Clockwise from Upper Left: UL: Eddie Bracken. UR: Kaye Ballard, Dee Hoty, Phyllis Newman, Ann Miller, Liliane Montevecchi and Donna McKechnie. LR: Natalie Mosco and John William Mulcahy. LC: Montevecchi kicks. LL: Montevecchi hugs Ballard.
"It's probably one of the most perfect musicals ever written," said Natalie Mosco, playing Emily Whitman in the Paper Mill Playhouse revival of Follies. "It's a musical that has a right to be a musical because it's about musical performers. It's not about people who suddenly spring into song; these are people who live by song. . . who express their emotions through song and dance, because that's who they really are."
The perfect musical then -- seeking the perfect cast?
April 6 at 890 Broadway, the Paper Mill Playhouse presented its press preview of Sondheim and Goldman's Follies, starting performances April 15 and running through May 31, 1998. For this production, directed by Robert Johanson, a cast of legends has been assembled, including Ann Miller, Tony Roberts, Donna McKechnie, Kaye Ballard, Liliane Montevecchi, Donald Saddler, Laurence Guittard, Dee Hoty, Phyllis Newman, Eddie Bracken, Natalie Mosco, and Carol Skarimbas. The April 6 preview began as the musical begins with Dimitri Weismann, played by Eddie Bracken, introducing his theatre and thanking the audience for coming. Roscoe then introduced the girls with the opening number, "Beautiful Girls". As he sang, his younger self, played by Peter Davenport, appeared behind him, mirroring his movements. As the original Weismann girls began to walk on, sometimes tripping, sometimes unsure of their movements, their younger selves, backs to the audience, stepped confidently behind them, bringing the past and present together.
The second number was the two married couples' number, "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs". Roberts and Guittard, as Buddy Plummer and Benjamin Stone, reminisced with their wives, McKechnie and Hoty (as Sally Plummer and Phyllis Stone), about waiting backstage for their chorus girl girlfriends or their stagedoor-johnny boyfriends. Later, they were joined by their younger selves, Michael Gruber (Young Ben), Billy Hartung (Young Buddy), Danette Holden (Young Sally), and Meredith Patterson (Young Phyllis).
In order to give a taste of the many stars in the show, the cast performed a montage, beginning with Skarimbas' (Heidi's) song, "One More Kiss". Then the Whitmans, played by Mosco and Saddler, danced through a bit from their number, "Rain on the Roof". As Solange La Fitte, Montevecchi, in a black leotard, red bandana, and red scarf that fell to her knees, rhapsodized on the city of light in "Ah, Paris!" Although suffering from a sore throat, Kaye Ballard then gave some of "Broadway Baby" before being joined by Mosco, Saddler, and Montevecchi in a competitive medley. When they had finished, former movie star Ann Miller sang a snippet from former movie star Carlotta's number, "I'm Still Here."
The finale was the song "Who's That Woman", showing off some of choreographer Jerry Mitchell's recreation of "Follies" style tap dance. The number ended with the younger selves and older selves looking out into the audience, but hand to hand, as if in a mirror.
All this will soon take place on a set, designed by Michael Anania to resemble a decaying theatre. The set model, all in moldy blues and greys, is completed by four side boxes built two on to each side of the stage. The box curtains are torn and the statues and sculptures that decorated the theatre are cracked and broken. Anania said he used two books, Nicholas Van Hoogstraten's Lost Broadway Theatres and Mary Henderson's The New Amsterdam: The Biography of a Broadway Theatre, as well as studying the sculpture styles of the 20's and 30's.
For the legends and chorus kids, this Follies is an opportunity to explore getting older and to work with great actors.
Roberts, who, when he wasn't talking to reporters, had a hand-held AM/FM radio pressed against his ear -- listening to the Mets game, he explained - thought he'd heard wrong when he was told he was offered Buddy. Didn't they mean Ben?
"Buddy is unlike the kind of roles I'm usually cast as," Roberts said. "He's a guy who sells oil rigs and drills from Phoenix. . . He's much more of a guy who comes straight from the heart than what I've gotten to play. I like that challenge."
Roberts also liked the opportunity to dance, especially in a style he described as the kind he used to do as a kid alone in his room when he was pretending he was Gene Kelly.
For Dee Hoty, playing Phyllis in Follies is like going to a high school reunion. "They give you that thing with your picture on it, how you used to look or be and you think, 'Oh, man, if I'd know then what I know now. . .,' but you make a choice and you take responsibility for it."
The reunion aspect especially resonates for Mosco who is about to celebrate her own 30th reunion -- with the original cast of Hair.
"It's that same feeling of where have we gone, what have we done, what are all our stories. Yet there is that wonderful shared moment when we were all so young and so hopeful, just starting out as performers," she said.
The younger selves, or "smaller" selves as they insist on calling themselves, said they're excited just to be working with this cast. Holden talked about flipping through her book, Hollywood Musicals, and seeing Ann Miller on nearly 50 pages.
"It's like the biggest master class you could ever be a part of. We're like sponges, working with these people. Going over and having them tell stories. . . It's unbelievable, these people's lives," Patterson said.
According to Hartung, the most challenging part is working with these great actors to create a single character. It's also, all three agree, intimidating.
"I have a hard time not letting [McKechnie] do it all --" Holden said.
"-- They want to get our feedback -- " Patterson agreed.
"-- but we put our own walls up." Holden finished.
"And if the scene isn't working, it must be our fault!" Hartlung laughed, joking.
This Follies adds a few changes to the script including the cutting of Phyllis' "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" and the inclusion of "Ah, But Underneath," a song written for the 1987 London production. Also the dance team of Vincent and Vanessa have been combined with the Whitmans to create two characters instead of four. Mitchell will recreate Michael Bennett's original choreography for the "Who's That Woman" production number.
The biggest change, though, may be the change in atmosphere. This is going to be a lighter Follies, insisted McKechnie, who once was married to the show's original choreographer, Michael Bennett, who later directed her in A Chorus Line.
"They've made a point in this . . . to make the older people really have a whole different point of view," McKechnie said. "Originally, it was much darker and much heavier. The sadness was more there in terms of 'gee, people have their youth, and they do these wonderful things, but then they get old'. . . [for this production] the older people have the take on it. They're looking back and going, 'We lived, we learn, and we're better for it'."
When Follies originally ran 27 years ago on Broadway at the Winter Garden, it won seven Tony Awards, including Best Score, Best Director, and Best Choreographer. This new Follies is the first time the show has gotten a full-scale revival in the New York area.
-- By Christine Ehren