter Kerr, who didnt like Follies at all. The plot, they wrote, was hackneyed and formulaic. As for the songs, with their homages to styles of showbiz past, Barnes called them a non-hit parade of pastiche.
I couldnt disagree about James Goldmans book, which felt like a rehash of the bestsellers about middle-aged disenchantment I borrowed from my parents. (I already suspected that my future was in criticism.) But the songs stuck with me, along with piercing images of aging performers clinging to a waning spotlight. And I had a vague sense that I would be destined to forever recall this odd and majestic show like a movie in my head that plays and plays, to borrow from its script.
In some ways, Follies was a perfect match to my adolescent self. My parents had always encouraged me to understand that old people hadnt always been old, to look for the layers of what they had been. (I was fascinated by the culture of my grandparents generation, which meant that references to Brenda Frazier and Abies Irish Rose didnt go over my head.)
And part of what I found so affecting about musicals were the differences between their exalted forms and the often ordinary lives they portrayed. (I would restage classic musicals in my head with my friends and family in the leading roles; it made me cry happily.)
What I didnt get then and couldnt have as a teenager was how the music was the very sound of memory. It was the cleverness of Sondheims lyrics that attracted me in my youth. I loved quoting their sophisticated rhymes.
But the older I got, and the more I listened, the more I appreciated the complexity of the pastiche songs, like The Story of Lucy and Jessie, Broadway Baby and the torchy Losing My Mind (which I confess to having sung, drunk, in a piano bar). These arent just facile imitations from another era; theyre inflected with the echoes and distortions of all the years that have passed since. As a memory musical, I came to realize, Follies approaches Proustian dimensions.
When I hear anything from Follies now or see a new production (Ive written about seven incarnations for The New York Times) its with the memory of watching that first cast of characters remembering. Every time what Im listening to sounds deeper and richer, and sadder and funnier. And I recall, with a tightening of my chest, that 16-year-old boy staring at the stage in rapture and bewilderment.
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