February 18, 2007

Personal "Follies"

Even if you want to (and, of course, I don’t) it’s hard to avoid show business in New York City. Our neighbor, a shrink, remodeled her apartment and has been throwing parties to show it off. We missed the first two or three and so we—me and K, who often takes weekends off from playing in the pit so that we can keep our marriage in working order—went to one of her get-togethers yesterday. We didn’t know anyone but the hostess and so began the ritual “And how do you know So-and-so” overtures that you make to get a conversation going at these things. As the discussion moved to the “What-do-you-do” phase in a group clustered around the hummus, K said that he had just finished playing the Encores! production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. It was, as you’ve no doubt read—or maybe were lucky enough to see—a heart-wrenching production that drew rave reviews and now has the papers and blogs chirping about a possible move to Broadway. And that would be great although I don’t see how any producer can afford to pay its armada-sized cast lead by Victoria Clark, Christine Baranski, Victor Garber, and Donna Murphy, who is already signed up to star as Lotte Lenya in Lovemusik, which promises (threatens?) to be a kind of upscale jukebox musical based on the songs of Kurt Weill. But I digress.

Right after K finished talking, an elegant, white-haired man in the hummus group piped up, “I played Buddy.” And it turned out that he had played one of the male leads in Follies on its first national tour. He regaled us with funny stories about how soon after he’d moved to New York from Pittsburgh in the ‘40s, a grifter had cheated him out of his savings with a ruse about getting him an ad in Variety and how years later he had challenged and, in his telling, won an argument with Sondheim about how a lyric should be sung. And then at the hostess’ request, he started singing show tunes. His voice was creaky at first, but as the rest of us leaned in to listen, his snapping fingers helped him find his rhythm, his tenor began to lift and the showman emerged. I googled him as soon as we got home. He had said, his actor’s vanity apparently still in tact, that he was 88; the internet, that merciless tattletale, says 92. He hadn’t had a big career—a few third leads on Broadway, some small parts on TV variety shows in the ‘50s, a lot of stuff on the road. But looking at the joy and yearning on his face as he performed those few songs, I felt transported back to a time on Broadway like the one the ghosts of the past in Follies evoke, a time when everything seemed possible if you knew the right melody.

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