Monday, May 28, 2012

There's No Success Like Failure

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Some works become as well known for their failure as much as they do their success. Steve Vineberg took on two such legendary failures last fall in Critics at Large.

Legendary Failures: Candide & Follies

Geoff Packard as Candide with the ensemble

The Leonard Bernstein musical based on Voltaire’s savage 1759 satire Candide has undergone so many alterations since it opened on Broadway in 1956 that it’s practically a work in progress. That’s because the original production, which had a libretto by Lillian Hellman, wasn’t a hit, and no one thought highly enough of it to revive it until Harold Prince, working from a revised book by Hugh Wheeler, staged it in the seventies. Most of the lyrics are by Richard Wilbur but a number of hands have contributed to them over the years, including Hellman, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself. (James Agee, at the end of his life, wrote some lyrics, too, but they were never used.) The latest version, directed by Mary Zimmerman for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, also lists her as adapter.

Still, it would be a mistake to call the show a noble failure. It’s literate and ingenious, and the Bernstein music is glorious, prodigiously varied in style and rich in melodic invention – far more so (if I may venture a sacrilegious observation) than the much more famous score he wrote for West Side Story. But the musical has a history of overproduced and overstated productions. (Prince’s 1973 revival – he staged a subsequent one in 1997 that I didn’t catch – was heavy-handed and tedious in a way that played hide and seek with the virtues of the libretto.) The only time I’ve ever seen it work was when Lonny Price mounted a fairly elaborate staged reading in 2004 at the New York Philharmonic with Paul Groves as the fate-buffeted naïf Candide, Kristen Chenoweth as his beloved Cunegonde, an aristocrat whom the ravages of war and tyranny reduce to a whore, and Patti LuPone as the inscrutable Old Lady, who claims a past even more brutal and fabled than either of theirs. (The production was televised and is available on DVD.) Price and his company took a cheeky, light-handed approach to the material; it suggested something conceived by gifted undergraduates and performed by pros – though the choruses were actually splendid amateurs, from the Westminster Choir College and Juilliard. Voltaire’s hilarious misanthropy was presented in the form not of a high-caloric banquet with an excess of dishes on the table but of a movable feast of delectable hors d’oeuvres. Rather than aiming a cannon at the timeless vices of humankind, the show leveled them by sneak attack.

Lauren Molina sings "Glitter and Be Gay"
My good luck at having seen Price’s Candide probably made it more difficult to sit through Zimmerman’s, which isn’t really terrible: just mediocre and finally wearisome. Under Doug Peck’s musical direction, the singing – both of the principals (Geoff Packard as Candide, Lauren Molina as Cunegonde, Larry Yando as Dr. Pangloss, Cheryl Stern as the Old Lady) and of the large ensemble – is magnificent and occasionally inspiriting. (The finale, “Make Our Garden Grow,” with its intricate, dazzling harmonies, has never sounded more beautiful.) And Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes display tremendous wit and range. Thanks to her, there’s always something to look at – but I wouldn’t say that Zimmerman’s direction or the somewhat puzzling set by Daniel Ostling, which consists mostly of three walls containing multiple windows and doors, offers much in the way of visual pleasure. (I did enjoy a brief, Henri Rousseau-inspired jungle backdrop in the second act, but it vanishes quickly.) Zimmerman made her mark with a production based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses that friends assure me was enchanting in some of the smaller spaces it filled on the way to Broadway, but by the time I saw it there it had lost most of whatever charm it had once had, and her direction was notable mostly for its repetitiveness and wasting of opportunities. (Nine years later I can remember the pool that was the centerpiece of the set but not a single thing Zimmerman did with it.) Her Candide is uninterestingly staged, with choices (like a troubled voyage with a miniature boat on prop waves and bird puppets manipulated by live actors) that I’ve seen made many times before and usually done better – though that retro-sixties bit with toy soldiers representing men at war, which I last saw in Julie Taymor’s Titus Andronicus movie, ought to be retired for good. A member of the ensemble shakes a tray of building blocks to represent an earthquake; that idea works effectively, as does the disappearance and reappearance of actors through a trap door to stand in for the boarding and docking of a ship. Mostly, though, you’re struck by how banal Zimmerman’s visual imagination is and how little feeling she has for performance rhythms. Some of the staging is downright awkward, like the buffeting of the ship in the storm, with Packard and Yando rolling around the stage and kicking their legs in the air. Daniel Petzig doesn’t do much better with the choreography: in the “Auto-Da-Fé” number the singers basically race around a line of chairs.

