Can you imagine how unforgivably brutal Follies must have seemed in 1971? Vietnam’s on TV, rock rules the radio, movies have gone gritty — the only safe harbor for older audiences is the tin-pan optimism of musical theater. So you settle in for the new Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman show about a reunion of Follies dancers…and are greeted with the most perverse musical in Broadway history.

The showgirls are withered survivors literally shadowed by the ghosts of their younger selves. The marriages of the four middle-aged leads are paralyzed by bile and regret. The entire show holds a liver-spotted looking glass up to the follies of its characters, its medium, even its own audience. Wouldn’t you have wanted to run screaming down the street to see No, No, Nanette instead?

Follies was the first meta-musical, in other words, and it was welcomed as if it were Metamucil. So why does it keep getting revived, in a 1985 all-star concert, a 1987 London production, a 1998 restaging at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, and now in British director Matthew Warchus’ ragged but resplendent version at Broadway’s Belasco Theater?

Simple: Sondheim. Oh, as a culture, we’ve caught up to Follies‘ self-referential doubt — we know a Pop-Up Musical when we see one. But the composer-lyricist-genius clearly cherishes the illusions he’s deconstructing. When the show turns completely inside out for the climactic, Busby Berserkely ”Loveland” section (and the stripped-down Belasco production finally gives in to the temptations of spectacle), it’s not about cynicism or camp: it’s about sadly bidding farewell to an age when singing was believing.

The other reason Follies keeps coming back, of course, is showstoppers like ”Broadway Baby” (sweetly sung in the new production by Betty Garrett, of MGM musical fame), ”Rain on the Roof” (with hoofing legend Marge Champion), ”One More Kiss” (performed by Joan Roberts, the original Laurey of Oklahoma!), and that ultimate paean to survival, ”I’m Still Here” (nailed to the floor, ceiling, and walls by Polly Bergen). The show falters only in the casting of its four leads: Blythe Danner makes a glitteringly jaded Phyllis and Judith Ivey a nakedly needy Sally, but you hold your breath during their musical numbers, praying they’ll make it through without a duff note. Treat Williams captures Buddy’s happy-happy haplessness, but at Off Broadway volume. Only Gregory Harrison’s portrayal of soul-dead success story Ben Stone seems more than pleasant stuntcasting.

See it anyway. For freeze-framing the Broadway musical at the moment it awoke from the dream, Follies deserves its legend; for Sondheim’s gloriously clear-eyed score, it deserves endless revisiting. Just fasten your psychic seat belt — especially if you have your own issues with age or marriage — and get ready to look in the mirror.

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