Broadway, Baby! Go Inside the All-Star Concert of Sondheim's Follies Made for the Super Fans | Playbill

Special Features Broadway, Baby! Go Inside the All-Star Concert of Sondheim's Follies Made for the Super Fans

Jennifer Holliday, Carolee Carmello, Norm Lewis, and more Broadway A-listers brought this musical favorite to Carnegie Hall June 20.

Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Margo Sappington, Karen Ziemba, and Dana Moore Carol Rosegg

On June 20, theatre fans descended upon Carnegie Hall in New York City for a cherished theatrical tradition: An all-star concert of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies, this one a benefit for Off-Broadway's Transport Group.

Premiering on Broadway in 1971, Follies is one of those shows that's easy to obsess over, especially for a lover of theatre. The musical is set in a decaying theatre that used to host the Ziegfeld Follies-like (but fictional) Weismann Follies. Weismann himself has assembled alumni for one last night of glory before the theatre is to be torn down to make way for a parking lot. The show centers on former chorus girls Sally and Phyllis and their husbands, Buddy and Ben (respectively). After reminiscing over a few too many glasses of champagne, each pair is forced to confront some ghosts from their past.

It's a brilliant conceit, because it gave Sondheim the opportunity to write a number of numbers for the former Follies performers to sing, each a pastiche of the types of songs you would have really heard at the Ziegfeld Follies. These songs—which include favorites like "Broadway Baby," "Who's That Woman," and "I'm Still Here"—are among the most tuneful in Sondheim's catalogue, many sounding like they fell out of the Great American Songbook of standards. But then, there's a whole other set of songs that aren't performances, giving Sondheim the chance to birth some of the most devastating material he ever wrote. His characters are looking back at unfulfilled dreams, torturing themselves with what might have been, which becomes a platform to write masterpieces like "The Road You Didn't Take," "In Buddy's Eyes," and "Losing My Mind."

Cast Martha Swope

And Sondheim isn't the only musical theatre legend who helped create the show. Follies was the second Sondheim musical to be directed and produced by Harold Prince, a follow-up to their 1970 landmark musical Company which had premiered just the season before. Also back from that creative team was choreographer Michael Bennett, who was promoted to co-director alongside Prince this time around (the future A Chorus Line creator's first Broadway directing credit).

While not strictly a concept musical like CompanyFollies was daring and experimental in its own way. Goldman's book is written almost as if somebody wandered through a party with a tape recorder, a segment of one conversation here bleeding into a fragment of another conversation there. Most of the action straightforwardly takes place at the reunion, but when tensions reach a boiling point, things get metaphysical as the four leads suddenly find themselves in a group mental breakdown that plays out as a fully staged and costumed Follies starring the foursome.

At the risk of being a bit reductive, the really incendiary element of Follies is how deeply sad it gets. None of its characters are easy protagonists either, with some critics going so far as to say they're all unlikable. Add in a famously opulent original production filled to the brim with costume parades and a cast full of stage and screen legends, and you have all the trappings of a true cult hit for musical theatre fans.

Ask someone who saw that original production, and you're liable to hear about how it was the greatest thing they ever saw, that it featured inimitable performances, and the kind of visual opulence we're not likely to ever see again on Broadway (Follies' first Broadway outing ran for over a year and still reportedly lost nearly its entire investment). Ask another audience member, and you'll get a rant about how the whole thing is too depressing, that it never really worked. Sondheim and Goldman added fuel to the fire, too, by continuing to tinker with the score and book in later productions, giving even the musical's passionate supporters a chance to debate over which version is the best. Never forget: the true apex of musical theatre obsession isn't communal love for a show, but rather a never-ending debate over the merits of a work that got mixed reviews. 

Try not to roll your eyes too hard when you have to sit through someone's "brilliant" idea for "fixing" a troubled but beloved musical.

And Transport Group was prepared for the Follies fans. In an introductory speech at the June 20 event, co-host Ted Chapin began by explaining the project's origins, jokily stopping himself mid-way through his first sentence: "Wait a minute. Everyone here knows this." The crowd roared with delight, because he was absolutely correct. That vibe made the selection of the evening's co-hosts especially apt, too. Both Chapin and his co-host, Kurt Peterson, have connections to Follies' original production. Peterson created the role of Young Ben, and a 20-something-year-old Chapin (today best known as the longtime head of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization) volunteered as a production assistant, an internship he completed for college credit. Chapin used the experience—plus the journal he kept for his requisite school report on the internship—to write the 2005 book Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies. As the title suggests, the tome tracks the creation of the cult favorite musical in delicious and exacting detail, covering everything from major artistic decisions to petty backstage squabbles. It's the kind of book you want to exist for all of your favorite musicals.

