This year, one of the biggest Broadway musicals of the season was staged in New Jersey; the event was the Paper Mill Playhouse revival of James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical, Follies. Through the month of May, trainloads of musical comedy fans from New York, frustrated by the last act of a Broadway season top-heavy with straight plays, made their way to Millburn, NJ, to see the first-ever local revival of the show.
They were not disappointed. The lavish production won standing ovations and a rave review from New York Times critic Ben Brantley, setting off waves of speculation of a Broadway transfer. (As we go to press, producer Roger S. Berlind has announced his intention to bring in Follies, possibly as soon as this summer).
Follies has always been a controversial show, its darkness and complexity making it a real love-or-hate-it item. (Neither the original New York production nor a celebrated London revival paid back their investments). The musical is set inside a crumbling Broadway theatre in the early 1970s. The building once belonged to Dimitri Weissman, a Ziegfeld-like producer, whose Weissman's Follies set the standard for Broadway glamour and excitement between the wars. Before the theatre is torn down, he holds one last reunion for his now-retired performers and showgirls.
Follies focuses on two deeply troubled marriages. Sally, a former showgirl, is now a bored, depressed housewife, sick of her marriage to Buddy, a salesman. Phyllis, once Sally's roommate, is trapped in a dead-end marriage to Ben, a famous author and politician. Sally comes to the reunion hoping to rekindle her lost romance with Ben. Ben, unable to stand the emptiness of his life, leads Sally on. As the party breaks down into a series of ugly confrontations, the theatre comes alive with the ghosts of the characters' younger selves. Past and present collide, leading to a surreal Follies sequence, in which the four principals act out their inner conflicts and darkest impulses.
Follies is, therefore, a kind of dramatized nervous breakdown, in which three or four levels of reality appear onstage all at once. It's also a rich and strange evening in which dramatic scenes of almost Strindbergian intensity mix with lavish production numbers, where bitter arias for the leading characters are juxtaposed with pastiche songs evoking the work of Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, and others. It's a big job for a lighting designer, who has to help communicate the show's many layers of reality. Here, beginning with this production's eerie opening image, in which the ghost of a showgirl slowly promenaded downstage in the dimmest possible sidelight, one was aware that LD Mark Stanley knew exactly what he was doing.
Stanley says the key to the Follies design "was in figuring out how to delineate between the ghost characters and the 'real' people. That was the starting point for everything. Once we got that idea right, from the viewpoint of color and angle, we figured everything else would fall into place." Stanley's discussions with director Robert Johanson also yielded other concepts. "Robert wanted it to look like someone had come in and lit Weissman's party," so the designer flew in an electric with a number of units to provide "party light." Also, "once we hit 'Loveland' [the surreal Follies sequence in Act II], it was important for Robert that a shift take place," to a distinct series of lighting looks, which distinguish this sequence from the rest of the show.
Also extremely important was the show's scale. Michael Anania's set design extended back 12' (4m) behind the normal stage depth, reaching into the scene shop behind the stage. He also designed an elaborate proscenium, which featured practical stage boxes and carved images of showgirls, among other elements.
But, Stanley reiterates, the key was the ghost light, which was, in fact, the first thing the audience saw. As the house lights faded, a series of High End Systems Dataflash(R) AF1000s placed in coves throughout the auditorium began flickering wildly; "it's the moment that the theatre is coming to life and the ghosts are waking up," says Stanley. Then the chorus girl makes her strange appearance. "That was tricky," he says. "In our first meeting, Robert said he was going to have her walk all the way downstage. He said he wanted her to float all the way down. Looking at the set sketches, I knew the wings were going to be full. So we have all these flying booms in the wings, that are tailed down from the electrics--that way, I can get a shinbuster on the floor, but the booms can fly up during the scene changes."