The style of the material is picaresque, but the style of the musical is farce – for which unfortunately Zimmerman doesn’t appear to have much talent. Farce is perilously tricky; any director might be sympathetic to her struggles with it. (Price, on the other hand, is terrific at farce, partly because he’s such a speedy, economical director. That’s why he was able to do so much more with Sondheim’s Company at the New York Philharmonic than John Doyle did in his Broadway revival.) It’s harder to tolerate her tendency to stop the piece cold every now and then and shift tones to remind us that satire has a serious intention. Through the preposterous plotting (which in Voltaire was meant to parody the conventions of novels) and the exaggerated tribulations of a small cast of major characters, we get the targets of Voltaire’s barbs: war, oppression, religion and religious persecution, positivism, the wanton waste of human life. (The characters literally die over and over again but always survive to meet fresh assaults.) When Zimmerman slows down the tempo to point up certain moments, like the wholesale slaughter of soldiers in battle and the Old Lady assuring her listeners that she didn’t kill herself to escape her agonies because she still loves life, they seem obvious and the tone becomes homiletic. Worse is her direction of the actors, almost all of whom give cartoonish performances, repeating the same things over and over again. The worst offenders are Yando, Stern and Molina. Molina has a stunning soprano voice (shown to particularly impressive effect in the deliciously self-conscious coloratura aria “Glitter and Be Gay”) but gives a pointlessly kinetic performance, like that of a wind-up doll with self-recharging gears. Among the leads only Geoff Packard as Candide appears to be trying to play a human being, and among the smaller roles Timothy John Smith (as the Governor) stands out. I grew tired of everyone else long before the show had come to the end of its almost three-hour duration.
Ron Raines and Bernadette Peters in Follies
Like Candide, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is a Broadway failure that has grown into a legend. It’s a gargantuan, back-breakingly ambitious musical drama about showgirls at a one-time-only reunion, before the theater that housed the Ziegfeldesque revues they once adorned is torn down. The play consumed its composer-lyricist, who wrote enough music for it to fill at least two full-length shows – and Sondheim aficionados would be acquainted with all of it, including the songs he discarded and the ones he substituted in the London version. The original 1971 Broadway production, directed by Harold Prince and choreographed by Michael Bennett, with its striking Boris Aronson set (a towering, layered skeleton) and its legendary Florence Klotz costumes and its immense ensemble, was so expensive that you can’t imagine they ever dreamed of recovering the backers’ investment, especially considering the relentlessly downbeat James Goldman script. In it, two couples in their early fifties meet at the reunion: Ben and Phyllis Stone, Buddy and Sally Plummer. Ben and Buddy were best friends when they courted, respectively, Phyllis and Sally, “Weissman” girls in their early twenties, also best friends and roommates. The couples drifted quickly apart when Buddy moved to the Midwest with Sally to become a salesman and raise kids, while Ben acquired fame as a diplomat and author and the head of a foundation. Both marriages have been disasters, in their separate ways. Now, when they meet again, for a few hours Sally and Ben, who carried on a clandestine affair during the war, cherish the dream that they might have found happiness together and the even more improbable one that they still might. 

The musical swirls around the themes of aging, memory and delusion. And though it sank on Broadway, it’s famous and beloved for its visual splendor, its remarkable score, and the roles it provided for a number of minor celebrities from earlier theatrical eras whom Prince and Sondheim coaxed out of retirement – Dorothy Collins, who’d once crooned on TV’s Your Hit Parade, the forties starlets Alexis Smith and Yvonne De Carlo, the Hollywood tap dancer Gene Nelson, musical-theater belters Mary McCarty and Ethel Shutta. (Whenever it’s revived, that tradition continues.) Most importantly, it had one of those brilliant-sounding concepts: while the returning Weissman performers recreate their old songs and dances, on a raked level above them the ghosts of their younger selves, clad in silver and black, join in. There are ghosts, too, of the younger versions of the four protagonists, playing out the memories in their middle-aged counterparts’ heads.

It’s easy to see why musicals buffs in general and Sondheim lovers in particular might cherish Follies as a treasure whose original run was unjustly cut short – especially those who weren’t around to see it in 1971. I saw it on opening night of its Broadway tryout (when De Carlo was still singing “Can That Boy Fox Trot!” before Sondheim replaced it with “I’m Still Here”), and then again in New York to see how it had changed. And though I fell in love with its premise and its look and certainly with the songs – even the ones that, like Phyllis’s “Could I Leave You?,” now seem merely icy-veined and ostentatious – even as an undergraduate I could see that the Goldman book, with its underwritten bitter characters and its unrelenting exposé tone and its imitation-Albee disenchanted banter (“We haven’t communicated since 1943. Who won the war?”) was pretty bad. Through the years I’ve come to see that even the score has always been a liability, because tour de force though it is, lowered on top of that ominous and skimpy script, it’s an impossibly heavy apparatus. And there’s a falseness at the heart of the show. I’m not referring to the fact that Goldman fiddled with musical-theatre history so that he could set the Weissman reunion in 1971 Manhattan: the Ziegfeld Follies and their imitators were finished by the time the Depression rolled around, despite periodic attempts to revive them, but the editions of Weissman’s revue that Sally and Phyllis danced in, we’re told, continued to the brink of America’s entry into World War II, when the look of Broadway (and movie) musicals had turned chintzy and shiny rather than silky and feathery. The historical manipulation is a relatively minor issue. The synthetic cynicism, a feature of bad Vietnam-era drama, isn’t so minor.
Blythe Danne in Follies (2001)
Over the last four decades, numerous attempts have been made to revive Follies. Avery Fisher Hall housed a concert version in 1985 with Barbara Cook and Lee Remick and two male stars often associated with Sondheim, Mandy Patinkin and George Furth. Diana Rigg and Julia McKenzie played Phyllis and Sally in the heralded West End production. The Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey received laudatory notices for one in 1998, with Ann Miller, Phyllis Newman and Kaye Ballard in the ensemble. There was a 30th-anniversary Broadway revival that had Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey and a rousing first half hour, but it felt underrehearsed and it was inadequately cast; the parts didn’t fit together, and in act two the production stalled and nothing could get it moving again. But the mid-first-act letdown and the second-act paralysis seem to me features of the play itself. The opening, with ghosts wandering about the stage like runway models for a fashion show displaced in time and the former Weissman girls, some of them decrepit, smiling anxiously, hopefully, as they descend the soon-to-be-demolished staircase while the one-time M.C. Roscoe sings “Beautiful Girls,” is scintillating. Everyone I’ve seen (or heard on a recording) has managed to convey Sally’s combination of excitement, embarrassment and terror as she confronts Ben for the first time in “Don’t Look at Me,” an affecting little tune. And Sondheim’s invention has perhaps never surpassed what he pulls off in the octet “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs,” where the middle-aged protagonists recall their state of mind as two eager, breezy young couples in 1941 and then, unexpectedly, the youths they once were congregate beside them. Every time I see Follies, I’m solidly on its side up through that song. Then – usually – the awful script settles in, and number after number lands with a thud on top of it, and no matter how good the songs are (“Broadway Baby,” “Who’s That Woman?,” “Too Many Mornings”), I can feel the promise of those few scenes ebbing away. Then, halfway through the second act, the show’s worst idea takes over: a meta-revue called “Loveland,” where each of the four principals performs a song that, in style as well as substance, is meant to symbolize his or her emotional state. Buddy has a burlesque-clown number, caught as he is between his affection for his younger out-of-town mistress, who adores him, and his enduring love for Sally, who disdains him. Sally gets a torch ballad (the show’s best-known tune, “Losing My Mind”). For sophisticated, world-weary, abandoned Phyllis, a vamp number; for Ben, a minstrel turn – but he loses his confidence as it goes along, falls behind the beat, and finally rings down the curtain. By the time “Loveland” has collapsed, with the two smashed couples left in the deserted theatre to pick up the pieces of their lives, so has the musical, long since.

