Two directors from the 2009 and 1988 TAP productions of Follies
“The roads you never take/Go through rocky ground/Don’t they?
The choices that you make/Aren’t all that grim.
The worlds you never see/Still will be around/Won’t they!”
I’ve always loved Stephen Sondheim’s haunting, gorgeous, and burlesque-filled score of Follies. I’ve seen over 20 production in our area and in NYC over the years, and frankly, my two favorites were the 1988 production that The Arlington Players (TAP) mounted under Jack Marshall’s direction, and the 1999 production at Toby’s – The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, directed by Toby Orenstein. Both were powerfully acted, and directed and filled with great vocal performances.
When director/choreographer Chris Dykton told me that TAP was going to remount Follies twenty-one years after that 1988 critically acclaimed production, the first thing that came to mind was,” How and why?” It’s such a huge undertaking, requiring a large orchestra, a huge cast and dozens of costumes.
As the lights grew dim at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center Theatre on Sunday, April 16th, and that famous prologue began, I heard a spine-tingling oboe, and clarinets, trumpets, trombones, French horns, violins, violas, cellos, drums and piano beautifully played by an orchestra of 24 musicians (with music direction by John-Michael d’Havilland, conducted by Leah Kocsis). Slowly, and elegantly, as Jared Davis’s brilliant set and stage were filled to capacity, we were introduced to the Follies girls and their husbands, and their dreams and hopes of the past, the lack of happiness in the present, and the unknown of the future.
Forty-seven actors wearing multi-colored eye-popping costumes designed by Grant Kevin Lane, with hair and make-up design by Bette Williams, and Avery Burns, touched our hearts and made us applaud, and cry.
The highlights for me? Watching Liz Weber and a group of tapping former Weissman girls having a great time performing “Who’s That Woman?, Jean Cantrell, playing Sally, and Jimmy Paine, playing Ben, singing the regret-filled, heart-wrenching “Too Many Mornings”, and Lynn Audrey Neal’s venomous-filled “Could I Leave You”? They were all spine-tingling! And, to think that a community theatre in Arlington, Virginia produced two fabulous productions of this Sondheim classic! This brilliant 2009 production of Follies has now joined the 1988 TAP and 1999 Toby’s production as my three favorite Follies experiences.
So, let’s move from the present to the past, as directors Chris Dykton and Jack Marshall reminisce about their 2009 and 1988 TAP productions, while actress Mary Andrus, who appeared in both, reflects on her Follies experiences.
Director Chris Dykton: Follies 2009:
Chris: TAP approached me in November 2007 to direct Follies. One reason was to revisit this show. TAP staged Follies in 1988. That production, directed by Jack Marshall, is well remembered and was a landmark production. Telling this story again at TAP twenty-years later seemed to be the thing to do. Many of those actors, who were young during that production, would now be the ‘older’ Follies girls. We talked about the link between the two productions and thought about it as a creative one – sort of like sister productions.
I had many thoughts in the preparation of this production. To both think through and share them, I blogged about it. My first blog focused on components of Follies and the meaning of the word. We explored many of these concepts in the meaning of folly, as being mistaken, rash, and foolish. Many of these translated to the stage. There are so many possible interpretations with this script, and the unspoken meanings amidst the lines. I’m certain there are depths of meaning that could be realized, and I wish we had more performances to explore them.
Joel: What lured you to direct Follies?
Chris: I’ve always liked Follies and its themes of reunion and remembering. What is especially rich about it is the drama of Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy and their relationships set against the background of a theater reunion, and its vaudeville memories. I think also growing older and remembering things in my own life with both satisfaction and regret as something I wanted to explore creatively.
Joel Why are the themes of “remembering” and “linking the generations” so important in Follies, and how did your casting bring out these themes?
Chris: Everyone at the Weissman Follies reunion is remembering, and during that process, the ghosts and memories of their younger selves manifest themselves. For actors, this allowed actors of differing ages to play the same person across the generations. It was a wonderful acting exercise for those involved, and enriched the production as they brought characters to life, sharing similar physicality and emotional choices. Young and old got to collaborate – something that was very special in working on this production.
Chris: Follies really challenges the choreographer in that it asks that the choreographer stage so many numbers in different styles. Rehearsals were intense and for me, very challenging, especially now that I’m older. Creating or recreating dances with tap, jazz, partnering, and ballet was fun and took quite a bit of time.
I started with “Who’s that Woman” because recreating Michael Bennett’s choreography from the original production would be exciting and would take time . The number requires such stamina and there are a lot of steps. The cast members were all real troupers in learning and practicing their steps. They were great about changing steps that did not work.