Having established the idea of a special type of light for the ghost characters at the outset, Stanley developed it further, using different color strategies for the play's different manifestations of reality. "The first sequence, when the theatre comes to life, was all Lee 202 [half-correction blue]. For the memory scenes [in which the four principals see their younger selves] I used Lee 161 [Slate Blue] with [High End] Cyberlights(R) dialed in at a darker blue." A third version of ghost lighting took place during the "performance numbers," when some of the aging guests (such guest stars as Kaye Ballard and Liliane Montevecchi) performed their signature songs from the Weissman Follies, and were joined by their younger selves. At these moments, Stanley, working off whatever colors were in use during these numbers, "simply took them to one more level of saturation. These are fond memories, of when they were onstage and thrilling the audience. It couldn't be a chilling, otherworldly light; it needed to be cheerful and rosy."
Furthermore, the designer says, to create multiple levels of reality onstage, "I had to really break down the light plot in both horizontal and vertical ways, so I could isolate the first wing totally from the second wing and the second from the third. I also needed to go left, right, and center--so if somebody was standing to the side, they might be in one kind of light, and someone else at center could be in another kind. Certainly the Cyberlights helped me to do that, and then, of course, we had four followspots, which were essential to making it work, with four principals and their younger counterparts." Stanley also made good use of followspots in the show's biggest star turn, Ann Miller's show-stopping rendition of Sondheim's ode to survival, "I'm Still Here"; he gave the venerable star glamour to spare.
The dizzying complexity of this design became evident in the number "Who's That Woman?" The concept: six of the aging showgirls, including Phyllis and Sally, recreate a number from the Follies; the lyric has a "mirror, mirror" motif which becomes frighteningly literal when the ladies are joined by the ghosts of their youth. The Paper Mill production used Michael Bennett's choreography from the Broadway original, in which the specters were first seen in the background, then stepped downstage and mingled with their older selves, in a stunning juxtaposition of past and present.
Not long after this number comes the "Loveland" sequence. "For me, this is when the energy of the theatre takes over the show," says Stanley. "It is an explosion of color and visual effects, which meant we had to move to another place in terms of color and intensity." The musical number "Loveland," which is written as a parody of a Ziegfeld pageant number, was "the brightest moment in the show." The designers drew their color palette for this sequence from the paintings of Maxfield Parrish, although, Stanley says, "we toned it down a little bit, because if we did it all in 'Loveland,' there would be nowhere to go."
Stanley says that Johanson wanted each of the Follies numbers to stand alone stylistically. The next number is a quartet in which the young versions of Buddy, Sally, Ben, and Phyllis perform two songs, "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" and "Love Will See Us Through," which lay out their conflicts to come. The look of this number was keyed off "Loveland." Next comes "Buddy's Blues," a frantic burlesque turn in which Buddy, dressed like a baggy-pants comedian, shuttles back and forth between chorus girls representing Sally and his mistress Margie. This number also had the hard, bright 'Loveland' look, but Stanley added a number of effects, including spinning purple hearts, created by Rosco gobos in Cyberlights.
The next number, "Losing My Mind," is Sally's pathetic torch song, about her unrequited love for Ben. Anania designed an elaborate setting dominated by pillars; the scene featured a daringly sustained sunset effect created by a battery of amber light coming from stage left. Phyllis' number, "Ah, But Underneath," is a striptease, aided by a line of chorus boys; "it's an old burlesque look, all saturated reds, purples, and blues. There wasn't anything subtle about that number," laughs Stanley.
Finally, Ben appears in a Fred Astaire-style song called "Live, Laugh, Love," which is defined by "a very cool steel blue," says Stanley. "It's R66 [Cool Blue] and some Lee 201 [full correction blue], and some clear as well. Then comes the cacophony, which was a technical nightmare." The cacophony takes place when Ben breaks down during his number and the action turns chaotic, with everyone onstage, performing different scenes and numbers, with members of the orchestra playing different parts of the score.
Stanley admits, "I didn't know how to make it work until I saw it onstage. In fact, the first time we went through it, I was much too subtle. I guess I was trying to maintain some kind of throughline in this sequence. Then, during a rehearsal, some of the cues went totally out of sequence and we loved it. Robert and choreographer Jerry Mitchell pinpointed certain moments and we created specific cues for them. But there's a fair amount of randomness built into it. The timing is down on it now, but some of the scrolling sequences on the portal just happen, and they don't always happen the same time at each performance.
