Center Theatre Group has delivered a remarkable jewel to Los Angeles. Watching the profound effect this production ofÂ Follies had on the opening night audience at Ahmanson Theatre, it was worth noting that the music and lyrics””favorites among Sondheim aficionados””and the complex, intelligent and moving book by James Goldman were written more than 40 years ago. The Broadway version of this revival recently received eight Tony nominations””the only surprise is that it didn’t receive more.
The red-carpet celebrities I interviewed mostly fell into the categories of major fans or newbies who had never seen it. But Annie Potts (most recently of ABC’sÂ GCB) is a different yet equally fierce devotee. “I’ve never seenÂ Follies but I know every word of every song by heart, so I’m very excited. Boy, would I love to do a musical!” Aware of the song that poignantly raises questions about “The Road You Didn’t Take,” Potts reflected on her own choices.
“I wonder about every one of them. If it wasn’t a smashing ‘wow!’ I say, ‘Oh, I know why I did that and why it was necessary.’ There are also the few embarrassments, but in this profession you don’t always have the ability to make choices, especially when the choice is whether or not you can pay the rent. I have three children and tuition and mortgages to pay, so I’ve done what I had to do. And for some I held my nose, but most of them I jumped into with glee.”
Potts enjoys a successful television career but still appears in small Los Angeles theaters (last year inÂ AfterMath at the Odyssey and the Matrix). “My children are grown now, so I’m free to do that. Theater was always my first love, and it’s such a pleasure to have tucked away a little money so I’m able to do it.”
The excitement heard to my right was provoked by the appearance of Matthew Morrison, the handsome star ofÂ Glee, who posed for photos with his stunning date, model Renee Puente.
Actor-writer-comic Robert Wuhl (Arli$$) arrived and said, “I never saw the show but came tonight because I like musicals and most of all because my friend Danny Burstein is in it [in the role of Buddy], and we just found out he was nominated for a Tony. I’m very excited for him.” Asked a question about “roads taken,” Wuhl replied “Every road affects you and the decisions you make depend on so many things”¦the material”¦your financial situation. I’ve been fortunate to work on some very good projects with some very good people. I think, ‘good luck’ are the words I’d use.”
I mentioned that I had been talking to Floyd MutruxÂ (Million Dollar Quartet, Baby It’s You) when Wuhl’s name came up. “Oh, God. How do you know Floyd?” I’m in a workshop of his new musical,Â The Boy From N.Y.C. “That’s great. Please, give Floyd my best. He is one of those people who gave me a break””my first job ever, The Hollywood Knights (with Michelle Pfeiffer and Tony Danza). That was his movie, and so I always try to thank Floyd.” Well, if he reads this column, you just did.
I heard a distinctive laugh and knew it could only be Jo Anne Worley, whom I’d met at a recent dinner party given by director-producer John Bowab. SheÂ saw the originalÂ Follies in New York on Broadway and several productions since then, she told me, and she alsoÂ performed it “back in New York.” Which role? Worley smiled and belted out, “”˜Who’s that woman? I know her well.’ I did that part.” After namingÂ Follies as her favorite Sondheim show, she backtracked and added, with a laugh, “To be fair each one is different, but usually my favorite show is any one I can do.” Any regrets? Worley smiled ruefully. “You know, I was asked to understudy inÂ Sweeney Todd years ago, but I took a road company of something else instead. I wish I had stayed and done it. That’s one of those things I regret.”
Tony winner Kevin Chamberlin said he’sÂ a major fan ofÂ Follies. “I’ve seenÂ Follies many, many times, and every single time I understand it more. Both Danny [Burstein] and Jan Maxwell [who plays Phyllis] are good buddies of mine””also Jayne Houdyshell””so I’m here to support them but I also think I’m a cult member of the show. I saw the Kathleen Marshall [-choreographed] production when I was about 10 years into my career, and now I’m 25 years into my career, and you know that metaphor of the crumbling theater? Well, we start to feel the same as the body falls apart. You look back at your past, look at the things you’ve done wrong and done right. The show has so many themes it’s like a Rorschach test””an inkblot that lets you see what you want to see in it.” Chamberlin added that his current TV series,Â Jessie, is “number one on the Disney Channel, so I’m looking forward to about four years of good TV work. And, next week I’m doingÂ Opus, a play at LA Theatre Works.”
After the show received mini-standing ovations and bravos throughout for many electric performances, the final curtain was greeted with cheers, and we were ready to party at McCormick & Schmick’s downtown restaurant””which I’m beginning to think of as our Los Angeles Sardi’s. It has a beautiful long bar and lots of buzz at surrounding tables, along with private little seating areas and booths. Oh, and did I mention the superb food and yummy deserts?
CTG’s artistic director Michael Ritchie glowed. “I saw the show in New York on the night I found outÂ Funny Girl wasn’t going to happen for us. It never dawned on me thatÂ Follies could be a replacement because the timing wouldn’t work out. I was seeing it because I needed to see a great show and it worked. I was so drawn into that story, I forgot I still had a big problem I had to deal with when I got outside the theater.” After aÂ laugh, he continued, “When it was over I remembered my problem, but this couldn’t be the solution, because we were scheduled to start rehearsals in three weeks forÂ Funny Girl, andÂ Follies was running in New York for another two months. Eventually we were able to shift things around by movingÂ Fela! into theÂ Funny Girl schedule and holding their slot for Follies.” Ritchie took a deep breath and explained how, when the switch was official, he felt, “Pure relief”¦and maybe a touch of joy”¦maybe, a touch.” Grinning happily, Ritchie added, “Tonight was magical.”
