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Follies Musical

The Follies by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman

The Follies musical first hit the bright neon lights of Broadway in 1971 and enjoyed 522 performances across New York. Written by Stephen Sondheim, one of America’s most renowned musical theatre composersFollies resulted from a successful collaboration with producer Harold Prince, and novel writer James Goldman.

Sondheim’s musical talent, nurtured from a young age under the watchful eye of Oscar Hammerstein II, blossomed when Sondheim befriended James Hammerstein at the age of ten. The elder Hammerstein became a surrogate mentor to Sondheim, who was rapidly enchanted with musical theatre, as he attended the opening of Hammerstein’s latest Broadway offering, South Pacific.

Stephen Sondheim was 41 when he wrote Follies, and had a strong track record, having written for West Side Story aged 26, and for Ethel Merman; the star of Gypsy, in 1959. The inspiration for Follies came from reading a New York Times article about showgirls from the Ziegfeld Follies, their lives, and behind-the-scenes reality.

Sondheim was determined to write the music and lyrics for his next Broadway project, and sought the services of young book writer James Goldman, to compose the story for Follies.

Showgirls Inspire Follies

Showgirls originated in Paris as far back as 1869, and the Folies Bergere, meaning the Extravagant Shepherdess. These original follies featured elaborate costumes, bejewelled headdresses, and stories of passion and love; where important men fell for beautiful women; and traded on the maxim; “a pretty woman is like a melody”.

In Paris, this meant nudity was part of the show, with most female dancers performing, at some point, completely naked, and contractually topless. The biggest female star of the early 20th century Folies Bergere was African-American star, Josephine Baker, famous for wearing a skirt made of banana skins, and not much else. Energetic, physical, and topless, her performances became the stuff of legend.

Sondheim and Goldman Explore Life beyond the Stage

Behind the scenes though, life was not always as rosy or glitzy as the stage dramas suggested. James Goldman created a story focusing on two ex-showgirls, who attend a reunion act for their dance show, the Weismann Follies. Based on the real-life Ziegfeld Follies, which entertained America in the roaring 20’s, the story tells us how showgirls performing in the USA became celebrities very quickly. Yet fame was fickle, and short-lived for most, and the musical Follies re-visited past glory-days, and uncovered the damage done when stardom waned.

Sondheim’s polyphonic melodies combined with Goldman’s portrayal of celebrity, to show how men lose their heads. Each character and coupling suffers regret at being caught up in starry-eyed moments. Important life decisions are based on glimpses of beauty. Weismann Follies’ showgirls broadcast a false impression and message; where to be forever young, and to be forever in love, is all life has to offer us.

The song “Too Many Mornings”, exposes how former Weismann girl Sally, longs to be held by Ben, her old flame, to the ire of her husband, Buddy. The reunion event triggers a pastiche of melodies and tunes in tribute to the days of Follies, simultaneously pleasing and enraging the characters. All evaluate the past, demonstrating a stage-schizophrenia, where nostalgic trips trigger a group nervous breakdown.

A dark current of social disintegration afflicts the ex-showgirls and their spouses. The musical raises serious questions about the introduction of recreational drugs to the entertainment scene in the 50’s. Follies dance routines cause a corruption of the innocent, in a twisted version of female emancipation, where limited career choices available to women, who burned brightly in their youth, results in later life addictions and mental breakdowns.

After a foray into a Follies “Loveland”, the stage tapestry disintegrates into a smashed theatrical landscape. In the closing scene, younger versions of Ben and Buddy call upstairs to their showgirl lovers. The melancholy light spends itself remembering love-sick Romeo’s, gazing forever upstairs, hoping to remember thrilling memories of capturing a Follies girl for a wife.

Follies a Smash Hit in the 1970’s and Today

With thematic implications for feminism and women’s emancipation, Follies struck a chord with 1970’s American political classes. An important reflection on the recent history of showgirls, Follies, and the culture behind making starlight out of people, marked a rare examination of celebrity life. The musical won seven Tony Awards in 1972, including Best Score for Sondheim.

Follies, performed in the West End in 1987, made it to London after successful stage productions in ManhattanLos AngelesMichiganTexas, Washington, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Follies experienced a world-wide theatre revival between 2001 and today. 2013 sees performances at the Toulon Opera House in France, which is surely the ultimate destination for a musical with historical roots in 19th century Parisian musical theatre.