Referring to the musical Follies as “old fashioned” when it first ran on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1971 was reportedly a surefire way to irritate its original director, Hal Prince. However, in placing this Stephen Sondheim show at the Marquis Theatre following a successful run at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the goal of its current creative team is to achieve a “classic” sound comes at the suggestion of its original orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick.
“What Jonathan just told me is that Follies only works when it is grand. And this production is grand,” the musical director and conductor of this upcoming Broadway revival of Follies, James Moore, told me during a break in rehearsals.
Follies takes place in a theatre on the eve of its demolition. Its main characters are a set of actors who once graced the stage during the era of Weismann’s Follies. They reminisce and long for those early days of musicals and become haunted by their memories. It’s with these themes in mind that Follies almost requires lush orchestras, costumes, and traditions.
One major aspect of this production that helps give it a “classic” sound is the lavish 28-piece orchestra. More recently, many Broadway shows have been orchestrated to be played by a smaller number of musicians. “It’s thrilling to have a full-sized orchestra,” Moore boasted. “When audiences saw the show at the Kennedy Center, they loved the rich sounds emanating from the orchestra. We are very fortunate that the Marquis can accommodate the number of musicians required to accomplish this traditional sound.”
In his book, historian Ted Chapin chronicled the creation of the original production, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies. “The size and makeup of the orchestra is a group decision, influenced primarily by [Sondheim] and the producer, the composer with artistic concerns and the producer with budgetary ones,” he wrote.
As conductor and musical director, Moore is today’s authority on traditional Broadway musicality, having done both the recent Broadway revivals of Ragtime and South Pacific. “My goal is for everyone in the audience to feel the same thrill that I have when I’m standing on the podium in the pit, and the sound washes over me,” Moore said. “I am lucky.” In addition to the 28 musicians in the orchestra pit, on stage at the Marquis Theatre there’s an entirely different set of finely tuned instruments, in the form of an A-list cast of actors.
Referring to the Follies performers as an “embarrassment of riches,” Moore has been excited to work with the likes of Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines and Elaine Paige. With the full orchestra and actors in his arsenal, Moore feels ready to present this Sondheim treasure to Broadway audiences, knowing that a show like Follies comes with some expectations.
The original 1971 production of Follies ran for little more than a year and its only other revival, in 2001, lasted a mere five months. Although few theatregoers have actually seen a live production of the show, it features many of Sondheim’s most beloved and popular songs, including “I’m Still Here,” “Broadway Baby” and “Losing My Mind.” “This is really well-known material that people have a lot of opinions about. These songs are so well known, and anytime you do a Sondheim show, you just have a target on your back,” he said half jokingly.
Another high-profile song from Follies is “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs,” as it carries a special attachment for Sondheim. “In some ways this song was the key to the whole show,” Chapin wrote in his book. “Not only had it been one of the first songs written, but its evolution paralleled the evolution of [the show’s earliest incarnation] into Follies.”
Moore did get some assistance from the composer, Sondheim, as the musical mastermind travelled to D.C. during the recent production, sitting in on early rehearsals and giving out advice to the new creative team. “We sang through the show to him and he had a lot of feedback,” Moore said. “He’s not a composer too concerned with tempos, but rather how to interpret things. He told me what not to let actors do while singing the songs.”
The entire Follies team, both cast and crew, were only given two weeks of rehearsal before starting performances in front of paying audiences at the Marquis Theatre, as the decision to transfer from D.C. to Broadway was made rather quickly, but Moore sounded excited as he looked ahead to the limited engagement on Broadway. “It helps that I’m so familiar with the show, having just finished the other production, but my biggest hurdle is getting an entirely new orchestra working together in a new theatre.” He’s now putting the music together in front of audiences each night, as previews began August 7th.
I first wrote this article for BroadwayDirect.com