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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

That's another Broadway, baby. But when all three are finally assembled — Maxwell, 52, also got hung up, at a costume fitting — they talk about a subtext of "Follies": survival. Paige's big number as Carlotta, "I'm Still Here," resonates for them all.

"It's about the choices all the women have made and how everyone is still yearning for something else that they haven't got," muses Paige, whose nervy Carlotta is the only character who has managed to remain successful in show business. "Not my character so much, but a lot of them are yearning. That's why [my character] is able to say so triumphantly, 'I'm still here.'"

"Follies is a 1971 musical written about women who came of age between the two world wars, now being performed in 2012. Yet Maxwell believes that the dilemmas faced by Sondheim's women ring true in any time period.

"He writes very strong women, and I don't know exactly where it comes from," says Maxwell, who has previously been nominated for Tonys for "The Royal Family" and "Lend Me a Tenor" and performed in the 2004 Sondheim concert "Opening Doors" at Carnegie Hall. "It's very Chekhovian — these women want something they can't have. The actresses I have worked with on Sondheim have been very grateful for what he does."

Clark compares the wistful women of "Follies" to real friends who came to New York to become stars and settled instead for a more traditional life. "Some married and used that as an excuse to leave — there's some truth that I see in every single one of the women," she says. "And it's quite deeply felt by theater people I know, and probably women in general, because our choices, our youth and all of those things are huge factors in our employment."

Jokes Maxwell, "I think TV and film have a long way to go, but I think the theater is more forgiving, I guess because it pays so little — 'Oh, we're lucky, we got her to do this one.'"

"I think when there are more women directing, they'll have more of a shot," Clark says. "Women writers who are producers make a difference; they decide what's going to go into a script."

In the meantime, these women are happy to realize Sondheim's complex characters, even though they say today's audiences can be a bit intolerant of the unresolved threads in the story.

"This is a musical for grown-ups," says Paige.

Maxwell says, "People get upset about that, because we have gone down to that sort of flat line of very simplistic shows," referring to the happy-ending or jukebox musicals that constitute much of Broadway's current fare. "Relationships are complicated, and sometimes it's very difficult to face that."

As for their own careers — no regrets, even as they acknowledge the struggle to meld their globe-hopping careers with family life. "I don't believe in regrets," asserts Clark.

"Je ne regrette rien," says Paige, borrowing the title of chanteuse Edith Piaf's signature song.

And when it comes to her past, Clark is grateful for those senior moments. "I can't remember my regrets," she quips. "I can't even remember where my coffee is."

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