PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Chicago Follies Director Gary Griffin

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Chicago Follies Director Gary Griffin
 
Gary Griffin has directed the work of Stephen Sondheim before, but never Follies. Here's his perspective on the classic, which he directed as the current season-opener at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Gary Griffin
Gary Griffin Photo by Peter Bosy

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Gary Griffin, associate artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, has gathered some of the biggest stars in the Windy City (and a couple of guest artists, including Brent Barrett and Caroline O'Connor) to populate his new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies, the 1971 Broadway musical about a reunion of Broadway revue stars on the eve of the demolition of their old theatre. It's not Griffin's first brush with composer-lyricist Sondheim. His CST Pacific Overtures went to London's Donmar Warehouse and won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical Production (he was also nominated for his direction). Griffin, who directed Broadway's The Apple Tree and The Color Purple, also staged Sondheim's Passion, A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George for CST.

We spoke to him by phone during rehearsals for Follies, which some people are calling the "other" Follies in American theatre at the moment, following the current Broadway transfer of the Kennedy Center's revival.

I'm curious to know what your first experience with Follies was. Did you discover the original cast album in the '70s and '80s and wear it out?
Gary Griffin: I did. I saw Side by Side by Sondheim when I was about 17, and there's a lot of Follies material in that. [After] seeing that and knowing that, that's when I got the Follies album — that first cast album. And then I read it, and I remember thinking these people are ancient! [Laughs.] I remember having that Fireside Theatre [published] edition of the show, and reading that and thinking, "Wow. I hadn't quite put together that this was about age." The first actual production I saw was quite a ways after that.

For those of us who knew the cast album, and if we never saw the original Broadway production, there's sort of this Follies of our imagination. It's never surpassed by an actual production, if you don't mind my saying so.
GG: One of the things we're trying to do is present it in a way that doesn't limit that opportunity for you to maybe imagine what you had in your head.

Caroline O'Connor in Follies.
photo by Liz Lauren

More than any other musical, there's this Follies that's brewing in our minds. I wonder if it's partly because the original album was so incomplete and partly because we don't have complete film/video records of the original production, just pieces.
GG: So many people that I respect in the business had such strong reactions to [the original 1971 production] that you're trying to imagine what happened to them when they were in the theatre because when they describe it, you watch them sort of [light up]. I've talked to [Encores! artistic director] Jack Viertel about the show, who saw it tryout in Boston, and when he talks about it, it's very present to him, it's not like this memory thing. Whatever happened to him in the theatre had an impact that still exists in him.

A lot of people talk about James Goldman's book to Follies — how lean it is or how it somehow shortchanges its characters or seems choppy. But shouldn't we also realize that part of the lean book has to do with the filmic nature of Harold Prince's production, which offers montages, transitions, blending time periods, jump cuts to different groups of characters at the reunion? As a director, do you wish you had more libretto to play with? Or is Goldman knocked unfairly?
GG: I think he is because I think he knew who to give the language to and who not to. It's fascinating how much Ben and Phyllis have, but they talk about that: that's their relationship. She says, "We talk, we don't do things. Even our chauffeur is articulate." I think it's a very wise book. It doesn't do what a classic Arthur Laurents/Oscar Hammerstein book does. There's much more economy, in the way the show is constantly breathing between what happened and what's happening. I think the book does that very, very well. I find it keeps the show buoyant. It doesn't pull it down. You're sort of scanning around and catching something, and then you scan somewhere else, so it is very cinematic. The atmospheric nature of being in this experience — I think the book is very good at that. We know The Lion in Winter as his most famous play, but the way Jim Goldman uses language and is very precise with language, I'm sure he and Sondheim were happy together collaborating because they're two men who respected how precise you are with what characters say to each other.

Robert Petkoff in Follies.
photo by Liz Lauren

The critical community will often pick on a librettist. The original writing and production team was made up of artists who were working with the knowledge that they were creating something conceptual. They wanted to fracture the world.
GG: Yes. Steve will say certainly that all of that comes from Goldman's stories and characters: It's not necessarily that he wrote this great score and Jim Goldman supported it with words — the big idea was in the book, and [Sondheim] wrote from that. I feel that on Follies, actually, I think more than any of the Sondheim shows that I've worked on, frankly: the guidance of the idea, it's a big idea show. And, so, you feel the sense that Sondheim was writing to the idea, and the show that they had in their heads…and you don't feel like the book is connecting Steve's songs. You don't feel that way at all. As the score was evolving [in 1971], it seems the book needed to do less, and I think what they've done, even since then, in terms of editing the book from the Broadway production to the [2001] Roundabout [version] to the Encores! [concert version] to what is now the book that you've seen on Broadway and the one that we're working with, the economy has become more and more what was needed. I have both books in front of me — when I'm working, I look at the original book — but it's [for] background information. What we're not doing is great character texture, but sometimes it's great that they don't have to say it, it can just be present in what they're doing.

