The National Theatre’s dazzling new staging of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s legendary Broadway musical Follies—which has sold out the remainder of its London run—was broadcast live in cinemas November 16. (Encore screenings of the NT Live broadcast will be offered over the next several weeks. Click here to find out where Follies is being screened in your area.)
Directed by Dominic Cooke, Follies stars four-time Olivier Award winner Imelda Staunton as Sally, Olivier and Obie winner Janie Dee as Phyllis, three-time Olivier winner Philip Quast as Ben, Peter Forbes as Buddy, and two-time Olivier winner Tracie Bennett as Carlotta Campion.
Thanks to the NT Live broadcast, Sondheim fans across the globe are witnessing a Follies unlike any other major production they’ve encountered before.
The National Theatre revival is the first fully staged major London production of Follies to present the original Broadway version of the show. Sondheim and Goldman revised large parts of the show’s script and score for its 1987 London premiere, toning down the underlying bleakness of the Broadway original, and offering a more hopeful finale for its central characters.
Every major subsequent revival has incorporated its own set of changes and formats for various moments within the script and score. This theatrical experiment is often a welcomed treat for theatre fans—no two Follies are alike.
What is rare, however, is to attend a major staging that uses Goldman’s original script from the 1971 Broadway original. Some of Sally’s most devastating and shattering lines, which occur moments before the final blackout, have not been heard since Dorothy Collins spoke them 40 years ago.
Cooke has revisited early drafts of Goldman’s script for this latest Follies, restoring original dialogue, as well as other moments that have not been seen in the production since its 1971 Broadway run.
Rather than making cuts and attempting “fixes” that impose a more linear format, Cooke has approached Follies—in all of its abstracted wonder—like a classic text, working to justify each line and moment in Goldman’s book.
Playbill spoke with Cooke about how he found his way back to the original version of the show, and the new discoveries he brings to the screen in the NTLive broadcast.
What was your initial introduction to the material?
Dominic Cooke: I knew the piece. I’m a big Sondheim fan, but I’d never seen it, but I knew the music pretty well going in. And, of course, I realized a lot of what I knew was from the 1987 London version, which is very, very different. But I thought about it over the years as something I’d like to do. Coincidentally, there was a conversation going on at the National Theatre between Steve Sondheim and [National Theatre Artistic Director] Rufus Norris about doing it. So, I expressed an interest.
And then I went to meet Sondheim in New York. I mis-prepared, actually. I thought I was interviewing for the job, and he thought I had the job. I went into the meeting to express to him how I’d like to do it, and he wanted to have a kind of later conversation, which was more, “What do you need to know about it?”
It was a good meeting, and I came out of that and immediately called Imelda about doing it.
What were the guideposts that Sondheim told you to look out for in the material?
He was clear that Follies needed something big and dramatic for the transition into “Loveland.” It had to be quite bold and dramatic, physically, to get us into “Loveland.”
With casting, you need to make sure you’ve got amazing actors in those four main roles, but the personalities of all the other characters, these smaller roles—you need to be able to identify them quite quickly. That’s also true with their costumes. You need to make sure they are landing on stage because you have so little time.
They were all very practical things, the things you need to think about when you’re doing Follies.
We didn’t really get into the inner workings of it, but then when I met with him the next time, I went to him with much more thinking and tested that out with him. Then we kind of worked together on the script, and which version of the book we were going to use. There was a lot of collaboration through the preparation period.
This version of Follies restores sections of dialogue that were cut from the script after the original 1971 run. Many Follies fans still talk about that bleak finale. What were you looking for when you went back to that material?
It was more about bringing the feeling back of the original. Along with the design team, we read the all the versions, including the 1987 London version and the 1998 Paper Mill version. It’s really interesting to me to see how different they were and their strengths and weaknesses. In the end—reading the first one—it was raw. It wasn’t perfect, it had its flaws, but it had an energy, and it had a depth that the other ones didn’t. I’ve done a hell of a lot of new work with writers over the years on hundreds of new plays, and I’ve noticed that a very first draft, even if it’s not perfect, has always got something the latter drafts don’t have, which is the kind of creative energy that brought it into being.
There have been so many attempts to “get it right.” What drew you to stage the original text, and to approach it moer or less, as is?
In the end we looked at its fragmented structure and asked how we could bring that to life and how we could honor it. We’d read it and ask, “Why is that there?” Treating it more like a classic than like something that needed to be fixed.
There were just a few bits that I noticed from other versions that I thought would be helpful for British audiences. From the script for the last New York revival, you get to see some of the characters leaving, and I thought that was good. You get to kind of finish their stories.
You’ve also incorporated documentary film approach with certain moments in the show.
In the original production there’s a cameraman and a film camera, so we turned some of the dialogue into interviews. There were places where the dialogue was suddenly expositional, and we suddenly bump into a character. And the way they’d be talking about their life at exactly that point, they were talking like it was something they’d prepared, like it was the end of a short interview that they do on red carpets and at opening nights at theatres. And we thought, “Wouldn’t Weismann have a camera? Wouldn’t he want all of that recorded?”
So we thought that somebody like NBC is making a little news piece about them, and we built a whole back story around that. Rather than cutting and changing these lines, we said, “Let’s find a way of solving.”
Your approach to the physical space is drastically different than any other Follies that’s been done before. You’ve broken the action out of the traditional proscenium staging and incorporated a revolving stage for a more cinematic approach.
It started with a notion that it should be slightly abstract in the space, it shouldn’t be totally literal. And that idea goes back to Boris Aronson’s original set design. We can’t do a proscenium staging at the National, because the space we’re in is not a traditional proscenium space. It wouldn’t have served us to try and force that.
So we said, “How do we take this kind of arena stage, and how to we get Follies to work in there?” The only way to do that is to abstract it. You can’t make literal proscenium theatre in our space. But I also think that making Follies as literal proscenium theatre causes huge problems. You ask yourself, “Why are those two people standing on stage and not noticing that the other people are having conversations?” It’s not meant to be literally that they’re all in the same space.
What Aronson has done in the original set was abstract the whole thing and make it feel as if you were in other places. So what we’ve done is that we’ve suggested a backstage, we’ve suggested a front of the stage and seating areas, but we’ve never been totally literal about it. And that, I think, is an important thing to staging Follies. I don’t think it 100 percent works if you do it totally literally, that you’re onstage the whole time. A lot of the scenes don’t totally make sense that way. That’s also why we’ve moved to staging it on a revolve. It makes it a bit more elegant.
What were the most challenging parts of staging Follies for you?
“Beautiful Girls.” The entire show is them recreating numbers from the past. And for this song you want something of scale because the original stairs they came down would have been absolutely huge. And yet you’re thinking, “Why would there still be a set of huge set of stairs? How have you got that if it used to be a blue movie theatre?” So we ended up using something like a fire escape to give it scale.
And then, of course, that switch into “Loveland.” How do you do that? What does it mean? How do you do that on a stage which isn’t a proscenium? That is really difficult. Those moments were tricky.
You’ve reconceived how the ghosts function and take part in the action. They have a different purpose now.
Yes, the main difference with this production of Follies and other productions of Follies are the ghosts.
They are there all the time. We went with something that is actually written in the original script. A ghost is the first thing you see. And I was like, “Well, why are they there first?”
So we came up with this idea that it’s their space, that they need to be there to see the end of this time and to see what happens to them as they’ve got older. It’s a much more two-way relationship, and they’re kind of pushing really hard, they’re re-enacting moments to push the old people into a more-or-less relationship with themselves. By doing that you give them a much more dynamic relationship. There’s a reason for them to come onstage rather than just evoking a memory.
When you break any theatre out of a traditional setting, it must be challenging to capture on camera. But Follies, as you said, is so complex, and there’s simultaneous action. How did you solve this?
I work with a very experienced camera director, in fact he’s done most of the NTLive events, and he’s brilliant. We’ve got nine cameras. I met with him initially, and then he came to see the show a lot. Then we did two sets of camera rehearsals where the actors are going through the whole thing proper and performing it, and trying it out with the cameras. Then we go and watch it in a movie theatre and make a lot of notes.
I’ll be able to say, “While you’re getting a great close up on that shot, you’re missing this person over there.”
This is probably one of the hardest live captures NT has ever done because of the scale of it—37 actors. So therefore, you need to track both the person and their younger self at key moments—which you can do as a member of the audience—on screen it’s a matter of framing them, and it’s much more complicated.
Flip through photos of Follies below: