Broadway's 'Follies,' Sounding As Sumptuous As Ever
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Jeff Lunden
Monday, September 12, 2011 at 4:20 PM
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Many Broadway revivals trim their budgets by downsizing the orchestra, but a new Follies features 28 musicians in the pit. Jeff Lunden speaks with orchestrator Jonathan Tunick about working on the Stephen Sondheim score, which evokes Broadway styles of the '20s, '30s and '40s — as well as the contemporary music of 1971.

Make no mistake: With a cast of more than 40, Follies is a really big show. The legendary musical takes place on the stage of a Broadway theater, at a reunion of former showgirls, with a domestic drama unfolding in the present while the stage is literally filled with ghosts from the past.

Much of Stephen Sondheim's score evokes popular music from the early part of the 20th century, when the Follies — the Cirque du Soleil of its day — was an extravagant Broadway entertainment. Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated most of Sondheim's shows, says Follies is probably the biggest score he ever worked on. That's in part because in essence, it's three scores.

"There's the dramatic score, in which the characters sing," Tunick explains, "and there's what Steve calls the 'pastiche' score, which are examples of the kind of period songs that these characters would've sung in the old days, in the Follies."

In the lavish revival that opens tonight on Broadway, Jayne Houdyshell plays former Follies headliner Hattie Walker, which means she gets to sing one of the best-known songs from the score: "Broadway Baby." With the revival's full-size 28-piece orchestra — a rarity in these cost-conscious times — it's a bona fide showstopper.

"I mean, I think it's the greatest show biz number, ever," Houdyshell says. "And to have that full-bodied sound underneath you, it's a real thrill."

"Broadway Baby" is one of the pastiche songs Tunick talks about, and the orchestrator amused himself using dance-band clichés of the 1920s and '30s – little violin and trombone licks, hat-tips to jazz greats like Jack Teagarden and Miff Mole – to make the song sound like it actually came from that time.

But Tunick's job wasn't just to take Sondheim's piano score and translate it for orchestra. He went to rehearsals, to get a sense of how the songs worked in context.

"One of the things that the orchestrator can do with a show to help with the score is to provide subtext," he says. "We can express what the character is not saying; in fact, even what a character may not be aware of."

'Nothing But One Big Lie'

As director Eric Schaeffer points out, there's one song in Follies that's pretty much all subtext.

One of the four middle-aged, discontented main characters — Sally, played in this revival by Bernadette Peters — is a degree or two more self-deluded than the others. She's still carrying a torch for her ex-lover, Ben (Ron Raines) even though she's been married to Buddy (Danny Burstein) for almost 30 years.

Sally sings a song called "In Buddy's Eyes" — to Ben — in which she explains how happy she is because her husband adores her.

"It's a lie," Schaeffer says. "Ben says 'How are you?', and she says everything's fine, you know, 'cause of Buddy.'

"And everything's not fine — because of Buddy. So, this whole song is nothing but one big lie."

To help drive home the point that Sally doth protest a bit much, Tunick's orchestration goes back and forth between a warm sound – soaring strings, to emphasize Sally's delusions – and a cold sound, low woodwinds, to emphasize the reality she's trying to escape.

'Where Everybody Loves To Live'

The last part of the show — the "third score," so to speak, of the three Sondheim and Tunick wrote — is a lavishly produced 20-minute sequence called "Loveland," where the four central characters expose their own personal follies in what Tunick describes as a "surrealistic fantasy."

Danny Burstein plays Sally's husband Buddy, a tragic figure caught between a loveless marriage and a hopeless affair.

"That's what you get for three-quarters of the show from my character," Burstein says. "And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the Loveland section comes along, and he's able to deliver this wonderful vaudeville comic turn."

In "Buddy's Blues" — essentially a highly entertaining nervous breakdown — the orchestration pulls out all the stops, employing all manner of high-energy tricks: rude percussion effects, sliding trombones.

Looking back, 40 years after the original production, the man who wrote it remembers this score as a special one.

"I can think of no score where I was more analytical than this one," Tunick says. And yet in Follies, more so than in any other score, "the magic just took over." [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]


Audio Transcript:

MICHELE NORRIS, host: Tonight, a brand new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's legendary musical, "Follies," opens on Broadway. Because it requires a cast of more than 40 actors, it's rarely revived and in an era when producers often look to cut costs by reducing the orchestra, this lavish production features 28 musicians in the pit.

Jeff Lunden has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JEFF LUNDEN: Make no mistake, "Follies" is a really big show. It takes place on the stage of a Broadway theater at a reunion of former showgirls. While the domestic drama about two unhappy middle-aged couples unfolds in the present, the stage is literally filled with ghosts from the past.

