The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, November 29, 2021

'Follies' was my first Broadway show. 50 years later, I remember it all.
An undated handout photo shows a scene from “Follies,” in New York. On a thrilling trip to New York, a 16-year-old budding critic learned that the insistent optimism of musical theater was a beautiful lie. Martha Swope, Billy Rose Theatre Division/The New York Public Library via The New York Times.

by Ben Brantley

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 hadn’t. 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 didn’t know what had hit me. I certainly didn’t 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t 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.”

Time’s assessment was the opposite of that of the New York Times critics Clive Barnes and Walter Kerr, who didn’t 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 couldn’t disagree about James Goldman’s 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 hadn’t 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 “Abie’s Irish Rose” didn’t 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 didn’t get then — and couldn’t have as a teenager — was how the music was the very sound of memory. It was the cleverness of Sondheim’s 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 aren’t just facile imitations from another era; they’re 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 (I’ve written about seven incarnations for The New York Times) — it’s with the memory of watching that first cast of characters remembering. Every time what I’m 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.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

Today's News

April 5, 2021

Taking Big Bird to new heights

Experiencing museums as they should be: Gloriously empty

Exhibition brings into dialogue seminal works by Man Ray & Francis Picabia

New York show of Philip Guston work to include Klan images

Regen Projects opens a solo exhibition by Los Angeles-based artist Liz Larner

Miles McEnery Gallery opens an exhibition of new paintings by Shannon Finley

Two brothers posed for a portrait. One lived to see it in the Met.

Winfred Rembert, 75, dies; Turned painful memories into art

Clyfford Still's rare masterwork PH-568 leads Sotheby's Hong Kong Contemporary Art Spring Sales 2021

Van Dyck, Lippi, Savery and Waldmüller sell for strong prices in Koller's Old Masters & 19th Century Paintings auction

Performing arts make a cautious return in New York

Fine Autograph and Artifacts featuring Hollywood in April 14 auction

From Rivera to Warhol to Banksy, a torrent of astonishing prints and multiples come to Heritage Auctions

Heritage Auctions rewrites comic-book record book with $4.45-million session

Exhibition explores how photography, graphic design, and magazines transformed mid-century American visual culture

Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers announces online-only Spring Estate Fine Art & Antique auction

Gallery NAGA opens an exhibition of works by Joseph Barbieri

The Walker Art Center names Pablo de Ocampo as Director and Curator of Moving Image

2021 Exhibit Columbus announces design concepts

They are giving Hemingway another look, so you can, too

Film Forum is reopening with a classic: Fellini's 'La Strada'

'Follies' was my first Broadway show. 50 years later, I remember it all.

Miller & Miller to hold online-only Canadiana & Folk Art auction

Skywhales national tour program announced

5 Facts about Payday Loans That You Must Know

Best Social Platforms for Artists

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez

sa gaming free credit

Royalville Communications, Inc
Founder's Site. The most varied versions
of this beautiful prayer.
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site Parroquia Natividad del Señor
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful