Song Insights: 'Buddy's Blues', FOLLIES

Song Insights: 'Buddy's Blues', FOLLIES
Peter Forbes in Follies

Hello folks, we're into the Follies! Our previous Song Insights took us behind the sheet music of Company. This month, we're celebrating another Sondheim classic currently gracing the London stage: Follies at the National Theatre.

To kick off the new series, we're looking at the song that kicks off the Follies-style numbers which close the show: "Buddy's Blues" or "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues".

Buddy himself Peter Forbes and music director Nigel Lilley take us through the challenges of this "tour de force" of a number as actor and musician, as well as who specifically inspired Peter's performance.

Peter Forbes: I'd only ever done one Sondheim before, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Regent's Park. So my first contact with Follies was being asked to come in and audition for it here.

The show charts the breakdown of two central relationships over the course of an evening: Buddy and Sally, and Benjamin and Phyllis. By the time we get to the end, it's the early hours of the morning, the mania has been building, and this moment occurs which sort of triggers them into a surrealistic acting out of each of their dilemmas.

And because it's based in this world of Sally, Phyllis and the Follies, it's as if the four have become trapped inside the Follies in their imagination.

Nigel Lilley: The show finishes with an amazing sequence of six songs in quick succession, which is like a mini Ziegfield Follies.

"Loveland" is our introduction into this surreal, heightened world, complete with shepherds and shepherdesses and ornate stage sets. Then the Younger Quartet sing "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow", followed by a Follies number for Buddy, Sally, Phyllis and Ben in turn. (Incredibly these weren't written until week five of the original six week rehearsal period.)

As Hal Prince said, everything about these numbers is faithful to the period of the Ziegfield Follies, with the exception of what the characters are talking about. They finally confront the lies that they've been avoiding their whole lives. In fact the Follies sign on Vicki Mortimer's set (lit beautifully by Paule Constable) ends up flickering with the word "Lies" at the end of the show.

"Buddy's Blues" begins with Buddy breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience with "Hello folks, we're into the Follies!"

Peter Forbes: "Buddy's Blues" is the first Folly and we switch to very front on, directly to the audience. It's presented to them rather than inviting them in, which is very Vaudevillian.

Buddy's number is all about the lies in his life and in a way, it's an escalation of what he's trying to work out in his other big number "The Right Girl". But really exaggerated.

He's in love with Sally, but it's painful. He's always trying to get her attention and love, but at the same time when he's got it, he doesn't want it. Then with Margie (who he's having an affair with), he attempts to create a perfect, idyllic relationship but it's with the girl he doesn't want.

So it's a manic, spiralling out of control feeling and number as a result.

Song Insights: 'Buddy's Blues', FOLLIES
Ian McIntosh, Joanna Riding
and Gemma Sutton in Follies

Nigel Lilley: In Buddy's Follies number, Sondheim plays with the idea of those Blues songs which have those incredibly long and specific titles. So in this case, "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues".

We know that Buddy is a traveling salesmen, with a gift for telling stories and cracking bad jokes. So his Folly is in the style of a quick talking, vaudeville comedian, along the lines of Groucho Marx.

Peter Forbes: On the first day of rehearsals last year, I remember saying to Bill Deamer the choreographer that I'd been looking at footage of people who had performed in the Follies.

There was a guy called Eddie Cantor and what I loved about him was that he sang very well, but it was almost like his body was cut in two. On the top half, he was doing this quite romantic little song, and underneath his legs were doing an eccentric dance!

So that sense of the number is carried through head to toe in the music, the lyrics and the dance. Buddy is out of control and it's incredibly fast, so it's a huge technical challenge in terms of diction and being on top of the music.

Nigel Lilley: As with all 'patter songs', the actor has to work tirelessly in rehearsals to make sure all the words are clear to the audience even at high speed.

We talked a lot about end consonants, so not just hitting the fronts of words but making sure all internal and end sounds are equally strong. Not always easy when you're adopting a different accent as well.

In time, your muscle memory develops to the extent that your mouth knows what shape is coming next without your brain having to intervene too much! This means Peter could also nail Bill's choreography.

With these kind of routines, you want to try and get them on their feet early in rehearsal so that you can run it at least once or twice a day to build up stamina.

Song Insights: 'Buddy's Blues', FOLLIES
The company of Follies

Peter Forbes: The number is such a tour de force, in terms of the lyrics and performance. You almost have to switch off your conscious mind when you do it.

And the show runs without an interval which I think is a really good thing, because there's a drive right the way through. So what "Loveland" and the Follies do is completely change the pace and the style of the piece, and take the audience on a very different journey, particularly at the moment when you need it to.

Each Folly has its own integrity within itself, but they also feed into whatever comes next. So Buddy's Blues sets up Sally's Folly "Losing My Mind", which a lot of people know as a standalone song.

It's a very tragic, deeply disturbed, dystopian version of a torch song, a love song. And those major shifts in tone and pace are what makes the final section of the show really work. It's a bit like the Follies themselves: they were a potpourri art form where you'd have high art, followed by low comedy, followed by a tableau of the French Revolution!

Nigel Lilley: By the end of the song, we are at breakneck speed for Peter and the orchestra.

Jonathan Tunick's orchestration is frenzied and neurotic, almost Looney Tunes. There are car horns, Wah-Wah-Wahs in the trumpets, and comedy drum hits.

It's a fine line between pushing the tempo and actually making it too frenzied to play so we have an ongoing dialogue about that!

Follies at the National Theatre until 11 May

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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