Reviewing Sondheim’s Follies

The Art of Staying in Character

Cover image from the National Thetre’s 2017 production of Sondheim’s Follies

I had the pleasure of watching Dominic Cooke’s professional production of Sondheim’s musical Follies this month at the National Theatre in London. As a spectacle and a production it was astoundingly good. The very open set comprised of the skeleton of a full-sized New York building (the Follies Theatre), which was centred on a rotating stage with the audience around the outside of approximately two-thirds of the stage. It meant that we could see everything, and although one room was always the centre of attention, the other players could almost always be seen, especially when the scenes were being rotated.

These were excellent performers both in terms of acting and singing, but with such a lot going on all the time, they also had to be very well directed to know where and when to move as well as what they should be doing. There was one lovely moment where the older performers decided to put on one of their old dance routines and their younger ‘ghost’ selves in their glamourous outfits also danced the routine to the same music. There were many pastiche numbers where performer would either duet with their younger self or the younger ‘ghost’ self would appear in the background strutting as if they were performing the song.  There were also character songs, in which they performers would express their emotions either to themselves (and the audience) or to each other. Again, what made this so impressive was when their ‘ghost’ versions started to listen to the characters and then play out an emotive or nostalgic scene from many years before.  There was an incredible moment, when things got particularly tense, so much so that the older characters started interacting with the ghosts, as if reliving the experience over again.

This brings me to my main observation in terms of performance.  As a member of the audience, I was looking everywhere at the action and was impressed how everyone was always in character. Even when the stage was rotating performers out of sight they would be continuing to dance or interact with their fellow party-goers.  During a song I would find myself distracted by light and movement away from the main characters but this revealed their younger selves watching the performance and strutting as if performing the routine themselves from their heydays.

One final mention has to go to Imelda Staunton, who played the part of Sally Durant Plummer. She gave a heart-felt performance throughout, but at the end of her solo, ‘Don’t look at me’, she maintained a haunted, distant stare throughout the playout music and the applause that followed.  That was the most memorable part of the song for me; it seemed to strengthen the potency of that character in the moment.  Absolutely stunning!

Playing the Baker

A post-production review

Performing the Baker with Teresa Bray as Baker’s Wife and Jemma Brown as the Witch.

The Invitation Theatre Company has completed the show run of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  So, how did it go?

From an overall perspective I have to congratulate everyone involved on what has been a tremendous undertaking and has provided local audiences the opportunity to experience this fairy-tale extravaganza in the intimate setting of the Wharf Theatre. As it turns out, a Sondheim musical requires a lot of dedication both musically and dramatically and a lot of hard of hard work has gone into this production.  Then there’s the set, costumes, lighting and sound effects needed to make this fantasy realm come to life.

This production was a journey all of its own.  The director modified the script considerably, making cuts in order to reduce the running length of the show.  This worked but did mean that some plot or character elements were missing.  The cast was guilty of poor attendance thanks to holidays and other show commitments.  This meant there were perhaps only a handful of rehearsals when the entire cast was available before show week.  Another unexpected issue was that our young performer playing Jack could not legally perform the show for 6 nights in a row.  Luckily, a drama student who had previously performed the role was able to learn it in super-quick time.  Finally, this is a very challenging production musically.  Not only are the vocal lines repetitive but with subtle changes each time, some sections are rhythmically and melodically unpredictable.  For ensemble numbers such as the Act I Prologue and ‘Your Fault’ you really have to know everyone else’s part as well as your own.

How did the part of the Baker evolve? During the final rehearsals the director praised my energy during one scene. That stuck with me.  Playing an Everyman character doesn’t lend itself to putting on any particular character traits but it made sense to me to convey his emotions by engaging with them.  So if he is nervous, provide that nervous energy.  If he is joyful, express that joy.  So in a sense, he becomes a focussed version of me rather than a character of his own.

The Baker, like all the characters who venture into the woods, goes on a journey.  It was important, especially with script cuts, to really show changes in his mood or character during the scenes.  In short order, he starts off relatively content, but becomes nervous and cautious when he starts his journey into the woods.  When he starts retrieving items to make the witch’s potion he becomes emboldened.  This is an important change as the Baker’s Wife needs to see the changes in him by the time they sing the duet, ‘It Takes Two’.