"It's a stage manager's nightmare to call this sequence," he continues. "We wrote the sequence after we cued everything else around it, so everything in the sequence consists of point cues. By then, we're around the 250th cue, so he's trying to get, in a very fast sequence of time, 250.1, go; 250.2, go. Finally, he just dropped the numbers and said, point 1, go; point 2, go. There was no way he could get the cues outfast enough."
Besides lighting the onstage action, the set's elaborate proscenium required a lot of consideration from Stanley as well. "There are 36 different circuits in the proscenium," he says, for among other things, globe lights and heart-shaped lights that are part of the architecture. Also, "there are chase lights, twinkle lights, and lights behind the stained glass cutouts at the top of each box." There are also uplights built into benches at the sides of the proscenium which provide accent lighting on the carving. Stanley adds that besides the 36 dimmers there are also lights hung elsewhere in the house dedicated to treating the proscenium. These are used to light actors in the boxes--at one key moment, for example, Buddy, standing in a box, sees Sally and Ben pledging their love for each other.
Stanley's design made use of Paper Mill's extensive instrument inventory, with additional equipment, including Cyberlights and Wybron scrollers, rented from Bash Lighting Services (the show's complement of High End Systems Intellabeams(R) is owned by the theatre). The show is controlled by an ETC Obsession. "We used an [ETC] Expression 2X for the moving lights, which has a MIDI connection," the designer says. "Now that the show is running, we just hit one go button on the Obsession, which activates both boards."
One of the biggest challenges Stanley faced was simply getting the show hung, focused, and programmed in a short eight days. "The Paper Mill schedule is very intense," he says. "You load in on Monday and you start focusing on Wednesday. The actors arrive Friday night at six. You basically tech through the entire show, if you're lucky, by Sunday night, with all the elements--scenery, lights, costumes, and sound.
"On Monday, you do some work, and Monday night is an orchestra dress. You do some more on Tuesday, then Tuesday night is an invited audience. On Wednesday, you do a little more work, then Wednesday night is your first preview. Since we were depending on the moving lights for many of the looks, we were still programming, doing some fine-tuning, into Thursday and Friday, after previews had started. There are over 300 light cues and, from 6pm Friday until Sunday, you don't do anything but write light cues. You don't get to go back and see the cues run, because you have to keep moving on. The first time you see them is Monday, and"--he starts to laugh--"you don't even remember what you did on Friday. You have to walk into it with a very specific point of view. Laying out the show in advance was one of the more complicated jobs I've ever done, just in terms of thinking each of the details through and making sure I had all the bases covered."
Clearly the effort has paid off, big-time, as Follies is the most successful production of the 10 that Stanley, who works as lighting director for New York City Ballet, has designed for Paper Mill (others include productions of Shenandoah, Call Me Madam, Brigadoon, and No, No, Nanette). "It's a very complex show, from all aspects," says the designer, "not only the difficulty of laying it out, getting the logistics right, but also making sure all the moments are in the right sequence conceptually, and that you've got a beginning, a middle, and an end." Thanks in part to him, a famously troubled musical has acquired a new life.
DIRECTOR Robert Johanson
LIGHTING DESIGNER/DIRECTOR Mark Stanley
ASSISTANT LIGHTING DIRECTORS Jeff Croiter, Renee Molina
PRODUCTION ELECTRICIAN Bill Lynch
LIGHTING EQUIPMENT (22) 6" fresnels (50) Altman 360Q 6x9s (126) Altman 360Q 6x12s (99) Altman 360Q 6x16s (36) Altman 360Q 6x22s (8) High End Systems Dataflash AF1000 strobe units (5) High End Systems Cyberlights (6) High End Systems Intellabeams (3) MR-16s (18) MR-16 EYC ministrips (55) Altman WFL PAR-64s (11) Altman PAR-56 striplights (6) practicals (30) ETC Source Fours 19-degree (25) ETC Source Fours 26-degree (33) ETC Source Fours 36-degree (8) T-3 striplights (101) Wybron color scrollers (9) 4.5x6s (464) LTM 2.4kW dimmers (1) ETC Obsession controller (1) ETC Expression 2X controller (1) Reel EFX DF-50 hazer (4) Lycian 1272 1.2kW followspots