A week ago, I saw a sumptuous revival of Follies, the 70’s musical about shattered mid-life illusions. Sondheim described the show as being about “the death of the dream.”
The story captures a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre. There, actors who had performed in Weismann’s Follies — a musical revue that had enjoyed a successful run between the wars — meet again one last time before the theatre is demolished. It focuses on two couples: Buddy and Sally Durant Plummer and Benjamin and Phyllis Rogers Stone. Sally and Phyllis were showgirls. Both couples are unhappy with their marriages. Buddy, a traveling salesman, is having an affair with a girl on the road; Sally is still in love with Ben, and Ben is so self-absorbed that Phyllis feels emotionally abandoned.
Amidst this dysfunction, several of the former showgirls perform their old numbers.
In the Kennedy Center revival, Sally is played by Bernadette Peters and Buddy by Ron Raines. Both Peters and Raines are actually 63 years old. But Sally in the script is described as 49 and Buddy in his early 50’s. Having these two leads played by actors in their 60’s bothered me a bit since I think most of us by the time we get into our 60’s are not consumed by the midlife angst that is the centerpiece of Follies. The plot is depressing enough as is, but it would be even more depressing to think that a couple in their mid-60’s was still struggling with these issues.
All of which reminded me that for most of us 60 and older are blessedly released from most of the career and relationship turmoil we struggled with earlier. Thank god for growing older, wiser, and happier!
This revival brings together some of the best-known actresses in musicals today. In addition to Peters, the cast includes Jan Maxwell, Elaine Paige, and Linda Lavin. But I was thrilled that the biggest
ovation came after the “Who’s That Woman” dance number, which featured Terri White, a black lesbian who endured a period of homelessness in 2008. White had some Broadway roles in the past, but in recent years she was primarily a night club performer.
In contrast to the bleak plot of Follies, White’s triumphant story of overcoming adversity is inspiring. Here’s how the New York Times told the story:
In the summer of 2008, Ms. White, 61, could not make rent. She was evicted from her apartment of 14 years, after a breakup with a longtime girlfriend. She could not work. She also could not find a way to ask for help. For three months, when she was not crashing on a friend’s couch, she slept in Washington Square Park.
Severely depressed, she was too proud to reach out to social services, and kept the extent of her problems from friends. “Most of them are barely getting by in their tiny apartments as it is,” she said. “People in New York, they need their patterns. You can’t interrupt them.”
To avoid the police, Ms. White usually alternated sleeping for an hour with walking for an hour, which is what she was doing when she ran into Officer David Taylor on Grove Street at 4 a.m. one day last fall. Officer Taylor had come to know Ms. White when he was patrolling the West Village. He admired her energy, and, off-duty, came to see her perform. He had never seen her looking like she did on Grove Street. “She is usually someone who lifts your energy if you’re feeling down,” he said. “That night she looked soulless. I was concerned for her — scared.”
Officer Taylor made a few phone calls. A friend in Jersey City had a place with a basement apartment no one was using. Ms. White moved in the next day, rent-free. She got herself back into the mental shape to take advantage of opportunities that came her way. An old friend in the Florida Keys invited her to perform at her nightclub, and another friend bought her a plane ticket.
In Florida, she met Donna Barnett, a stately 62-year-old jewelry designer — and, like Ms. White, a cigarette fiend, a fan of road trips and musicals and Maker’s Mark. The two fell in love, and moved in together. When the call came for an audition for an Encores! concert performance of Finian’s Rainbow (a predecessor to the Broadway production), Ms. Barnett paid her airfare back to New York. After months of coming close, but ultimately hearing “No thank you” — she auditioned nine times for “Chicago” — Ms. White landed the part of “Finian’s” Dottie.
Then last year she got the role of Mama Morton in the long-running Broadway revival of Chicago. And now she’s bringing down the house in Follies. THAT story deserves a standing O!