I have all the published versions. I have the original, I have the Roundabout and I have this one. Once we got this version, I just went about it as though this is the version we were going to do. I know the original very, very well just because I was a geek and read it 500 times, to see how Follies worked when I was 20 years old. As I got into the rehearsal process, I started to look back [to the 1971 script] and think, "This is information that we aren't going to do, but we will inform relationships and inform how people approach it — the attack on scenes and things."

For example, in the original, Sally has a reference to an apparent attempted suicide. She says something like "I should have died the first time."
GG: In the original, yes.

Do you let your Sally, Susan Moniz, know that that line once was there?
GG: Yes. She knows it was part of the story. It's something she can really play because we know it was in their lines. Ben and Buddy, in the original, there's a suggestion that they were both in law school and Buddy didn't study, and therefore didn't become a lawyer and Ben did, but in this version, there's no specific reference to that. But it was helpful for us to think, "Oh, wow, they were both [on a similar track]…" There's a line in the original, "Who had time to study?" In this version, all you get is that [Buddy] comes to say, "I have a great date for you," and Ben says, "No, I've got to study." It's just much leaner. I kind of love that the memory scenes don't feel so much like exposition as they feel present. I think it's something we're trying to do with them so they don't feel like they're going back and forth all the time. In that way, your past is right with you; something triggers something to tell you that you're right where you were.

Hollis Resnik sings "I'm Still Here."
photo by Liz Lauren

The cast that you've put together is kind of a Who's Who of Chicago theatre from the past 30 years, right?
GG: Yeah. When you live in Follies, by nature, you sort of start to consider your past — where you come from, what happened to you. All of that was sort of in the [rehearsal] room and, actually, I think it's been important for us to let that happen. We all remember when we were young beginners. I think [the older cast members] are all looking at the younger generation and realizing, "Wow, it wasn't that long ago that was us." I think there are people in the play who are on their third generation with Follies.

The crumbling Weismann Theatre is the famous scenic world of the show. You're working in a thrust space, in CST's Courtyard Theater. Is that a challenge for Follies? Do you try to press it back to feel more like a proscenium?
GG: I am loving the thrust for this show. I don't think I would've been as excited about doing Follies were we not doing it on thrust. I find it very freeing. It feels like hands that reach out into the audience. I haven't done this kind of musical on our thrust space. We certainly haven't done this much choreography, we've never done anywhere near this amount of choreography in a musical at Chicago Shakes. I feel like that energy is a real opportunity. [There's a sense] of being present in the party as opposed to observing it.

Ensemble member Jen Donohoo
photo by Liz Lauren

I always make new discoveries when I return to the Follies score. "One More Kiss" particularly touched me this year, and it didn't occur to me until I had seen it again, that the song is a microcosm of the show.
GG: Totally. Absolutely. Absolutely, yes. It's very Madame Armfeldt [from A Little Night Music] to me in that way.

"One More Kiss" is an operetta pastiche, an old Weismann Follies number from 1918, but it's also a life lesson sung by the oldest living performer at the reunion. If any of the four main characters were able to really hear it, that "all things beautiful must die," they might realize that the key to happiness might be shedding the past or integrating the past.
GG: Yeah. Sally sings "nothing dies," to Ben about Buddy.

I'm wondering if you had similar discoveries about the script or the score as you're exploring it. What really surprised you or touched you? 
GG: I've been struck by the idea of "when are they lying?" There's a lot of lying going on, which is challenging in a musical. You have to be very clear. To deal with a play where the audience can question when that character is telling the truth or not is fascinating. Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.

Robert Petkoff as Buddy, Susan Moniz (seated) as Sally and L.R. Davidson as Young Sally.
Robert Petkoff as Buddy, Susan Moniz (seated) as Sally and L.R. Davidson as Young Sally. Photo by Peter Bosy
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