Good times and bum times,
I’ve seen them all and, my dear,
I’m still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I’m here.
I’ve stuffed the dailies
In my shoes.
Sung the blues,
Seen all my dreams disappear,
But I’m here.
Carlotta’s “I’m Still Here” is just one song in a score of great, unforgettable numbers for Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, which San Francisco Playhouse is presenting June 30 – Sept. 10.
Sondheim’s most memorable music and lyrics (book by James Goldman) run through “The Road You Didn’t Take,” “In Buddy’s Eyes,” “Too Many Mornings,” “The Right Girl,” “One More Kiss,” “Who’s That Woman?” and more.
The musical is as grand as the once-palatial theater it now laments. Its music is an encyclopedic representation, recreation, and tribute to the era of Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill, Eubie Blake, Cole Porter, and Noël Coward — and yet it’s all unmistakably Sondheim.
Taking place on the soon-to-be demolished stage of the Weismann Theater, a reunion is being held to honor the Weismann’s Follies shows past and the beautiful chorus girls who performed there between the two world wars.
The theater is now bare scaffolding as the ghosts of the showgirls slowly drift through the stage in spectacular costumes and their present-day selves enter for their “first and last reunion.”
SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English, company cofounder and Follies stage director and set designer, says the musical is perhaps Sondheim’s greatest, “yet it is seldom performed these days because of its technical demands, its requirement for 10 triple-threat leads, and a cast of over 20.
“We humbly aspire to bring you a Follies that captures the show’s genius — and perhaps, in our intimate setting, with only nine rows in the orchestra, we can bring you closer and take you deeper into the hearts of our protagonists.
“Follies is many things to many people. As if to demonstrate Sondheim’s absolute mastery of musical theater, the tunes in Follies effortlessly emulate song styles of legendary composers.
“At the same time, writing in the early ’70s when America was reeling from the Vietnam War, racial violence, and the assassination of our greatest leaders, Sondheim and Goldman are also grieving over our loss of innocence, as we awakened to the lies we told ourselves in the ’50s and ’60s. Many of these treasured chestnuts of the golden era of musicals are satirized as shallow and empty of real value. The irony is that Follies represents both a tribute to the traditional musical and its requiem. Its four protagonists live in delusion, and Follies is a play about how each of them fights their way out of their personal folly, from their own lies into the light of truth.”
When the 50th anniversary of Follies was celebrated in 2021, the renowned New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley recalled his introduction to the work:
“My very first Broadway musical, a form of entertainment I regarded as a religion, was about to begin. The lights went down in the cavernous Winter Garden Theater. It got dark, which I had expected. It stayed dark, which I hadn’t. The stage was flooded in shadow, and you had to squint to make out the people on it.
“The grand orchestral music seemed to be eroding as I listened, like some magnificent sandcastle dissolving in the tide, as sweet notes slid into sourness. This was definitely not Hello, Dolly! or Bye Bye Birdie or Funny Girl, whose sunny, exclamation-pointed melodies I knew by heart from the original cast recordings.
“I didn’t know what had hit me. I certainly didn’t know that it would keep hitting me, in sharp and unexpected fragments of recollection, for the next 50 years.”
SF Playhouse Cofounder Susi Damilano tells the company’s history with the musical:
“Doing Follies now, versus when we originally scheduled it two years ago, has seen our production grow exponentially in its complexity and depth. It was already going to be challenging. It is a huge cast (for us) of 21, plus a band of seven, incredible costumes, a moving set, and a cast filled with triple threats. It’s no wonder that we will be the first professional production of Follies in San Francisco. Add the pandemic to the mix, and one might wonder if we’ve lost our minds.
“Our staff, from box office to accounting to production and everyone in between, is working harder than ever. We needed to convert our production office into added dressing rooms, we’ve rented a second rehearsal space for choreography, we are tested 2 to 3 times a week for COVID prevention, and rehearsals are simultaneously in person and on Zoom.
“Now, despite the pandemic, we are moving forward. Maybe it is a bit crazy, and maybe we should have chosen a smaller, less risky show, but that’s just who we are, crazy and willing to take risks.”
English sums it up:
“Surreal, sophisticated, compelling, heart wrenching, and epic in scope, this legendary masterpiece uses the musical theater as a metaphor for the collapse of American innocence and naivete.”
Natascia Diaz as Sally Durant Plummer
Samantha Rose Cárdenas as Young Sally
Maureen McVerry as Phyllis Rogers Stone
Danielle Cheiken as Young Phyllis
Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Buddy Plummer
Chachi Delgado as Young Buddy
Chris Vettel as Benjamin Stone
Cameron La Brie as Young Benjamin
Cindy Goldfield as Carlotta Campion
Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as Hattie Walker
Jill Slyter as Solange LaFitte
Caroline Louise Altman as Stella Deems
Louis Parnell as Dimitri Weismann
Frederick Winthrop as Roscoe
Eiko Yamamoto as Emily Whitman
Rene Collins as Theodore Whitman
Emily Corbo as Ensemble
M. Javi Harnly as Ensemble
Anthony Maglio as Ensemble
Catrina Manahan as Ensemble
Ann Warque as Ensemble