A huge reason for enchantment was the work of director Eric Schaeffer. We found a quiet corner to chat as Schaeffer described his approach to helming this iconic show, originally directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett. “When we started, I said I wanted it to be haunting and real. It’s easy in a big show like this to go for the splash, and I just wanted to go for the heart and emotion of it. When you look at the script, there is hardly any written stage direction. For me, that was freeing because I could say, well, why don’t we try this?
“I knew I wanted the ghosts to be a big presence in the show and connect with their older selves as they entered the theater. Some ghosts who didn’t have anyone were just searching and wondering, is mine going to show up? There are almost three shows going on at once. You have the old reunion, the ghosts doing another show and then the young kids doing a third show. Layering all those elements is what was exciting to me.” Schaeffer has a warm personality and laughed with delight as he recalled, “In the rehearsal room it was interesting to be there with 41 people. I put all the ghosts in pink t-shirts so I could tell who was who because in the beginning, as you’re pulling it together, you suddenly look up and think who is everybody?”
Many of the “everybodies” mentioned are somebodies who starred on Broadway in big hit productions. Was Schaeffer part psychologist? “They were all great. You know we did the best thing on the very first day of rehearsal. I had the women tapping for two hours. (His leading ladies all tap dance in “Who’s That Woman”). All of a sudden the playing field was level. We were in this boat together and never had egos in the room. It was so refreshing.”
What about his work tonight makes Schaeffer particularly proud? Again accompanied by a laugh,Â “I think, just that we got it up and mounted. The show is never done like this because you need major resources to really mount a complete production. I’m thrilled with the entire company from the design team to the cast. It’s great when you work on a show and everyone is “˜doing’ the same show. That doesn’t always happen, but from day one we were all so passionate about it. It invigorates you.”
Schaeffer also directed the completely different Broadway rock and roll musical,Â Million Dollar Quartet. He often travels to check on the current tour and will return to Los Angeles in June when it opens at the Pantages.
I was told Deborah Scott Studebaker, the daughter of Dorothy Collins, who originated the role of Sally inÂ Follies in 1971, was at the party. I had been in a show (On A Clear Day) with her mother, so we met and reminisced. “Yes, she toured a lot back then. I was 17 when I sawÂ Follies from Boston to NY to LA. I think I saw it 26 times. When you’re 17 you think you “˜get it’ but 40 years later you see it differently. I didn’t remember the ending or how it got resolved so I was really struck by the first act. I felt Ben did love her. Then to watch her unravel in the second act, I got a whole different perspective.
“The way Jan Maxwell played Phyllis was different compared to Alexis [Smith, in the original production]. Alexis was brittle and cold and divine but in this performance you could see how Sally and Phyllis would have been friends and roommates. I never really got that in the original. My mother and Alexis had such different personas. Also, Victoria [Clark] had a very different take on what my mother did and I loved it. I’ve seen a lot of versions of ‘Losing My Mind’ over the years. Her whole performance was rich and real. I loved watching her.”
I stopped Ron Raines as he was leaving the buffet table. He graciously followed me to a corner where I spoke my praises and asked about aÂ Follies I heard he did in 1988 at the St. Louis Muni Opera with Juliet Prowse and Nancy Dussault. “Yes, yes. Oh, I really wasn’t old enough to play Ben. I think I was about 37 and I’m 62 now. I fell somewhere between Younger and Older Ben”¦really in the middle. My Carlotta was Edie Adams. Isn’t that amazing?”
Has the show changed over the years or do we just see it differently as we get older? “A lot of people, grownups, who saw the original and are still with us said it was incredible — costumes, scenery moving around — but the story got lost in the production. This one is not about sets but about the people. Plus, when you’re older it resonates differently. We’ve lived our lives. We’ve seen other people’s journeys, similar or not.
“The role and the show stayed with me. It hits everyone differently, even young people. The 70-80 year-olds get another point of view because they are looking back. Those in the middle are maybe married to a Ben or a Phyllis. That’s why this is great theater. When it’s over you discuss it.”
And how does he feel about “the road” in the lyrics of the song he sings? “The song mentions the road you didn’t take. I don’t have many “˜what ifs’ but I know people who do”¦ a lot of type A guys like Ben who are driven that way and for all the wrong reasons.” How did you avoid that? “I made some bad choices along the way, but they weren’t life choices that took me down a whole other path.” What was your best life choice?Â Raines smiled warmly. “Marrying my wife Dona when I was 36. You know when you get that in life, when you get your priorities set, then better choices are made. I was lucky. We are going to make a lot of mistakes, but you just hope they aren’t major ones that negatively change the path of your life.”
Raines did the show on Broadway with Bernadette Peters as his Sally and now Victoria Clark is playing the role. Could he be specific about the differences between the two ladies? “Well, they are totally different and that brings out different responses to me. They’re both terrific. You know Victoria has only done a few performances, but Bernadette and I did over 200 shows together. I told Victoria “˜you’re brilliant, you got it’. The biggest difference is Bernadette is much shorter, so the kissing thing”¦” He chuckled and indicated, “Bernadette comes up to here”¦now that’s pretty specific!”
Do not miss this memorable and very special evening — at the Ahmanson through June 9.
CHAT CITE: “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” Edward Gibbon
***All photos by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging