Image Entertainment // 1985 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // May 14th, 2004
Hats off, here they come, those beautiful girls.
In 1985, a Broadway legend was born when director Herbert Ross mounted a concert performance of "Follies," Stephen Sondheim's landmark 1971 musical about a reunion of former Follies showgirls. Follies in Concert, available on DVD from Image Entertainment, tracks the production from a few days before the performance until opening night.
"Follies" centers around a group of former showgirls, known as the Weisman (think Ziegfeld) girls, who gather for a reunion in their old theater the evening before it is to be torn down to make way for a parking lot. The women, now much older, reminisce, rekindle old friendships, open old wounds, and perform some of their Follies numbers. Mostly, though, they spend the evening reflecting on where their lives have taken them. The four principle characters are Sally (Barbara Cook) and Phyllis (Lee Remick) and their husbands, Buddy (Mandy Patinkin) and Ben (George Hearne). Both couples suffer in unhappy marriages, and they deal with their situations through denial, deceit, and savage personal attacks. But, as the ghosts of their former selves emerge during the reunion, they are forced to examine the mistakes they have made, the regrets they have, and the roads they didn't take.
Follies in Concert was an attempt to right a past wrong. When "Follies" premiered on Broadway in 1971, critics commended Sondheim and director Harold Prince for treating the musical seriously as an art form, but they found the overall work too cold and cynical. (Their previous effort, "Company," received similar criticism.) Although it racked up seven Tony awards, the expensive production closed after 522 performances and never turned a profit.
The resulting original cast recording of the show was a slap in the face to the cast and crew. A cast album was usually intended to showcase the composer's contribution to the play, but the "Follies" album was a botched effort that included only portions of some songs and omitted other songs entirely.
In 1985, the idea was raised to finally give "Follies" the treatment it deserved. The musical would be performed in a concert venue and recorded and released as a two-album set. The cast of stage greats Ross assembled for the production was impressive: Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, George Hearne, Mandy Patinkin, Carol Burnett, Elaine Stritch, Phyllis Newman, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Liliane Montevecchi. The evening was an overwhelming success, as was the album. In fact, for many people, the album is considered to be the definitive recording of Sondheim's show.
Unfortunately, the program contained on this DVD is not. Despite what the title promises, Follies in Concert does not deliver a complete recording of the concert. It devotes the first half of its running time to the rehearsals, leaving a mere 45 minutes to cover a show that contains a solid 90 minutes worth of music.
How ironic that Follies in Concert commits the exact crime it was intended to rectify. Rather than providing a complete video documentation of a landmark stage play and concert, it mutilates the performances and excludes some of the best numbers, such as "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs." Few musicals have produced richer material than "Follies," but you'd never know that by watching this documentary. The score contains an astonishing number of songs that have become standards, including "Losing My Mind" (beautifully performed by Barbara Cook), "Broadway Baby" (growled by Elaine Stritch), "I'm Still Here," "Too Many Mornings," and "Beautiful Girls." Sadly, you'll find only bits and pieces of them here.
Follies in Concert was originally produced for television, so it's presented in a full-frame format. I won't beat around the bush: This documentary looks terrible. The entire program is grainy to the point of distraction, and the concert footage is unwatchable. The colors bleed all over each other, blacks register as dark grays, and faces are blurred and have no detail. Audio is almost as bad. The stereo treatment is very weak, and the soundtrack is overshadowed by background noise. This recording as a whole is incredibly rough. To be fair, these problems can probably be attributed to the poor quality of the original print. This documentary looked and sounded lousy even at the time of its initial airing.
Although I've griped about the inclusion of rehearsal footage at the expense of concert footage, I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that this footage was fascinating, if for no other reason than it showed the human side of seasoned stage veterans. We watch them flub their lines, stumble through dance numbers, and exhibit genuine anxiety about putting together a major production in a matter of days. It's good stuff.
Technical flaws notwithstanding, the documentary footage included here is priceless. Unfortunately, it doesn't compensate for the badly mistreated concert. This judge can recommend Follies in Concert only to the most devout Sondheim fans. All others beware.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Not Rated