REVIEW: Follies - 2018 National Theatre


Recording CoverA year after it was recorded, the cast album of the National Theatre’s 2017 production of Follies was finally released last week as a download, with the promise of a CD to come. Given that the production’s greatest strengths lay in the book scenes - director Dominic Cooke moved the show back towards a text that is closer to the 1971 original than the current published script, and got his cast to give an electrifying account of James Goldman’s rather heightened dialogue – a cast recording of this production, while welcome, was arguably not essential, not least because several of this production’s leads, while they gave tremendously moving performances, are (much) stronger actors than singers. Having said that, Stephen Sondheim’s score for Follies is one of the American musical theatre’s great landmarks, and a new recording is always welcome – and while it isn’t necessarily an essential purchase, those of us who loved the production, even if we had reservations about some aspects of it, have been eagerly awaiting it ever since it was announced.

The good news is that it’s worth the wait, although if you’re as obsessed with the show as I am it isn’t going to replace any of the existing cast albums as the definitive document of this score (truncated though it is, nothing could replace the original Broadway cast album, particularly if you’re lucky enough to own a copy of Bruce Kimmel’s stunning 2012 remixed and remastered edition). For a start, if you want every note of the dance music, you’re going to have to look elsewhere; while it’s nowhere near as truncated as the 1971 recording, this album does edit the score so that it fits within the confines of a single CD.

It’s no surprise that Bolero d’Amour is gone, because it was cut from the production very early in previews. Also missing is nearly all of the dance music, which is particularly noticeable in Who’s That Woman? and The Story of Lucy and Jessie. We get more of The Story of Lucy and Jessie here than we get on the 1971 album, though, including the lines from the chorus boys. There’s very little dialogue on the album, although we do get Sally’s lines at the end of the prologue. Purists might consider these cuts an act of desecration; if the 1971 album was the only other recording, that would be fair enough, but completists can always turn to the 1998 Paper Mill or 2011 Broadway recordings, both of which include most of what is missing here.

And this, it has to be said, is a thoroughly entertaining album, even given that (some of) the casting privileges acting over singing. Janie Dee is a real firecracker of a Phyllis, Peter Forbes is a terrific Buddy, and Philip Quast is a rueful, understated Ben. Imelda Staunton’s Sally was a controversial performance among fans of the show, and will be controversial here too; in the theatre, she presented a heartbreaking portrayal of an unhappy, deluded woman sinking slowly into madness and utter despair, and her singing voice was not a happy match for Sally’s songs. Here, she comes across better than you might expect. She may barely scrape the highest notes in In Buddy’s Eyes, but there’s a desolate fragility to her reading of the song that is just as riveting on this album as it was last year in the Olivier (in case you were wondering, she sings it in the same key as Dorothy Collins; Julia McKenzie and Barbara Cook both sang it in a higher key). She sings some of the middle section of Too Many Mornings down an octave, but she does sing all the high notes in the song’s climax, and she sings them accurately (and frankly far more pleasantly than Bernadette Peters managed on the cast recording of the most recent Broadway revival, although that isn’t a high bar to clear). Her Losing My Mind is a startling, powerfully angry interpretation of the song, reflecting a staging in which she acted it as a dramatic scene instead of presenting it as a performance by a torch singer, a choice which made sense given the limitations of her singing voice; if you didn’t like it in the theatre, this recording isn’t going to change your mind, but for me it works better than I expected.

Among the supporting cast, there are standout turns from Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer as the older and younger Heidi Schillers, and their One More Kiss is as glorious on the recording as it was in the theatre. Di Botcher’s Hattie delivers a solid, no-nonsense Broadway Baby, Tracie Bennett’s leisurely, Garland-esque I’m Still Here is (still) a three-act play in itself, and Dawn Hope does a bang-up job of Who’s That Woman?. The orchestra, under album producer Nigel Wright and conductor Nigel Lilley, sounds good but not great, which is largely down to sheer numbers – we do get Jonathan Tunick’s unmatchable original orchestrations, but there’s a band of 21, and that’s basically the minimum number of warm bodies you need to deliver those charts. A few more strings would make a significant difference (and did, on earlier recordings), but at the National, on a budget that would have had to be managed very carefully, we’re lucky they found the money for enough musicians to bring us those original orchestrations (the National’s revival of A Little Night Music didn’t). It’s an odd feature of this recording, too, that while all kinds of little details in the orchestrations come across very clearly, the trio section at the end of Rain on the Roof/Ah, Paris/Broadway Baby sounds strangely muddy, with individual voices getting lost in a sort of aural soup – a pity, because the performers deserve better.

This is a welcome album, then, but not a perfect one. The cuts are understandable, but mean this is never going to stand as a definitive recording of this score. There are recordings of this music where the singing, overall, is stronger. This is a London cast album, so there’s the usual selection of American accents, some of which (let’s be kind) are executed far more successfully than others. It certainly isn’t the only cast recording of Follies you should own. It does, though, manage to communicate some of what made this cast's work so special in the theatre. If you loved the production it’s a worthwhile souvenir, and if you love the material it’s a fascinating supplement to the show's earlier cast albums.

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