Bernadette Peters to star in revival of Sondheim's 'Follies' at Kennedy Center

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010

In the most significant "get" for a musical produced in Washington in years, the Kennedy Center has recruited Bernadette Peters to star in its $6 million revival this spring of Stephen Sondheim's widely admired "Follies."

The hiring of Peters, a two-time Tony winner and one of Sondheim's favorite actors, immediately brings more luster to the production and certainly raises expectations that the show will proceed to Broadway. The show, to be directed by Signature Theatre's head, Eric Schaeffer, and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, begins performances in the Eisenhower Theater on May 7 and is scheduled at this point to run through June 5. Tickets will go on sale Jan. 30.

"Follies," originally produced on Broadway in 1971, is regarded as one of Sondheim's great achievements -- some in the theater world consider it, despite some hiccups in James Goldman's libretto, a masterpiece on a par with "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Its pastiche score features some of the composer-lyricist's wittiest, most luminous songs, including the torch song "Losing My Mind" and the soulful ballad "In Buddy's Eyes."

Both of those numbers belong to the character Peters is to play, Sally Durant Plummer, a onetime member of a theatrical company modeled on the Ziegfeld Follies who gathers for a reunion with other former showgirls in a rundown theater. The musical, an elegy to the ravages of time, charts the discord in the circumstances of two couples in souring marriages: lovelorn Sally and her unfaithful mate, Buddy, and radiant Phyllis and cold diplomat husband Ben.

Arriving in the aftermath of the sobering events of the 1960s, the show was viewed as a metaphor for a country struggling with its own disillusionment. It was also singled out for the ingenuity of its staging by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, particularly in the employment of a younger cadre of actresses -- images of the Follies girls' youthful selves -- who sometimes mirror the movements of the older characters.

Peters, who recently replaced Catherine Zeta-Jones in the revival of "A Little Night Music" on Broadway, has long tantalized theatergoers as a possible Sally, a role that was originated by Dorothy Collins and has been played in various revivals by Donna McKechnie, Judith Ivey and Julia McKenzie. In a celebrated concert version at Avery Fisher Hall in 1985, Barbara Cook sang the part. Peters has originated roles in Sondheim shows on Broadway, in "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods" and the 2003 revival of "Gypsy" (a musical for which Sondheim wrote only the lyrics).

Although it is said that Peters had been considering playing Sally in a London revival, she ultimately opted to come to Washington. "We've been working on this 'Follies' production for about four years, and in this process you're always thinking about who you want to cast for these roles," says Michael M. Kaiser, the Kennedy Center's president. "So obviously, Bernadette Peters was at the very top of the list. It adds instant credibility to the production. It's really incredibly exciting for us."

The wooing of Peters got a boost, Schaeffer says, when he met the actress for drinks in New York to discuss "Follies." He informed her that the production would replicate the original, using a full, 28-piece orchestra. "She just lit up at that moment, because how many times do you get to sing these songs with the original orchestrations?" Schaeffer says.

A cast of 41 will be hired for the musical, which ranks among the most expensive theater productions the center has mounted. The design team includes Derek McLane (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes), Natasha Katz (lighting) and Peter Hylenski (sound). The choices of a Ben and a Buddy are of course crucial to the work's success, as is picking an actress for the role of Carlotta, the tough Follies veteran who sings the musical's exhilarating "I'm Still Here." But attention will shift now most intensively to the part of Phyllis. The casting of a big-name actress with both stage and Hollywood credentials is close to being finalized, according to some close to the negotiations.

"Follies," it should be noted, has a spotty record on Broadway. Although the original ran for 522 performances and won seven Tonys, it did not make money. And a disappointing 2001 revival, with Ivey, Blythe Danner, Gregory Harrison and Treat Williams, drew tepid reviews and closed after four months.

It's probably safe to say, however, that few stage actors having a go at "Follies" would generate more anticipatory excitement among Sondheim lovers than Peters. "When you look at Broadway today," Kaiser says, "there are not that many superstars left. And Bernadette Peters is one of those superstars."

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