Song Insights: 'I'm Still Here', FOLLIES
Look who's here! That's right, our Song Insights series is still here! Continuing this month's celebration of Follies, we're taking you behind the scenes of some of the show's most famous numbers, with the cast and creatives of Dominic Cooke's production at the National Theatre.
Running through the gamut A to Z of "I'm Still Here", actress Tracie Bennett and MD Nigel breakdown the demands, delivery and details of the number and Carlotta.
What was your first experience with the song?
Tracie Bennett: I think I first heard this number when I was young, either on the radio or my old singing teacher playing it one day at Italia Conti.
I kind of understood it and I felt like I'd probably do it one day. I didn't know where, when, how, but it just hit me, the pain. My first Sondheim had been Merrily We Roll Along, and it reminded me of Mary and how I understood her pain.
Cut to 2016/17, thousands of years later! The National called me in and I must have been one of the last ones they saw for Carlotta. And I'd always been scared to sing "I'm Still Here", because it was like tempting fate.
So before the casting, I didn't even sing it practising at home. I just learned it as much off-book as possible and sang it in the audition room for the first time. And I got the gig.
Nigel Lilley: "I'm Still Here" is one of the most iconic songs from the show - an amazing number about surviving the entertainment business.
It's a snapshot of America between the wars, with references to Beebe's Bathysphere, the Dionne quintuplets, Shirley Temple (which is a reference that has changed a number of times, to the delight of Sondheim aficionados!) It's incredibly evocative, but it also has darker references to issues such as McCarthyism and addiction.
With such a well-known number, it can feel intimidating to approach in rehearsals for the actor. Like those great Shakespearian roles where you are aware of the legacy you are inheriting from older generations.
How did you prepare for approaching such an iconic number?
Tracie Bennett: There are lots of people, very well-known legends of America who've done it. And I couldn't think about that, because that freaked me out.
But I did a lot of research, I knew what every reference meant. And you read things about the original production, like the original Yvone De Carlo song "Can That Boy Foxtrot", that was cut and then he wrote "I'm Still Here" for her. But then you read, did he do it based on Joan Crawford's life? And so I'm reading all these different things and I don't know if that's good or bad...but once they're in, they're in! You can't unknow that.
When we reached rehearsals, I asked if Dom [Cooke] and me could go into a room separately. And we went through every single sentence, breaking through down and the backstory I'd worked out.
Who am I in this particular version? Again, I don't know if there's a right or wrong way, but me and Dominic decided about my backstory with my younger Carlotta [Emily Langham]. That way, we were on the same page: we had the same background, we knew exactly what our bedroom looked like when we were little, what our family might have been.
That's so we're all in the same mannerisms and convention. Like how she talks to a load of people at the party, since she's this kind of raconteur, in a movie star way that they might have done then.
Nigel Lilley: One of the brilliant bits of staging in Follies is the way the number starts out as Carlotta entertaining party guests with her anecdotes. The guests then melt away midway through the song, leaving her alone onstage (her ghost is still present) to reveal her private and more painful memories.
So it's a list-style song, in the same way that "Could I Leave You" and "Ah Paris" also are. But whereas "Ah Paris" is more of a comic turn which delights in its multiple rhymes, "I'm Still Here" has a serious message of survival to tell.
And of course, it culminates with the amazing "I got through all of last year".
So from those conversations amongst the three of you, what's a part of her backstory you can share with us?
Tracie Bennett: It's affected her, you know being called a "Pinko, commie tool". So she got drunk by her pool to get over it and we came to the conclusion that maybe she went into rehab then.
We made a decision that when they all come into the party, only I say no to a drink twice. So if you're following her through the numbers, I know and the director knows and now you know that we've chosen for her not to drink. That's my through line: I'm happy with myself without anything but this deep pain that she might have gone through.
And that pain like with Mary is so crucial. That's why I think it's terrible to say because it feels like it's demeaning it (and I hope all this goes in) that "I'm Still Here" is just a list song. It's much more than a list song. It's about pain, survival, happiness.
