Interview: Director Bil Neal and Actress Jane Modlin of ALCHEMY THEATRE TROUPE'S Upcoming Production of FOLLIES!
"Good times and bum times, I've seen them all and, my dear, I'm still here," sings Carlotta in a pivotal moment in Follies. Like Carlotta, Follies has proven to be a fighter, surviving the yearly onslaught of new musicals while retaining the show's natural, understated charm. With a set consisting of not much more than a few tables and chairs, Follies spins a story about four aging performers confronting the (literal) ghosts of their past.
Since its debut on Broadway in 1971 Follies has remained a classic. Featuring music and lyrics written by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim and a poignant book by James Goldman, Follies including classics such as "Broadway Baby", "Losing My Mind", and "Too Many Mornings."
The story follows two couples as they reminiscence about their past during an emotional reunion of former showgirls at a soon to be demolished theater. The couples, as well as the other former dancers, are surrounded by the ghosts of their past, and are forced to come to terms with the decisions they made so many years ago and the consequences born from those choices. Romance, pain, regret, and sorrow run rampant as these performers relive their glory days and recreate many of the song and dance numbers that made them famous in the years between World War 1 and World War 2.
I spoke with Director Bil Neal and star Jane Modlin about Follies, its enduring legacy, and their excitement at bringing this timeless classic to the stage.
Bil Neal - Director
Follies is Alchemy Theatre Troupe's first foray into the world of musicals, having previously stuck to straight plays. I asked Director Bil Neal what enticed Alchemy Theatre Troupe to tackle a musical and why Follies was chosen.
"Alchemy Theatre Troupe is now three years old, has money in the bank, and is successful in almost every way possible. Having seen the majority of their productions, I begged them to do a musical. They immediately challenged me to direct one for them. That caught me off guard, and I took time to think it through," explained Neal.
As for why he chosen Follies, the answer was simple.
"I'm old. I blew out more than 50 candles on a cake last year-all by myself. Most of my friends are old. Some of us have been doing theater in the tri-state area for decades. I went looking for a musical that had the ability to show off a good number of these veterans and their enormous and diverse talents. Follies does that beautifully and with music that is poignant and crosses a lot of different genres. Follies has something for everyone," said Neal.
Choosing to produce a musical comes with challenges and Follies has proven to be no different.
"The biggest hurdle to all this wasn't just me finding the right play, and venue, it's always finding the right people. I knew so many of the folks my age, but wanted to include the ones who came before me. I'd heard their names, but traveled in the wrong circles of our community. Some had stepped out of the spotlight a long time ago. They seemed thrilled to be asked to be a part of this," explained Neal.
"The challenge was that I don't know many college students who could play the young ghosts of these amazing actors. That's what has been the hardest part for me, and given me tremendous payoff," said Neal.
When asked his thoughts on the story, Neal said, "The plot has been discussed by greater minds than mine-the premise that old showgirls have a reunion and look back too fondly, but I think it's more of a comment on marriage. When we're young we yearn for someone to spend the rest of our lives with and be fulfilled. After twenty or thirty years, our perspective often changes."
As for why Follies has endured, Neal believes it's because almost everybody can see a bit of their selves in the characters and their songs.
"Who can't relate at some point in our lives to 'Losing my Mind,' or 'I'm Still Here'? It's the music and the passion that draws audience and actor alike. So much music, so little dialogue, yet the characters are three dimensional and well defined."
Jane Modlin - Actress (Phyllis)
"Follies has endured for the amazing, albeit incredibly challenging, score and the realism of these characters. Sondheim's lyrics can be brutal - there are internal rhymes as well as external tongue twisters, and just a lot of words - but there's poignancy in each song. It allows the audience to know these flawed people. Maybe they are these people," explained Jane Modlin, who portrays Phyllis Stone, one of the former Weismann girls.
Phyllis and her husband return to the soon to be demolished Weismann Broadway theater for a thirty year reunion where they cross paths with Buddy and his wife Sally, whom Phyllis's husband shares a complicated past with. Quickly the audience becomes entangled in a tale of two failing marriages.
"Phyllis is smart, tart, vicious, and sleek," said Modlin. "She's transformed herself from a sweet, innocent, starry-eyed girl into the extremely capable high-society wife of a consummate politician. She's been emotionally abandoned by her charming husband, and yet still loves him. But she also sees through his bluff and bluster, and, at the end of the day, recognizes that he would have a far rougher time surviving without her than vice-verse."
This back and forth between the couples and their past makes up a significant portion of the show.
"Follies has, essentially, two casts - the current adults and the ghosts of their former selves. As the adults reminisce, the audience sees the younger versions actually living the moments," explained Modlin.
This unique back and forth unveils a story of love, loss, and regret. Many of the actions - made both in the current and the past - are morally ambiguous at best, leading to the audience questioning on multiple occasions their views on these characters.
Modlin herself wasn't quite sure if she liked the character she was portraying.
"When I read the script, I didn't like Phyllis for the first half of the show. As Act II progresses, Phyllis's strength becomes apparent, along with her bitterness for what has happened in her life. But in addition to her resentment, she also admits her role in allowing it. She's traded passion for '$64,000 worth of Georgian silver', status, and her position in society. I ultimately admire her candor and assessment of the situation. But at the end of the day, Phyllis is amazing. She isn't some weak princess waiting to be rescued. She's got this handled. I think there's a little Phyllis inside every woman," explained Modlin.
"I have to admit, when Bil called and offered me the role, I had no idea what the show was, other than the basic premise of aging showgirls. I'd heard several songs, including 'Could I Leave You?' and loved them, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I know there are actors who consider this a bucket-list show and I can see why, but it wasn't one for me initially," said Modlin.
"Then I read the script and I ran through a whole gamut of emotions. This isn't a typically happy, cheerful, 'boy meets girl', kind of musical comedy, so it's a new experience for me as an actor. Phyllis is real, flawed, and imperfect, but doing her best. It's challenging to do justice to someone with this many layers, but I definitely see why people love her and the show. Follies is partly midlife crisis and partly realizing that as we change, some of our dreams must also change."
Both Bil Neal and Jane Modlin took a moment to speak about their favorite production numbers and to add a few parting words.
"I love the lyrics and the strength of Phyllis's 'Could I Leave You?', but some of my favorite moments are when other people are performing," said Modlin. "It's incredible to watch the queen, Mary Olson, the lovely Linda Dobbs, the hysterical Sheila Redling, and pretty much anytime Robert Jackson sings. There's a show stopping comic number in Act II that I won't give away. Plus, the showgirls!"
"I have too many favorite songs in this production to point just one out. Again, because of these actors, and the relationships and characters they've created," explained Neal. "The pastiche 'Loveland' is a hit with me because of the costumes and the juxtaposition of each showgirl with the women they become makes me laugh. 'Buddy's Blues'-the actors make it just so silly it tickles my funny bone, and 'Woman in the Mirror', I love because of the big tap section. Our cast shows up well for that."
In parting Neal said, "We're at the point in rehearsals where I get tired of applauding these good folks. Such diverse skills, so much talent. Please, someone help me out and come be an audience for them?"
Modlin added, "This production features an all-star cast in a beautiful show with comedy, wit, laughs, and poignancy. At the end of the day, it's a show about real, sometimes damaged people, singing glorious songs and dancing with joy. Plus, beautiful showgirls in sequins and feathers. What's not to love?"
When: March 6th, 7th, 13th, and 14th, 2020 at 7:30 PM and March 8th, 2020 at 2:00 PM
Where: The Janice Chandler Auditorium (Cabell County BOE - Old Huntington East High School) located at 2850 5th Avenue, Huntington, WV 25701.
Tickets: Tickets can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets or at the door the day of the show for $15.00.
Sally: Jinnie Knight
Ben: Robert Jackson
Phyllis: Jane Modlin
Buddy: John W. Campbell
Roscoe: Carl Taylor
Weismann: Kennie Bass
Mr. Whitman: Todd L. Green
Mrs. Whitman: Becky Tippett McClelland
Solange: Rebekah Sword
Hattie: Sheila Redling
Stella: Hilary Brewster
Carlotta: Mary Elizabeth Olson
Heidi: Linda M. Dobbs
Young Heidi: Laura Campbell
Young Sally: Kathleen Aluise
Young Phyllis: Madasyn Warnock
Young Ben: Cold Sowards
Young Buddy: Shane Lloyd
Kevin: Aaron Ray Hale
Joanna Berner Murdock
Nora Joseph Ankrom
Director: Bil Neal
Musical Director: Tk Lombardo
Choreographer: Amy Browning
Producer: Mike Murdock
"Alchemy Theatre Troupe is a community theatre company based in Huntington and Barboursville, WV on a mission to forge powerful connections of emotions and ideas between artists and audiences through theatre that transforms the community." After Follies, Alchemy Theatre Troupe will be presenting Opening Night, a cabaret, in May 2020; The Dixie Swim Club, a comedy, in July of 2020; The Tempest, a Shakespeare classic, in September of 2020; and A Cozy Christmas, an original play by Mike Murdock and Simon Woods, in December of 2020.
You can find Alchemy Theatre Troupe on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/alchemytheatretroupe/