In Act 2, the second journey into the woods turns far more serious.  Again, expressing the part with sincerity and energy are key.  The main change here is showing his dependence on his wife before then having to achieve things without her guiding hand. To quote the character:  “It was my wife who really helped.  I depended on her for everything”.  I really liked developing this relationship and made sure that during Act 1 and the first part of Act 2 he can be seen looking to her for reassurance or moral support.

It was a pleasure to perform such pieces as No-one is Alone, Your Fault and No More.  They are beautifully written songs and it was a treat working with my fellow performers to bring this to life.  Thanks to choreography we were set in our positions and could concentrate on expressing and vocalising the characters.

Verdict Into the Woods is deceptively difficult and requires a lot of hard work and focus to pull off. The Baker is no different in that sense. He requires attention throughout the show and doesn’t really have a lot of off-stage time.  For this reason I’m happy the run is over.  It has been a wonderful experience, one I’m delighted to have had, but now it’s time to leave the woods.

Playing the Baker

I first came across Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods when my girlfriend at that time (now my wife) was a student at the University of Bristol.  The University’s musical society was putting it on in the student union building.  The whole experience was new to me, from the venue to the musical to the composer.  This made the whole experience all the stranger but all the more appropriate because the show itself takes the audience and characters alike off the path and into the woods.

What I discovered that night was a mix of well-known fairy tales characters and plots combining with songs full of clever lyrics appropriate to those characters. Although all seemed wrapped up by the interval, the show then began to evolve into something quite different and unexpected from the usual storybook ending.  To quote the musical:

Into the woods, it’s always when You think, at last, you’re through and then, Into the woods you go again, To take another journey.

I was very excited when I heard that one of my regular groups, The Invitation Theatre Company (TITCo), was planning on producing Into the Woods and I was thrilled to be chosen to take on the role of the Baker.  It is a wonderful ensemble piece, with layers of meaning and character development that makes is quite unlike my previous projects of Bizet’s Carmen and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.

So what is needed in preparing for the role of the Baker?

The Baker and the Baker’s Wife is a fable created by James Lapine for this musical.  They are a typical suburban couple wanting to have a child of their own.  It’s through them that we meet the well-known characters of stories, such as Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and Cinderella.  Unlike these fairy tale characters, the Baker and his wife are relatable, as are their wishes of starting a family.

Character note number 1 – Do not make the character too eccentric; there are wolves, witches and princes for that!  The Baker is the antithesis of these strange surroundings.

As a lead character, he has issues but is not so very flawed as the likes of Sweeney Todd or to a lesser extent Billy Bigelow from Carousel.  The Baker’s issues are to do with having lost his parents when he was young.  From a broken past he is trying to do the best he can. Unfortunately he has become over-protective when it comes to his wife and very afraid when his immediate world is under threat.

Character note number 2 – The Baker has a lot of pride and control issues.

Perhaps because of his fear of the unknown and things outside of his control, the idea of being a father not only excites but also terrifies him.  This is surely in part due to his fragile family upbringing. There is also a major argument where he and the other characters blame each other for an unfortunate string of events.

Character note number 3 – The Baker does not deal well with new responsibilities.

The potential difficulty with the Baker is that he is in danger of not being very likeable and risks alienating himself from the audience.  Happily he does have redeeming qualities, such as his determination to do what’s right and some very caring moments with his wife and other characters.

Character note number 4 – Don’t forget to make him amiable and to smile now and again.  He is human, after all.

So in summary, the Baker is the Everyman character in a fantasy world.  He has issues, as we all do.  He has too much pride, is overly protective and shirks responsibility. But he also has a good heart and loves his family dearly.  His journeys into the woods change him and those around him and he grows as a person because of them.

Rehearsing the scenes with the TITCo crew has been great fun and I can’t wait to go into the woods in June.

TITCo’s production of Into the Woods is on at Devizes Wharf Theatre from 5-10th June 2017.

http://www.titco.org.uk/