Follies is a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Goldman, originally staged on Broadway in 1971 in a lavish production by producer Harold Prince and choreographer Michael Bennett, both of whom also co-directed.
The play follows a reunion at a Broadway theater where the "Weismann Follies" were staged decades earlier. The theater has been condemned and will be torn down in days, taking all of its memories with it. Showgirls of yore, now middle-aged or older, have gathered to perform their old numbers, variously nostalgic, contented, or confused. Ghosts trail the performers—the ghosts of their own younger selves.
However, the meat of the plot focuses on two middle-aged married couples. The women, Sally Durant Plummer and Phyllis Rogers Stone, are former chorus girls and friends who, in their youth, were courted by Buddy Plummer and Benjamin Stone, respectively. The foursome always met up after the curtain call. Both couples are now deeply dissatisfied with their marriages. Buddy, a traveling salesman, is having an affair with a girl on the road; Sally, who'd had a brief affair with Ben before he married Phyllis, is still as hopelessly in love with him as she was years ago, and so depressed that she can barely function. Ben is a super-successful businessman turned philanthropist, trying to hide his impending midlife crisis and nervous breakdown; Phyllis, meanwhile, feels abandoned by Ben—both emotionally and physically, due to his refusal to have children—and has turned outwardly cold towards her husband as a result.
The musical has two types of songs: character songs and pastiche songs, which are sung in-universe. The two types eventually come together in the last half hour of the show, in which each of the four major characters performs his/her nervous breakdown as a song.
Follies is considered by some to be Sondheim's masterpiece, though the play itself has had a long and bumpy road. The musical was an Acclaimed Flop when it debuted in 1971, resulting in Capitol Records releasing the cast album in a heavily-butchered single LP release as opposed to the original double-album set that was planned. A full soundtrack would not resurface until 1985, when the entire score was performed live for a charity benefit by a star-studded cast, which was released on CD (sadly the VHS and later DVD release focused mainly on the recording of the concert). The success of Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods gave Sondheim and Goldman the leverage to revive Follies in the UK in the late 1980s, where the play finally found commercial success. However, Goldman (who had long disliked the play's dark tone and downer ending) insisted on rewriting the play to give it a much more upbeat tone and ending.
Several short revivals followed (in 1998 and 2001) until 2011, when the play returned to Broadway and received a full-scale resurrection complete with a new two disk soundtrack which featured extended dialogue tracks to allow listeners to get the complete story.
This musical contains examples of:
- All Love Is Unrequited: Buddy loves Sally, who is obsessively in love with Ben (who does not love her).
- All There in the Manual: The original LP of the soundtrack contained a detailed plot synopsis of the play.
- Break the Cutie / Break the Haughty: Or more precisely, reveal the cutie (Sally) and the haughty (Phyllis) are more broken than they're initially letting on.
- Broken Ace: Ben Stone is regarded as The Ace, though deep down he feels like a total and complete fraud.
- Business Trip Adultery: Sally suspects that her husband, a Traveling Salesman named Buddy, does more than just work on his trips away from home, and says to him: "You've always got a woman someplace. Oh, I know. You leave things in your pockets so I'll know." Much to Sally's dismay, Buddy confesses that he does have a mistress in Dallas named Margie. The trouble for Buddy is that, although Margie, unlike Sally, trusts him perfectly, he loves his wife more. His relationship with Margie is further explored in "The Right Girl," where he tenderly sings to and dances with her imaginary presence, and "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues," which caricatures her as a clingy ditz who chases him relentlessly while he chases after a similar caricature of Sally.
- Composite Character: One of the revised librettos eliminates the dance couple Vincent & Vanessa, instead giving the "Bolero D'Amour" dance to Emily & Theodore Whitman.
- Cool Old Lady: Hattie Walker, and Carlotta Champion. An argument can be made for Heidi Schiller, Stella Deems, and Solange as well, but YMMV.
- Cut Song: "All Things Bright and Beautiful" (used in the prologue), "Can That Boy Foxtrot!" and "Uptown Downtown". The musical numbers "Ah, But Underneath" (replacing "The Story of Lucy and Jessie"), "Country House", "Make the Most of Your Music" (replacing "Live, Laugh, Love"), "Social Dancing" have been incorporated into various productions. Also In-Universe, Carlotta's song was cut from the show because it got laughs despite being a sad song.
- Depending on the Writer: The bulk of the changes to the play largely depend on how heavily James Goldman was involved in the production, as Goldman constantly tinkered and rewrote the play with every subsequent revival. However, since his death, the play has largely moved back towards the original version due to Sondheim's involvement in said revivals.
- Despair Event Horizon: The ending, for Sally — the original script and the 2011 revival event explicitly states that her final line is one, as far as stating that the line (and its variation) "Oh Dear God; it IS tomorrow" should be spoken in a manner totally and UTTERLY devoid of all hope).
- Double-Meaning Title: Refers to both the Follies that the characters performed in, and the follies that they have committed in their own lives.
- Downer Ending: Sally ends the play with a Despair Event Horizon ending where she realizes that she's wasted her entire life longing for a man who never loved her.
