BWW Album Review: FOLLIES (2018 National Theatre Cast Recording) Touches the Sublime
Once one of the costliest flops in Broadway history, Follies is now highly regarded as a true classic in musical theater canon. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Goldman, the piece is about a tumultuous reunion of performers from the fictional Weismann's Follies on the stage of the crumbling theatre they performed on between the two World Wars. The well-reviewed National Theatre revival, which ran through January 3, 2018, is scheduled to return to the West End this spring, and the sumptuously lush Follies (2018 National Theatre Cast Recording) is now available digitally.
Inspired by a New York Times article following former showgirls from the Ziegfeld Follies, Sondheim invited Goldman to write a new musical with him about ex-showgirls. Delving into the glitz and glamour of lavaliers, boas, fans, and sequins, Sondheim's score harkens back to the aural soundscapes of Broadway's infamous revues from the 1920s and 30s. This artfully constructed score which consistently grows into a fervidly feverish crescendo abounds with vibrant, heartfelt melodies and grand production numbers. From beginning to end, Sondheim weaves a pristinely affective tapestry of song that warms the heart as easily as it rends it apart through passionately yanking on the heartstrings.
When it comes to this particular material, the cast assembled for this production and recording could have easily been someone's fantasy casting for Follies. Yet, the stars aligned and made this dazzling line up a reality. Imelda Staunton's iteration of "Don't Look At Me" sparkles with an indefatigable and charming radiance, and the addition of Philip Quast is just icing on the cake. Quast is masterfully wistful on "The Road You Didn't Take," which is easily one of the best introspective musical soliloquies ever written. Staunton's iteration of "In Buddy's Eyes" is a masterclass in how to make a heartbreaking ballad about staying ageless in love while aging in life truly soar. Dawn Hope's vivacious "Who's That Woman" is commanding and authoritative. Tackling the sensational showstopper "I'm Still Here," Tracie Bennett offers a stirring performance that is touched by divinity. Janie Dee's "Could I Leave You" is delightfully bitter and brusque. Staunton's "Losing My Mind" is sung with wonderous aplomb, ravishing the heart as she powerfully chews her way through all the turmoil in the evocative ballad. Singing "Live, Laugh, Love," Quast utilizes his spectacular vocals to perfectly paint a portrait of a man hiding his many disappoints behind his flashy smile.
While it's not easily digestible or fodder for commercial consumerism, there is no denying that Follies is an example of music theater as truly sublime art. It is beautiful, ambitious, moving, perplexing, and enchanting. All of these elements are captured with astounding precision on Warner Classics's Follies (2018 National Theatre Cast Recording). This recording is a testament to the staying power of this musical too, emphasizing that the original 1971 Broadway production was just too ahead of its times to catch fire. Yet, in an era where audiences can either choose from musical confections concocted from the receipts of Hollywood blockbusters with scores by top 40 artists or soul-moving art, audiences are finally appreciative of and ready to feast on meaty pieces like Follies.