Joel: What was your favorite scene to choreograph?
Chris: I loved choreographing “Lucy and Jessie” and tweaking it throughout the rehearsal process Here, in what is called”Phyllis’s Folly”, I tried to capture the many different emotions, as Phyllis reflects on her struggle to integrate her simple and hopeful younger self – with the hardened and tough person she has become. Still, I enjoyed stretching myself an all the different styles.
Joel: How did you find this talented cast?
Chris: I, like most directors, spread the word about Follies with artists I knew, but TAP’s marketing to the acting community was great, and the turnout was a good one. From auditions, we could cast nearly all the show. I’m grateful for that. The cast turned out to be one of the most considerate and disciplined casts I have worked with. And my, they were talented!
Joel: Follies presents the relationships between Sally and Buddy and Ben and Phyllis. Do they resolve their problems by the show’s end?
Follies presents these adult relationships, and they are revealed in the course of one evening in real time. Sally and Buddy and their problems, and Ben and Phyllis and their problems are exposed briefly in a birds-eye view for us to see. The reunion presents the backdrop for these marriages. Like real life, change and resolution do not happen immediately for them. At the end of Follies, the possibility of something new is there, but it is not set as to what will happen within their marriages. They do leave with their respective spouses – a fractured hope for healing. One could look at it with musical comedy eyes, hoping that all will be well, or you could look at it through musical tragedy eyes, realizing this is one more playing out of their broken relationships that will not be resolved.
The journeys of the four principals are representative of many of us. Sally yearns for the ‘perfect romance’ from the past, and is determined to capture that 30 years later. This is a story that resonates with many of us, and it is not one that is easy to look at. It shows a folly on so many levels of remembering pieces of your life that you want to remember, and making decisions in the present to make this reality come alive. Of course, it cannot live, as it is not based in the real world. I think that Jean Cantrell, as Sally, captured this mistaken hope and broken heart trying to mend beautifully, and she captured the seeds of her emotional instability.
Phyllis’s journey is emotionally more accessible for most of us. She is discontented with her life, and wants to change and end her loneliness and despair. This is a journey of hope too, but seems more grounded and more in line with what most of us as adults face, when trying to grow. It’s easier for us to like as a result, but Phyllis’s brash approach to life and her attacks on her husband Ben, can be off-putting. Lynn Neal really captured that brashness, determination and looking over the cliff at an empty life with such emotional realism. I was fortunate to work with these two actresses on these roles. These characters are broken souls, and both brought that brokenness on stage.
Joel: Now that you’ve had a chance to see the show performed in front of audiences, what are you thoughts?
Chris: I’m very proud of it. I think there is grandeur and yet simplicity, especially in many of the solo and duo scenes. I’m proud of the collaboration that has taken place among the cast and the designers.
Joel: What did you want audiences to take with them when they left the theatre after seeing Follies?
Chris: Don’t forget to reflect on your life, and take that reflection to heart. If you do, you will then be able to help you to a better today and a better self. Memory is precious, and remembering is a gift. Remembering may help us change who we are, and it also allows us to appreciate ourselves, others, and life. Be careful to remember with wisdom.
Follies closed May 2nd.
Director Jack Marshall: Follies 1988
Seeing TAP’s terrific production of Follies brought back a lot of memories of the production I directed, TAP’s first Follies, with Tom Fuller as musical director back in 1988. One reason was that Chris Dykton, the director’choreographer this time, was a dancer in our cast; and Mary Andrus, who played one of the dancing memories in our “Who’s that Woman?” was on the other side this time, playing one of the veteran Follies girls. Tempus fugit.
For our version at TAP, Tom and I began scouting the DC area for performers a year in advance, and many established and rising professionals agreed to waive compensation for the chance to do Follies. (Remember that this was before professional theater had come to Arlington). For example, DC cabaret star Judy Simmons sang “Broadway Baby” in our production. The late Bart Whiteman, founder of the Source and the Source Festival, made his musical debut as Ben Stone. The incredible Ann Johnson, now with the Capitol Steps, was our Sally, and Buzz Mauro, co-founder of the Theater Lab and later a Helen Hayes Award winner, was our Young Buddy. The set, a network of worker’s scaffolding amidst the ruins of the Weissman Theater, was the creation of Lou Stancari, later to gain fame as the designer of many award-winning Signature Theatre sets.
