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Ever since it was first announced that Stephen Sondheim’s Follies would run at the National Theatre, the hype and excitement from theatre fans across the capital has been exponential. One of the greatest musical songwriter’s best musicals, beloved by many, was to get the treatment it deserves: a huge staging in the Olivier with a cast to boot.
“People have been coming up to me and saying ‘oh my god I can’t wait to see your Follies, it is going to be amazing”, Janie Dee tells me, hot-stepping her way to rehearsals. “There’s almost a threat in that. It doesn’t mean to threaten me but when people say things like that we thing ‘well we’d better come up with the goods’.”
With former Royal Court AD Dominic Cooke at the helm, and fronted by herself and musical theatre powerhouse Imelda Staunton, they will surely have no problem in pulling it off.
Whilst Follies does tell the story of a group of showgirls meeting at their now-dilapidated Broadway theatre, it’s much more than a group of women reliving their glory days. Phyllis’ husband Ben has been sought after by Staunton’s character Sally for many years, and Follies sees that tension bubble over.
“Phyllis is a fantastic woman to play,” Dee says of her character. “She’s been creating a new Phyllis for herself since she was 20. She created that version of herself for her husband, and now he’s almost like a stranger.That’s the thing about Follies, it’s about the glamour and the dancing and the showbiz, but it’s also about the reality of life. It’s all very connected to everyone.”
There’s no doubt that that showbiz element is one of the big draws of the show. With a cast of 37, it will dazzle audiences (if you’ve not got a ticket to be part of an audience yet, extra dates have gone on sale). It can be tough getting into shape for a demanding show like this. Cleanses, diets, no sugar, no alcohol - Dee swears by a golden turmeric drink, her substitute for coffee. But when you get to “fulfil a dream” by dancing on stage with five men - which I’m told is “fabulous” - then maybe it’s worth it.
Though Cooke has been careful with Sondheim’s work. He’s taking the story and the characters seriously, in Dee’s words, “treating the script as you would a script of any play”.
“Cooke has infused the whole thing with a drive and a need to do it. There’s an importance about it. Even though deep down, we know it’s just a show. But to do it at the height of excellence that it deserves and he’s expecting from us. It’s taking everything I’ve got.”
Audiences at early previews were pleasantly surprised to find themselves sat next to their idol, shaking Mr Sondheim’s hand as he enjoyed the show from the front row. But what did the writer, who penned the show in the ‘60s with the late James Goldman, think of this production?
“He said it was the first time that he believed these people were these people. He was thrilled. I asked if he had any notes, he said none on performance. So I didn’t cry too much.”
Dee has performed Sondheim’s work before, in a revue at the St James Theatre in 2014, and a gala concert of A Little Night Music at the beginning of 2015. She says that his awareness to emotion and his ability to pick up on things other’s might not is what makes him such a powerful writer, and why Follies delves deeper under the surface.
“Sondheim has the openness in ones head to receive stuff, and it comes through in the pen. Not everyone has that. He’s been given that gift and he uses that. He writes like nobody else we know. There’s only one.
“He makes us feel more about some very ugly things. There’s some very ugly things in Follies and people go there with him because he leads us there very carefully.”
It’s that care and attention that both writers and the director have given the piece, which the cast have evidently taken on board, as well as the opportunity to hear stand out numbers like "Broadway Baby," "I'm Still Here," "Too Many Mornings," and "Could I Leave You?” at their glorious best that will make Follies one of if not the British theatre events of the year.
Photos courtesy Johan Persson