Stephen Bogardus, Ryan McCartan, Thom Sesma, Grey Henson, Hannah Elless, Carolee Carmello, Julie Benko, and Barbara Walsh Carol Rosegg

Transport's Follies concert is the first in the Off-Broadway company's Ann L. Bernstein series to be held at Carnegie Hall, a gigantic capacity increase from the series' former home at Kaufman Music Center's Merkin Hall. And tickets were reportedly sold out just an hour after they were put on sale—again, the Follies fans can be quite intense. (Transport Group Artistic Director and Follies concert director Jack Cummings III shared in a pre-show speech that the larger venue will become the permanent home for the series going forward.) It was a perfect venue for Follies, which begs to be in a very beautiful and very old theatre. Carnegie Hall, needless to say, fits both of those bills ideally. If the evening was slightly over-amplified, leading to a somewhat echoey sound, that hardly detracted from what was still a glorious concert. And they'll no doubt iron that out for next year's concert.

The evening was backed by a rapturous 30-piece orchestra, using Jonathan Tunick's full, original orchestrations as the concert series always does. The group was expertly led by music director Joey Chancey, whose skilled and dramatically activated conducting has made every entry in Transport's Ann L. Bernstein concert series this writer has seen a real musical highlight. The concert began with Follies' haunting "Prologue" and "Overture," which was uncharacteristically presented without the brief dialogue breaks—an incredible and rare chance to hear Sondheim's beautiful music completely isolated an in all its orchestral glory. 

But the main event was, of course, the performances. Follies is a musical that was made for star casting. Many of the characters are supposed to be huge stars of the stage, most with just one single signature number to sing during the performance. Low commitment, big spotlight roles like that make Follies primed for a company full of A-listers, particularly when staging a one-night-only concert. Transport Group's benefit concert was no exception, with the evening boasting a roster of Broadway legends including Hal Linden, Katie Finneran, Carolee Carmello, Barbara Walsh, Christine Ebersole, Karen Ziemba, Jennifer Holliday, Norm Lewis, Beth Leavel, Kate Baldwin, and many, many more.

Rather than casting one performer in each role, the Bernstein series tends to have different performers doing each number, allowing this concert to be even more star-studded than usual. Suffice it to say, there were enough stellar performances happening at Carnegie Hall that night for multiple fully cast revivals. No doubt many fans in attendance were forced to amend their dream casts as a result!

Katie Finneran and Marc Kudisch Carol Rosegg

Two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran was perfectly flighty as Sally in "Don't Look at Me," when she's at her most performatively giddy, opposite Marc Kudisch's Ben. "Waiting for the Girls" featured a true powerhouse of Broadway favorites, with Carolee Carmello, Barbara Walsh, Stephen Bogardus, and Thom Sesma playing Sally, Phyllis, Ben, and Buddy, respectively. Julie Benko, Hannah Elless, Ryan McCartan, and Grey Henson were their younger counterparts. Tony winner Adriane Lenox was another early stunner with a fantastic take on "Broadway Baby," opposite Klea Blackhurst and Jim Caruso with "Rain on the Roof" and Isabel Keating with "Ah, Paris!"

And then, there was "The Road You Didn't Take," one of the score's most devastating songs, sung here by Alexander Gemignani. That casting was a nice full circle moment for the evening. Gemignani's dad, Paul Gemignani, played drums in Follies' original orchestra, later succeeding music director Hal Hastings as the production's conductor. He would go on to become Sondheim's longtime music director, heading the music department of all his original productions from A Little Night Music on. The younger Gemignani's take of the song, which sees Ben pretending to not care about all the things he could have done and all the things he never did, was the kind of performance you get from someone who has been thinking about this material on an inner level for years—which is to say, excellent. It's perhaps notable that Gemignani himself has chosen multiple roads in his own career, working regularly as both a performer (he was Tony nominated for his performance as Enoch Snow in the 2018 Broadway revival of Carousel) and a music director (he conducted the last Broadway revival of West Side Story and the recent posthumous world premiere of Sondheim's final musical, Here We Are). All in all, he proved himself yet again as the rare nepo baby we can really get behind.

Christine Ebersole was another major highlight with "In Buddy's Eyes," a song that is almost completely about the subtext. If you read the lyric, it sounds like Sally is singing to Ben about how much she loves her husband, Buddy. But we know that Sally has had a thing for Ben since her Follies days, and made a snap decision to come to this reunion in hopes of rekindling a secret romance with him. Ebersole made a meal of everything the character isn't saying without losing the fantasy she's trying to outwardly project, all while showcasing the unique effortlessness with which Ebersole can traverse between chest and head resonance. This Follies fan may or may not have amended his own dream cast with this one.

The first half ended with another stand-out, a performance of "Who's That Woman." Led by Karen Ziemba, the performance featured Bennett's original choreography, recreated here by original cast member (and Bennett assistant) Mary Jane Houdina. And to dance alongside Ziemba, Transport assembled an ensemble of true Broadway dance legends, including Mamie Duncan-GibbsRuth GottschallJoAnn M. Hunter, Dana Moore, Michelle Pawk, and Margo Sappington. Thanks to archival footage, most theatre fans have seen Bennett's iconic choreography for numbers like "Turkey Lurkey Time" from Promises, Promises, or "One" from A Chorus Line. You can also find a Tony Awards performance that recreates his staging for Follies' "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." But "Who's That Woman" has proved more elusive, beyond a 1998 revival at Paper Mill Playhouse that recreated the number as well. That made this performance particularly thrilling, and expertly executed by a stage full of true stars. Ziemba and her entire group send us off into intermission with a bang.

Jennifer Holliday Carol Rosegg

And there was no being lulled into the evening's second half, as it began with perhaps the best performance of the evening. Iconic Dreamgirls Tony winner Jennifer Holliday proved that not only is she not going, she is still here with a sexy, jazzy take on "I'm Still Here." It absolutely blew the roof off the place (special shout-out to Jason Yarcho, whose piano stylings were an especially welcome addition to the Sondheim favorite). Holliday got a near instantaneous standing ovation after she completed the musical ode to resilience. The performance was a stunner on its own, but I'm sure it didn't go unnoticed by anyone in attendance that the performance played as a quasi-extension of Holliday's most famous character, Effie Melody White from Dreamgirls. Effie, too, could celebrate outliving some significant life hurdles, to put it mildly.

Nikki Renée Daniels and Norm Lewis duetted on a glorious rendition of "Too Many Mornings," and Michael Berresse brought dance back to "The Right Girl." While not a full recreation of the original steps, Houdina reportedly choreographed a new take inspired by Bennett's dance vocabulary.

And then we turned to the world of opera for the next number, "One More Kiss," sung in Follies by Heidi, one of the older alum who used to perform operatic concert-style specialties. Opera legend Harolyn Blackwell doesn't exactly fit that bill age-wise, but no one was mad to hear her world renowned voice take on the song, with musical theatre-opera performer Mikaela Bennett joining as Blackwell's younger counterpart. Both were in incredible voice. Usually some of the sadness of the song comes from the juxtaposition of Heidi's voice, somewhat diminished by age, versus the breadth of her younger virtuosity. But there were no diminished voices to be heard here. Whenever I see a Follies, I always wait in anticipation to see if the Young Heidi will sing the optional high D flat at the end—a half-step above the infamous high C! At this concert, Bennett and Blackwell hit that high note together, which sent an already fabulous performance completely over the top. Brava!

Tony winner Beth Leavel sang an appropriately acidic "Could I Leave You?," ultimately opting to carry the mic by its clip after a hilarious malfunction with the microphone stand. 

And for the first song of the Follies sequence, "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through," we got a mini Kimberly Akimbo reunion with Nina White, Miguel Gil, Olivia Elease Hardy, and Fernell Hogan. It was lovely to see all performing material distinctly different from Jeanine Tesori's Akimbo score. All four excelled.

For the Sondheim patter song "Buddy's Blues," we got a Transport Group favorite: Santino Fontana. The Tony winner has been known to tackle the song solo à la Mandy Patinkin, from the equally starry 1985 Lincoln Center concert. But here, he was joined by Lauren Blackman as "Margie" and Sara King as "Sally." Fontana has a powerhouse voice, but here he reminded everyone that he's equally adept with comedy, too. He's a little young for the role currently, but he's more than proven he'd be an excellent choice for a revival in a decade or so.

Kurt Peterson Carol Rosegg

And to handle one of the score's best-known songs, Sally's mournful torch ballad "Losing My Mind," we got Kate Baldwin. Sondheim famously used to say he never thought someone could sing a song well enough for it to work on that alone until he heard original Sally Dorothy Collins sing "Losing My Mind." Baldwin proved she might just sit in that camp too. Equally adept in the song's higher moments as she was in the more sultry lower notes, Baldwin's performance was pretty breathtaking. And of course, she's not just a good singer. Baldwin is a two-time Tony nominated Broadway actor, and that was on display here too.

Next up was Phyllis' folly, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," performed by Alexandra Billings. While we didn't get Bennett's original choreography here, the orchestra did play the full dance break for us, and Billings filled the time with some delightfully zany dancing. She gave extra attention to the orchestra's french horn player, who notably sits out the entire number—much to the audience's glee. The song at its best is jazzy and athletic, and Billings gave us that and then some.

And for the evening's final number, we got another full circle moment. Peterson, the musical's first Young Ben, became Ben for "Live Laugh Love," complete with late original cast member John McMartin's cane from the Broadway production. Especially with a Carnegie Hall-full of Follies fans, the number was an especially poignant way to close an excellent concert.

Photos: Transport Group's Follies in Concert

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