Encores!, New York City Center’s distinguished series of semi-staged musical revivals, led off its 2007 season with Follies, under Casey Nicholaw’s direction (he also choreographed), with the best cast ever assembled for it – Victoria Clark as Sally, Donna Murphy as Phyllis, Victor Garber as Ben, Michael McGrath as Buddy, and a number of other luminaries – and by reducing the production values without cheapening them, they managed to lighten the musical’s heavy load. Nicholaw got the musical all the way to “Loveland” with barely a hitch, which felt something like a miracle. By comparison, the latest edition, which comes to Broadway from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is both drab and strained. The director, Eric Schaeffer, and the set designer, Derek McLane, have stuck fairly close to the visual ideas in the 1971 Broadway production, but they lack its moneyed splendor (predictably) and its originality: it’s a ghost of a ghost story. Gregg Barnes has had more success with the costume design, but the choreography by the talented Warren Carlyle is all hard work without inspiration, as is most clearly apparent in the extravagant, high-concept “Who’s That Woman?” number, where the lyric about a woman facing off her real self in the mirror is framed by the doubling of the aging showgirls with their svelte younger selves. (The best part of the number in its present incarnation is the wry yet rousing rendition by the lead vocalist, Terri White.) The main sticking point, though, is that Schaeffer has directed the performers to push the characters’ emotions. It would be quite a trick to get through “I’m Still Here,” the ballad of a survivor of several decades of show-business and American cultural challenges, without some degree of bathos and self-congratulation, though the marvelous Nancy Walker kept her powder dry when she sang it in Sondheim: A Musical Celebration in 1973; Elaine Paige warbles it here with such tremulous sentimentality that it melts into treacle. But Sondheim put as much anger as melancholy in Buddy’s solo, “The Right Girl,” so when Danny Burstein milks it for tears you’re moved to protest. Burstein was splendid as Luther Billis in South Pacific and as the cab driver-narrator in last season’s undervalued musical of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and occasionally he’s good here too, especially in “Buddy’s Blues” (the burlesque number) with Kiira Schmidt and Jenifer Foote. (Schmidt brings Carlyle’s only moment of inspiration to life when she high-kicks up the side of Burstein’s leg.) Even Jan Maxwell, an elegant Phyllis, falls victim to Schaeffer’s taste for emotional overstatement in “Could I Leave You?”
Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz
The show has a number of highlights. The long-retired opera star Rosalind Elias, looking trim and beautiful in a violet gown, contributes what may be the definitive version of the Sigmund Romberg-like “One Last Kiss.” Jayne Houdyshell brings exactly the right trouper spirit to “Broadway Baby.” It’s fun to see Don Correia, from the early-eighties Broadway production of Singin’ in the Rain, and Susan Watson, the original Kim of Bye Bye Birdie, as the song-and-dance team the Whitmans, who brush off their one-time hit “Rain on the Roof.” And then there’s Bernadette Peters as Sally. Peters had a complex delicacy in the eighties in Pennies from Heaven and Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. But later in her career she chose to reinvent herself as a brassy diva and take roles she wasn’t right for, like Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun and Mama Rose in Gypsy. But she’s right for Sally, the Phoenix girl whose dreams destroy her life, and much as I loved Victoria Clark in the role at Encores!, Peters may be the first actress to essay it who can get at both Sally’s scarred but persistent innocence and her neurotic quality. (In other productions Buddy’s allusions to her crying in bed for days at a time and fighting with everyone she loves are mostly puzzling.) Ironically, the problem is Peters’s voice, which isn’t in good shape; “Too Many Mornings,” her big duet with Ron Raines (a rather colorless Ben but a robust baritone), sounds awful. Still, her acting is top-notch, and it reminds you why she seemed so marvelously unlike anyone else when she came on the musical-theatre scene. And when she makes her first entrance, at the top of the show, breathless with anticipation, drinking in the musty atmosphere of the dilapidated theatre and utterly convinced that this is going to be a wonderful party, you remember why, each time out, you cross your fingers and hope against hope that this will be the Follies that overcomes its obstacles and transports you to show-biz heaven.

- originally published on October 10, 2011 in Critics at Large.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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