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It's all about the women in 'Follies'

Three of the musical revival's stars — Elaine Paige, Jan Maxwell and Victoria Clark — talk about the Stephen Sondheim show, survival and working with their idols.

May 06, 2012|By Diane Haithman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Jan Maxwell (center) and the cast of the Kennedy Center production of "Follies" on Broadway.
Jan Maxwell (center) and the cast of the Kennedy Center production of "Follies"… (Joan Marcus / Center Theatre…)

Though the 1971 Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical "Follies" puts male-female relationships under a microscope with its probing exploration of unhappy showbiz marriages and broken dreams, most would agree that this show belongs to the women.

"If you think of all the specialty numbers throughout, it really is female-oriented," says Eric Schaeffer, director of the Broadway production opening Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre, which was nominated last week for eight Tony Awards, including revival of a musical. "When has there been a show that has as many leading women and supporting women? There just isn't another show like this."

Because of its opulent sets and costumes and its unwieldy size — a cast of 41 and a 28-piece orchestra — "Follies" rarely receives a full production, Schaeffer says. The Ahmanson Theatre nabbed the Broadway production that closed in January to fill a gap after a planned revival of "Funny Girl" fell through. (This "Follies" originated last May at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.)

And the Ahmanson managed to lure most of the all-star cast, including British musical veteran Elaine Paige ("Cats," "Evita" and "Sunset Boulevard"), Jan Maxwell, Jayne Houdyshell, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines. Only Bernadette Peters is missing, replaced by Victoria Clark, a 2005 Tony winner for "Light in the Piazza."

Despite the pre-Tony buzz surrounding Peters and Paige, it was Maxwell who was nominated Tuesday for a Tony Award for actress in a lead role (Peters will receive a humanitarian award at the June 10 ceremony.) Costars Burstein and Raines also were nominated, both for actor in a musical.

"I'm really happy for the show to get so many nominations," Maxwell says during a rehearsal break after the nominations were announced. "It's been a really great day over here."

Even though this bittersweet story of a reunion at the crumbling Broadway theater that once housed the glamorous Weisman Follies includes a number of complex male characters, the women not only own the stage but they also have most of the show-stopping production numbers: "Broadway Baby,""I'm Still Here"and "Losing My Mind," to name a few.

For this reason, it seems fitting to talk with three of the powerhouse women: Paige, Maxwell and Clark, who is new to the production but not new to her role: Clark portrayed Sally in 2007 in a semi-staged production that was part of New York City Center's Encores! Great American Musicals series.

The first to arrive for this round-table — well, rectangle-table — chat is Clark, 52, who introduces herself as "the new girl" but is brashly unafraid of stepping in for Peters.

"I don't think about Bernadette's performance — I saw it, I loved it, I appreciated it and I'm going to steal a couple of things," Clark says. "But most of it, I'm completely different in every way. It's like being someone's sister. You can have the same parents and look at your sister and say, 'I'm completely different in every way.'"

Besides, Clark says, if you're a veteran stage performer, you can never really be the "new girl" in a group of your peers. Despite her chosen metaphor, Clark has never had any sisters except for the gals in the dressing room, an environment that probably hasn't changed a whole lot since the Depression era, when the fictional "Follies" performers lighted up the stage.

"All bets are off in the dressing room," she says, laughing. "You're changing in front of each other, with clothes flying, crazy stuff happens. There is a very special bond that happens; we've all had that growing up in the theater."

Clark also says that despite her own acclaim and awards she never gets over the awe of seeing her onstage idols backstage, stripped bare of makeup, fancy costumes and pretension. She feels that way about "Follies" costars Carol Neblett, who portrays Heidi Schiller, and Susan Watson, who plays Emily Whitman. "To stand next to Carol Neblett or Susan Watson and here she is tapping her face off — I mean, she was in the [1971 revival of] 'No, No, Nanette'!" Clark exclaims. "She's had back surgery, she has rods in her back, but she seems like a goddess."

The sisterhood thing is probably why Clark deflects the attempt at a polite introductory handshake from the next to arrive — Paige, 64 — even though they'd never met. "Don't put your hand out to me," Clark mock-scolds, embracing Paige in a warmly accepted hug.

Paige is looking chic in a dressy black suit but also a bit flustered at being late. Her GPS had been leading her car away from the Music Center and toward downtown's Orpheum Theatre, where she would later attend the opening-night performance of fellow Britisher Eric Idle's "What About Dick?"

"Why is it telling me Broadway? That's in New York," she complains mildly, admitting that she finally gave up on the GPS and called a production staffer for directions.

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