Inspired by his wife, the soprano Anna Held, he set about creating an American counterpart to the Folies Bergere of Paris, combining spectacular production elements, songs, sketches and a staggering array of beautiful young women in an evening that was as plotless as it was innocently devoid of message or meaning.
Ziegfeld’s was by no means the first Broadway revue; the form had been co-existing with operettas and dramas on Broadway since before the turn of the century, largely inspired by vaudeville entertainment in the U.S. and the English music hall. And, to be fair, Follies of 1907 was a modest success at best. But it was still a milestone because of the way it inspired its creator. For the next two decades, not a Broadway season passed without a new edition of the Ziegfeld Follies.
Ziegfeld perfected the revue in its most lavish form. Virtually every great comedian, singer, song-and-dance man and soubrette appeared in the Follies . In "glorifying the American girl" he also glorified the American Dream as the U.S. moved through the teens, World War I and the Jazz Age. His shows promised a Neverland of delight — opulence, romance and glamour. He set a standard for others to challenge, and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, many practitioners rose to the bait. There were jazzier revues presented by hoofer George White, and bluer ones produced by Earl Carroll. In the twenties there were smart little revues in reaction to Ziegfeld’s excesses; in the thirties there were political revues like Pins and Needles that took up the cause of the American worker. And there were wartime revues that celebrated the armed forces. But Ziegfeld was the king.
In honor of the 100th birthday of the first Follies, New York City Center Encores! dedicates an entire season to Ziegfeld, his Follies and its children and stepchildren. Rather than re-create one of these shows in totality, we elected to make our own "revue in review," Stairway to Paradise, celebrating the best of the material created by America’s greatest revue songwriters: Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Harold Rome, Eubie Blake and others. Stairway will conclude our season this May 11–14. For the middle slot, March 29–April 1, we've painstakingly reconstructed (with the invaluable help of the Irving Berlin estate) the 1932 musical comedy Face the Music, which is about a Ziegfeld-ian showman trying to get together the cash for his annual extravaganza, Rhinestones of ’32, during the depths of the Depression. Face the Music was a hit in its day, toured the country and then disappeared from sight. But its jaunty score and gimlet-eyed view of Ziegfeld's annual extravagances makes it a perfect candidate for our celebration of the Follies.
That left us with an obvious choice to open the season: Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 Follies, which looks back at the world of Ziegfeld from an entirely different point of view. Shot through with irony and heartbreak over our American illusions spoiled, the show, like Ziegfeld’s own revues, is very much a product of its time. Three of its four principal creators, Sondheim, Goldman, and director-producer Harold Prince, had grown up in the shadow of World War II when the U.S. was a land of heroes, a place where dreams really did come true. But times had changed. Three stunning political assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, and, most especially, the Vietnam War had turned the country in on itself, creating a bleak mood of self-recrimination. Five days before Follies opened at the Winter Garden, Lieutenant William Calley was convicted of murder for leading the brutal My Lai Massacre. No single event could have better crystallized how far we had strayed from the "best years of our lives" World War II homilies that had once been assumed to represent out national character. Follies, although it concentrates on the personal failures of two couples swallowed up in the lost American Dream, is very much informed by the chaos of this moment in American history. Its bravura show-biz pastiche numbers sell love, optimism, romance and the art of burning the candle at both ends, while its book songs ponder the roads not taken and the dark forest in which all of us seemed to be wandering, directionless. Its fourth creator, the young choreographer-director Michael Bennett, invented its signal dance event - a number about looking in the mirror and confronting the reality that was staring back at us.
It took Ronald Reagan’s "Morning in America" campaign of 1980 to pull the population from its state of torporous hangover. And, yet, as Follies greets audiences in 2007, the country finds itself in a new round of soul-searching and self-doubt, an atmosphere that makes the show feel shockingly at home for a 35-year-old artifact of Broadway’s Golden Age. James Goldman’s brother, William, once wrote that Broadway theatre could really be divided into two basic categories: shows that tell you a lie you want to believe and shows that tell you a truth you don't want to hear. The myths drive us relentlessly forward, and the hard truths make us stop and reconsider. Encores!’ 2007 season attempts to see Ziegfeld and his legacy from both points of view. We hope you enjoy the ride. *
Jack Viertel is the artistic director of the City Center Encores! series.