Much of the score evokes popular music from the early part of the 20th century, when the Follies was an extravagant Broadway entertainment.

Jonathan Tunick orchestrated Stephen Sondheim's music, as he's done for most of his shows. Tunick says "Follies" is probably the biggest score he ever worked on because, in essence, it's three scores.

JONATHAN TUNICK: There's the dramatic score in which the characters sing and there's what Steve calls the pastiche score, which are examples of the kind of period songs that these characters would have sung in the old days in the Follies. And then there's the final 20 minutes of the show, in which it goes into this surrealistic fantasy, sort of the Super Follies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROADWAY BABY")

JAYNE HOUDYSHELL: (As Hattie Walker, Singing) I'm just a Broadway baby.

(As Hattie Walker, Singing) Walking off my tired feet.

LUNDEN: Jayne Houdyshell plays Hattie Walker, an old Follies headliner, who sings one of the best-known songs for the score, "Broadway Baby."

HOUDYSHELL: I mean, I think it's the greatest show biz number ever and to have that full-bodied sound underneath you, it's a real thrill.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROADWAY BABY")

HOUDYSHELL: (As Hattie Walker, Singing) Learning how to sing and dance, waiting for that one big chance to be in a show. Oh, gee...

LUNDEN: "Broadway Baby" is one of the songs Sondheim wrote that's meant to be a real period song. Jonathan Tunick says he had fun using dance band cliches of the 1920s, little violin and trombone licks, to make the song sound like it actually came from that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROADWAY BABY")

HOUDYSHELL: (As Hattie Walking, Singing) Someday maybe all my dreams will be repaid.

LUNDEN: But Tunick says his job wasn't just to take Sondheim's piano score and translate it for orchestra. He went to rehearsals to get a sense of how the songs worked in context.

TUNICK: One of the things that the orchestrator can do with a show to help the score is to provide subtext. We can express what the character is not saying and, in fact, even what the character may not be aware of.

LUNDEN: One of the main characters, Sally, played in this revival by Bernadette Peters, is filled with self-delusion. She still carries a torch for her ex-lover, Ben, even though she's been married to Buddy for almost 30 years. She sings a song called "In Buddy's Eyes" to Ben.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN BUDDY'S EYES")

BERNADETTE PETERS: (As Sally Durant Plummer, Singing) Life is slow, but it seems exciting 'cause Buddy's there.

LUNDEN: Director, Eric Schaeffer, says the song is all subtext.

ERIC SCHAEFFER: For her and that character, that moment is alive. You know, Ben says, how are you? And she says, everything's fine, you know, because of Buddy. And everything's not fine because of Buddy, so this whole song is nothing but one big lie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN BUDDY'S EYES")

PETERS: (As Sally Durant Plummer, Singing) ...the prize in Buddy's eyes. I'm young, I'm beautiful in Buddy's eyes.

LUNDEN: Tunick says his orchestration goes back and forth between a warm sound, soaring strings to emphasize Sally's delusions, and a cold sound, low woodwinds to emphasize her reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN BUDDY'S EYES")

PETERS: (As Sally Durant Plummer, Singing) So life is ducky and time goes flying and I'm so lucky, I feel like crying.

LUNDEN: The last part of the show is a section called "Loveland," where the four central characters expose their own personal follies.

Danny Burstein plays Buddy. He describes him as a tragic figure caught between a loveless marriage and a hopeless affair.

DANNY BURSTEIN: That's what you get for three-quarters of the show from my character and then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the Loveland section comes along and he's able to deliver this wonderful vaudeville comic turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUDDY'S BLUES")

BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer, Singing) Hello, folks. We're into the follies. First, though, folks, we'll pause for a mo'.

LUNDEN: In what's essentially a very entertaining nervous breakdown, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick pulls out all the stops, with rude percussion effects and sliding trombones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUDDY'S BLUES")

BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer, Singing) I've got those God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later blues. That long-as-you-ignore-me-you're-the-only-thing-that-matters feeling.

LUNDEN: Looking back, 40 years after the original production, Jonathan Tunick remembers it as special.

TUNICK: I can think of no score where I was more analytical than this one and, yet, there's also another score where the magic just took over.

LUNDEN: "Follies," featuring Jonathan Tunick's original 28-piece orchestration, opens on Broadway tonight.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUDDY'S BLUES")

BURSTEIN: (As Buddy Plummer, Singing) ...then I gotta'. Give it to me. I don't want it. If you won't, I gotta' have it. High-low, wrong-right, yes-no, black-white.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALES: (Singing) God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later blues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.



This article is filed in: Theater, Performing Arts, Arts & Living

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