That excitement was tinged with a thrill of illicit betrayal. Yes, “Follies” was undeniably a big Broadway musical, staged with an opulence that would be unthinkable today. But this tale of two unhappy couples, stalked by the ghosts of their younger selves during a showbiz reunion in the ruins of a once stately theater, was telling me that the optimistic promises of the musical comedies I had been weaned on were lies.
In a cover story that came out a month later — its pictures would adorn my bedroom walls, along with posters of Humphrey Bogart and Vanessa Redgrave, until I left for college — Time magazine enthusiastically (and accurately) described “Follies” as anti-nostalgic, a modern corrective to the cheery, escapist camp of hit revivals like “No, No Nanette.”
Time’s assessment was the opposite of that of the New York Times critics Clive Barnes and Walter Kerr, who didn’t like “Follies” at all. The plot, they wrote, was hackneyed and formulaic. As for the songs, with their homages to styles of showbiz past, Barnes called them a “non-hit parade of pastiche.”
I couldn’t disagree about James Goldman’s book, which felt like a rehash of the best sellers about middle-aged disenchantment I borrowed from my parents. (I already suspected that my future was in criticism.) But the songs stuck with me, along with piercing images of aging performers clinging to a waning spotlight. And I had a vague sense that I would be destined to forever recall this odd and majestic show “like a movie in my head that plays and plays,” to borrow from its script.
In some ways, “Follies” was a perfect match to my adolescent self. My parents had always encouraged me to understand that old people hadn’t always been old, to look for the layers of what they had been. (I was fascinated by the culture of my grandparents’ generation, which meant that references to Brenda Frazier and “Abie’s Irish Rose” didn’t go over my head.)
And part of what I found so affecting about musicals were the differences between their exalted forms and the often ordinary lives they portrayed. (I would restage classic musicals in my head with my friends and family in the leading roles; it made me cry happily.)
What I didn’t get then — and couldn’t have as a teenager — was how the music was the very sound of memory. It was the cleverness of Sondheim’s lyrics that attracted me in my youth. I loved quoting their sophisticated rhymes.