In fact, I think she's the only character who comes in happy with herself. She confirms something at that party and she goes off quite happy. She knows that she doesn't need a bloke; she's got a 26 year old for now.
She knows everything's for now, because she's been through this backdrop of political and economic social history of America.
Nigel Lilley: We worked meticulously with Tracie Bennet in rehearsals to learn Steve's exact melody and rhythms - it helps that Tracie reads music brilliantly. That was almost as a way of shedding our knowledge of the various recorded versions we knew, which are obviously brilliant but often take small liberties with the score.
In fact this was our 'way in' for all of the numbers: crotchets and quavers and forensic note learning, before we even begin to address the complexity of the lyric. Then Tracie worked with Dom in incredible detail - often just speaking the lyric - before marrying the two disciplines together.
What are the challenges of the number?
Tracie Bennett: Your diction has to be quite good without being too enunciated! You've got to make it natural but thrusting forward in the mouth.
Sometimes I'll cross a sentence, because I might be doing two jobs at once so it's doubly hard for me and I might be a bit tired! I remember the first run through and Sondheim himself was there, who I'd worked with before. I sang, "I've strummed the dailies in my shoes, stuffed ukuleles!" And as it came out, I was just like, "Noooo!"
It was like, "I'm just saying it. Those who don't know won't ever know." But Sondheim's sitting right there, he definitely knows! But you just carry on and the skill is in the recovery, and I did get a note.
But I'm always watching it and thinking about it, because I'm not naturally gifted.
No, nothing comes easy to me. So I like to look at the song still, every three days or so. It's the same with the tap for "Who's That Woman". I go through it every night, because I've got a little minute offstage.
That's another difficulty actually. I have to change my heart rate from that tap number in about a minute. The breathing can be extremely difficult. I start the song sitting down with a tough two-inch thick mic belt on that just won't give and towards the end of the song, I sometimes feel that I can't get enough breath in my huge lungs to really fill them.
But there's this thing about the rhythm with "I'm Still Here". Sondheim likes the rhythm to feel like you're on a train. And it's driving and it's driving. You have to stay on that tempo and rhythm. And sometimes if I can't hear the band, I know I can rely on that driving force, that tempo. So thank God for Nigel and Nick for keeping us on track!
Nigel Lilley: The orchestration is a brilliant slow burn - with Nelson Riddle style jazz interjections - ending with blazing brass which combined with Tracie's extraordinary belt really raises the roof of the Olivier.
You need a strong singer to match the end of those charts. I'm not sure who else could have played it. I look at Tracie and I have no idea where that voice comes from, it's an extraordinary instrument.
She's a really good musician and her specificity of the number is brilliant. Because the lyrics are so wordy, it can feel a bit too clever. But they feel so spontaneous coming out of her mouth.
Tracie Bennett: This arrangement is done brilliantly by Tunick and it builds automatically. So you can't be quiet with this number. It probably sounds bigger than you are anyway and I feel like I can really go for it.
Sometimes that energy frightens people. Not in America, it doesn't frighten them. I like to try different things with it nightly, even within the convention that we're in. I know when I've gone too far sometimes. Maybe I push it too hard to see if I'm angry or bewildered about that memory she's just pulled up there and then.
There are so many gamut's of emotions and feelings throughout the song, and I have one sentence, each time to change how I feel about all of them. So I think she's very wry and funny and warm at first. But she realises what she's gone through and how she is maybe proud and triumphant about surviving.
And you know something important: I'm glad I'm not a robot. I'm glad that every sinew is used with me in this song. It's really hard if I'm feeling weepy one day, because you can't sit there crying because she's a survivor. It's very hard to sing with a lump in my throat, in fact it's impossible for anyone to sing when they are tackling these really emotional, heavy songs. So you've really got to control it and that can be hard.
Photo credit: Johan Persson