- Bittersweet Ending: Ben has a nervous breakdown but Phyllis manages to survive her trip through "Loveland" for the better having reconciled her issues and takes Ben back. Later rewrites of the play by Goldman include additional dialogue for Ben, where he flat out states that he was a jerk to Phyllis because he always assumed she never loved Ben for Ben and only his money; Phyllis takes Ben back and admits that marriage is hard and she refuses to give up hope that the two can reconcile.
- Gratuitous Panning: On the original cast album, Yvonne De Carlo's vocal on "I'm Still Here" gradually slides across the stereo spectrum. This also happens on Mary Mc Carty's vocal on "Who's That Woman?".
- Heel Realization: Ben has one in the middle of a song, where he breaks down and calls himself out as a fraud.
- Flashback: Flashbacks happen simultaneously with the current plot, with the characters being shadowed by the ghosts of their former selves. Literally.
- Lost Episode: For a long time no film versions could be obtained, even bootlegs. The 1985 concert performance video version was 70% behind the scenes material with the songs that were featured in said video, largely featured without any context as the numbers were performed outside the context of the story. Furthermore, soundtrack versions of the musical have largely been incomplete or missing dialogue that explains the various plots and songs. It was not until the 2011 version's soundtrack was released that "Follies" was released in a manner that was remotely complete. However now averted since The 2013 Toulon Production was screened on TV and the 2017 National Theatre Production was screened live to Cinemas.
- Lyrical Dissonance: The song that closes Act I, "Mirror Mirror/Who's That Woman," sounds like a cheery toe-tapper, but the actual lyrics are about a girl who, upon reflection, note realizes she is living the high life to try and escape her own inner emptiness.
- Minor Character, Major Song: Carlotta ("I'm Still Here") and Hattie ("Broadway Baby") both count as this. Because their songs are so important, revivals have tended to cast notable performers in these roles (Carol Burnett, Christine Baranski and Betty Buckley have all played Carlotta, while Elaine Stritch, Betty Garrett and Linda Lavin are among the names who've been cast as Hattie).
- Multiple Endings: Various rewrites (initiated by James Goldman) have provided this for the play. The most notable is the UK version of Follies, which replaces Phylis and Ben's "Loveland" songs. Generally speaking, the changes tend to involve the tone of the ending as Goldman wanted the play to have a happy ending with the two couples reconciling at the end and provide hope that they will get their shit together in the end.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The Weismann's Follies company collectively is based on (Flo) Ziegfeld's Follies, a sensation in the early 20th century.
- One-Word Title
- Our Ghosts Are Different: Each ghost is a Living Memory of the building's Glory Days. Throughout the play, dancers in full "Follies" regalia glide, saunter, and twinkle their way across the stage, in perfect silence. When the older performers revisit their numbers, their younger selves appear and dance or sing in counterpoint. These apparitions are visible only to the audience, but the characters feel something unsettling in the air.
- Pastiche: Suffice to say, this show is a treat for fans of early-twentieth-century music. To wit:
- "Rain on the Roof" is a pastiche of cutesy novelty songs, "The-God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues" is a vaudeville/Patter Song pastiche, and "Broadway Baby" is a pastiche of optimistic songs of the 1920s, like "The Best Things in Life are Free". "Who's That Woman?" is in the style of Cole Porter's lyrics and Richard Rodger's music, "Losing My Mind" is in the style of George Gershwin's "The Man I Love," "I'm Still Here" is in the style of Harold Arlen, "One More Kiss" is in the style of Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Fiml, "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" is in the style of Jerome Kern, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" is in the style of Cole Porter and Yip Harburg, "Live, Laugh, Love" is in the style of Fred Astaire, "Ah, Paris" is fully in the style of Cole Porter and "Loveland" is, of course, in the style of the Ziegfeld Follies.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: "Could I Leave You?" when Phyllis finally tells Ben how unhappy he makes her.
- Sanity Slippage Song: FOUR of them in a row, all using some degree of Lyrical Dissonance. They are preceded by the two couples arguing with their younger selves, and their neuroses create a fantastical "Loveland" theater, wherein Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy show their real and emotional lives in a sort of group nervous breakdown.:
- Buddy has "The-God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues" about how he loves Sally despite her never being faithful or loving to him.
- Sally has "Losing My Mind" about how her thoughts of Ben never stop, and how she's unsure whether Ben loves her back.
- Phyllis has "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," about the difference between her old self and her current self.
- Ben has "Live, Laugh, Love" which starts out as an easygoing number about how he lives, but midway through he starts forgetting the words, causing the conductor to shout them from the pit. Ben then gives up trying to remember the song, and laments how selfish he has been, causing Loveland to collapse on him.
- Scenery Porn: Used for great effect with Loveland, which often feature lavish sets.
- Stepford Smiler: Buddy presents himself as happy and easy going, but beneath his friendly, joking nature is a deeply hurting soul.
- That Reminds Me of a Song: Used dramatically; half the songs are numbers that the women used to sing in their days in the Follies, but are used to point up the melancholy of the story.
- Triumphant Reprise: The piano part of "Beautiful Girls" comes back in "Loveland" with a full orchestra. Though the situation it reappears in certainly isn't triumphant.
- White-Dwarf Starlet: Half the cast of Follies, a show which does a little examining of this very phenomenon.