It’s always fascinating seeing Follies because every director has a different take on the meaning, tone and pace. My 1988 version, unlike TAP’s latest, used the showgirl ghosts as a continuous theme. I had them on stage haunting every scene, sometimes trailing characters, watching, moving, sometimes freezing in place. We were lucky; we found a group of eight, gorgeous, tall (the shortest was 5’9 in bare feet; the tallest, “head ghost” Susan Miller, was 6’1) showgirl ghosts who were later awarded a special Center Stage Award as an ensemble. (And my musical director married one of them, Kathy Lambert Fuller, then making her stage debut but now a frequent performer in musicals with Signature and American Century). We also went to great lengths to recruit real elderly actresses for the trademark “Beautiful Girls” staircase number, and had women in their seventies and eighties among the 40, 50 and 60 year olds. [The late Lucille Szabo, our Old Heidi, was a retired professional opera singer just like the character she played, and her “One Last Kiss” (in duet with “Young Heidi” Janine Claussen ) always stopped the show.] It was tough finding “tap-dancing old ladies,” but worth it. I believe the genuine age makes the staircase number especially wistful and real ….I get chills thinking of it, honestly.
In 1988, we included a number cut from the original Follies and never performed on Broadway (don’t tell Stephen!), the lovely “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” (now only heard in the overture) which I feel helps clarify what went on between Ben and Sally. Another unique feature of the 1988 Follies was our solution to the intermission problem. The original show was written to have no break. In principle I agree, because the magic is dissipated by intermission, but 2 and a half hours plus is too much without some chance to hit the bathrooms. My solution was to have the script stop but the show’s party go on…the house lights came up but the characters on stage had their buffet, sang songs around the piano, and kept the show’s party going…and the ghosts never left. This also gave some of the actresses with smaller parts to do some numbers; many in the audience stayed in their seats and kept watching. Our cast and crew were even larger than Chris’s: I remember that the ghosts had their own make-up crew.
Among many high points of this year’s Follies production I particularly liked Lynn Neal’s performance as Phyllis, the choreography of the “Love Land” numbers, the orchestra, and the costumes. And where did TAP get those giant cupids? I would have killed for them!
Chris ended his Follies with the four ghosts of Sally, Ben, Phyllis and Sally looking sadly after their real counterparts, faintly echoing their refrain, “Hey, up there!” Legitimate and effective. I didn’t see it that way, however. We ended our production with the four starting the cycle all over again, still full of hope, oblivious to what was to come. And as the lights faded to shadow, the last glimmer revealed, just for a second, our “head showgirl ghost,” still haunting the empty theater.
Actress Mary Andrus: Follies 1988 and 2009
“Who’s that woman/ That cheery, weary woman/Who’s dressing for yet one more spree?
The vision’s getting blurred./Isn’t that absurd?
Lord. lord. Lord! Lord, Lord, Lord!
Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord!
That woman is me”.
Mary: The first TAP production of Follies I was in was spring of 1988 and Jack Marshall directed it with Tom Fuller as music director. There were several choreographers who did different pieces – Sherri Chris and Amy Brugh McWilliams for sure, and there may have been a third. I was cast as young Emily Whitman, and because they used the London version, the young Whitman had a dance break in the “Montage” that wasn’t in the version we just did, so I got to do a bit more dancing than the 2009 young couple got to do. Emily was played by Joyce Weiser, who was a delight, and she was part of the “Who’s That Woman” number as well, so I got to dance that number too. The “young” selves did the “Loveland” and “Live Laugh Love” numbers as well. I was also part of the “Prologue” with young Sally, young Phyllis and another Young person.
Joel: Why did you want to be in the 2009 TAP production of Follies?
Mary: I have done theater for a lot of years, but I have never repeated a show until now. I auditioned for the show this time around because there just aren’t that many times that a person of my age (let us just say I am looking back at 50) can get to be in a dance chorus. I have worked with Chris and his production team several times before and have found the experiences to be both successful and fun ones and so wanted to be part of a good show and wanted to get to do the “Who’s that Woman” number and dance.
Joel: Does this new production have a different meaning for today’s audiences?
Mary: I think the theme of relationships and how complex they can be is timeless. I didn’t find much about the show dated. The struggling “young” performers continue to be part of our world, as do the aging stars. The relationships of the leads are rooted in their past experiences, and struggle with the day-to-days which is true for all of us in our regular lives.
Mary: The wonderful thing for me about the “Who’s That Woman” number is that it is a tap dance rooted in the 1940s, and the old time tap style is what I learned as a kid and a style that I love and am comfortable with. It was fun to get to just let go and dance it full out, and get to show how much fun it was to perform it.
“I’ve run the gamut from A to Z/ Three cheers and dammit, C’est la vie.
I got through all of last year/And I’m here.
Lord knows, at least I was there, And I’m here!
Look who’s here!/ I’m still here!”