Follies tonight at New York’s Marquis Theater

Marquis TheaterLife is too short for the eternity of emotions, wrote Alexander Doeblin. And faced with a flashing cursor, it seems impossible to start explaining why certain works of art both wound me and sustain me.

I have never been able to leave my dreams behind: I was to write, to act, to sing, to dance, to do all these things, and I did briefly. My wife looks at me in bewilderment (pity or disgust?) and asks why I hang on to those tired rags. Why I want to try them on again, like an old man trying to put on his wedding tux. I played music too, she says. Okay, but unlike her, I thought that those toys were uniquely mine, and that I would be allowed to play with them to my last day. Because I could have. Perhaps. Perhaps.

But how can you say you wanted those things when you left them so long untouched? Now they fill a museum of carelessness. I embraced others, and I dropped all I held to open my arms to them.

Seeing Follies tonight, there is no way that with my particular history I would not be stung with regret. I knew that going in; I was eager anyway. I discovered the musical the summer of my college freshman year; someone I knew was connected to someone else who was going to direct a version and I was told to leave town, forget college and go audition for it. Nothing of the sort happened; I was collecting what dollars I could to head to school, and a theater company at my college had made a few (somewhat empty, it turned out) promises. I wasn’t going to cash it in just yet.

I never really did. But I studied that musical like it was a map to the road I missed taking, and it was. It’s not even important to consider how little my life would have been changed by that audition; it might have been unsuccessful and once the run was finished, what then? Probably back to school.

But Follies is a musical filled with regrets: some are banished with humor and spit, just ask Carlotta who sings the showstopper, I’m Still Here. But for the foursome who anchor the play, the regrets are debilitating: four crumpled, twisted lives. Saddest of all, two of them decide to act against those regrets, they try to alter their trajectories back to their dreams, and those two are crushed at the end of the play. Their dreams were, as Springsteen famously sang, “a lie that don’t come true, or is it something worse.”

Bernadette Peters portrays Sally, the mousy little thing who turns out to have some grandiose ambitions, and I had misgivings about the casting. But I forgot that Peters is a tremendous actress, and she has proven fearless at such roles; her emotions are as raw and present as any Sally we will ever see. Maybe it’s too much for some; I drank it in as if it could answer the questions I have always had about my regrets, my choices, because for Sally, this one moment is taken as her very last chance. I know in advance that it’s a hopeless gamble; we usually call that tragedy. Maybe that statement’s too much for some too; I don’t give a damn. Four figures are portrayed as misguided, hopeful, shaken, destroyed, and all against a background of a theater reunion, the last night before the theater itself is to be demolished. These four people are shadowed by their earlier, more hopeful selves; both present and past will commingle as we watch the younger four commit the mistakes that will guarantee such unhappiness later.

Frankly, it probably sounds a bit trite like a lot of musical theater, unless you’ve seen it fulfilled by brilliant performers like Peters, Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein. Musical theater is celebrated contrivance; Sondheim’s genius was that by providing ironic back stories to each musical number, the better the characters perform their numbers, the greater their delusions.  We know these contrivances are empty forms, choreographed steps under klieg lights, but the more the characters believe in the songs they are singing, the less in touch with reality they show themselves to be. It’s not a pretty picture of performers, though maybe that’s just how I take the message. I’ve got my issues, as I’ve noted.

This conceit has led to some critical resistance to Follies; the characters are performing song and dance numbers that ostensibly could be part of a “Follies” variety show, and with unusual wit and lacerating irony. The Follies of another time were filled with beautiful girls, smart and sassy characters and all ended well, just like in the movies. For these four, nothing of the sort will happen. In the original production, fantasy won over reality, everyone was made young, confused and hopeful again because regrets so bitter were too much to face.

The new production allows the four to pick up what’s left and stumble out the door. Is it crueler than the original? Perhaps so, their fantasies are sundered along with their lives; the door to the theater slams shut. And that image was one more to add to my own collection of regrets; once again, I walk up the aisle like the rest and away from the theater, nothing more than a paying visitor who once dreamed of partaking in the fantasy on that stage.