Now rehearsing the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies, stage and film actor Treat Williams told Playbill On-Line he counts himself among the "luckiest actors in America." Known widely for such films as "Hair," "Prince of the City," "Once Upon a Time in America," and "The Devil's Own," Williams' first love is theatre. He has starred on Broadway in Over Here, Once in a Lifetime and The Pirates of Penzance and it's indicative of his theatre roots that he bargained hard last year to do film work—any film work—in order to make it feasible for him to be able to play Buddy in Follies this season. While he has reached out to find success in a variety of fields—he directed "Texan," a short film written by David Mamet, and is a commercial pilot and flight instructor—Treat Williams says that, on Broadway, he is happier than he has been in years.
Playbill On-Line: After looking forward to doing this role since last summer, how does it finally feel to be in rehearsals?
TW: It's great, although we're all a little sore. It takes a while to adjust. After all, here I am at 50 and I'm dancing again.
PBOL: What makes the show so meaningful for you now?
TW: The whole thing has been like coming home. I started in theatre and musicals and I was in them for four or five years before anything else. There's so much going on at once. I was just talking to someone and I said, "You have someone doing a piano number over here and then guys are somewhere else doing lighting plots—it would take three whole days to block a 'Making of the Musical Follies' film segment with everything that's going on in this house."
PBOL: Is there much interest in the historical context of the revival?
TW: Well, all the history was interesting in the beginning, but now that has fallen away and we're into the nuts and bolts of [director] Matthew Warchus' vision of this piece, as well as [choreographer] Kathleen Marshall's. We're basically in the throes of the show—the tech—and it's somewhat tedious. But, having said that, I'll tell you that I was kinda sneakin' down here a lot early on to watch the development of the [Belasco] theatre.
PBOL: What were your impressions?
TW: Well, in one way, this was one of the greatest theatres of the 20th century, and yet we've brought a bunch of ghosts of our own from Follies. I can't tell you how happy I am to be part of this—I haven't been this pleased in 20 years. The company we're keeping is remarkable. You have Betty Garrett from On the Town and Joan Roberts from Oklahoma, which was on Broadway in the '40s. There's Donald Sadler, who is also a choreographer for the stage, and Polly Bergen, who has had an extraordinary career from the '40s through today. And, you have to realize, there's a real awareness among us that this will be the last time the show will be peopled with folks who really understand what the Follies was in its heyday. There are only a few of us who actually saw the original [Ziegfeld Follies], so all of us are aware that we're at the end of an era and this production of Follies will probably be the last time when the actors involved will have witnessed what we're singing and dancing about. In 20 years or so, they will have to do research. PBOL: You feel very close to this piece, don't you?
TW: I just adore this thing. I looked at Gregory Harrison the other day and said, "Isn't this great, to be in on this?" I tell you, Gregory and I feel like the luckiest two actors in America right now. You even feel it when you go up to sign in on the call sheet—you see those names up there and you realize, "This is awesome!" I mean, Marge Champion was in Showboat and her husband was Gower Champion.
PBOL: Is the cast close?
TW: It's becoming a family very quickly.
PBOL: Generally speaking, are there any people you'd like to work with but haven't had the chance to?
TW: You know, there are so many I have worked with that it's hard to say. There are some that I can only dream of working with like Tracy or Cagney or Bogart. The list goes on and on. And I've had the chance to work with some good people recently, and right away I think of Brad [Pitt] and Harrison [Ford]. But there are some people I'd like to work with like Tony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas, and there is Benicio Del Toro who has gotten lots of attention recently in "Traffic."
PBOL: Did you ever have a single moment on stage that stuck with you for some reason?
TW: I did actually, it was during the big blackout in New York City. I was doing the lead in Grease. It was one of those moments that the audience and the performer share completely. In those days, the way they miked you was that you picked up a mike with a wire, and you'd swing it through your legs, over your shoulder, nothing like today's high-tech. So, on the night of the blackout everything went dark during the show and the emergency lights came on. I asked the audience if they wanted us to continue and they said yes, so when we came to the point where I did a song at a drive-in movie I reached to pick up a mike and stopped myself. Here I was, reaching for a microphone when there was no electricity anywhere in the entire City of New York. I stopped and relaxed and then looked at the audience and there was an enormous laugh.
PBOL: Early on in your career was there every anything on your resume that you took off once you had other credits to replace it?
TW: I might have answered that question differently 20 years ago but, right now, I'm a father and a homeowner and I have kids in a private school and there's nothing that embarrasses me about any sort of work that pays the bills. I think I saw this as a career for the first 15 years and now I see it as more of an occupation or a job. Something like this show is extraordinarily exciting, but the primary purpose is to make enough to provide for my family. So, I have no regrets about doing anything that has helped my family. I've done films that were horrendously bad, but they built a home for my kids and a summer home. I can even look around and say, well, this movie's the guest room and this one's the baby's room. There isn't anything I'm really unhappy about. At this point, I think that our resumes are so packed that people are being asked to lessen them for the show's Playbill.
PBOL: It must be challenging to be involved with such a hotly anticipated revival, especially a Sondheim show.
TW: There are enormous challenges. In some shows, you sometimes see people kick over the words and in some instances you see singers showing off vocally as if they're trying to hide the lyric. With Sondheim, it's just the reverse.
PBOL: What's your take on interpreting Sondheim's material?
TW: Well, his songs are so delightful and there's always a sense of a character developing. I think a lot of it is the self-examination and forward movement as the play develops. There are a couple of numbers in the show that are very taxing physically and although it's taxing, you get a clear understanding of the character. His songs are not written to be taken home and made a hit. They're integral to the production and each piece that he does is so different in tone. I can't say enough about him.
PBOL: Has Sondheim been closely involved with rehearsals?
TW: He came in twice last week and seemed to be having a good time. We were pretty sloppy but we put up what we had. I'm still here, and that's always a good sign for an actor. We're all perfectionists here. I've seen this thing and I know what it can be, so while it's not a burden, I feel a responsibility that our audience gets to have the same experience that I had when I saw it. It's an awesome musical and there's a whole new audience out there for it. We want to make it work.
—By Murdoch McBride