A Revival of “Follies” Highlights Age Bias in Musical Theater

LONDON—I’ve always been a sucker for musicals. The first musical film I ever saw was “The Wizard of Oz,” which in the U.S. they used to air on Christmas Eve, some sort of propaganda maybe for kids to remember how lucky most were to have a place like home, even if Santa might disappoint them the next day. But musical theater truly grabbed me when I saw “The Sound of Music” at my friend Caryn’s house when I was about eight or nine. The Beta machine had just come out (remember, the one before VCRs), and we watched it twice in a row.

I then ran home to tell my mom about the “new” musical that I just had just seen, telling her excitedly about pretty Maria and the poor children. My mom shocked me when she pulled out two albums—the original Broadway soundtrack with Mary Martin and the film soundtrack with Julie Andrews—and I listened to those records over and over again for months (I still joke that Ms. Andrews was my singing teacher as a child).

The main female roles in the musicals of my childhood–from “Oklahoma” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” to “South Pacific” and “The King and I”– were always stunningly beautiful or wholesomely pretty and they could sing and dance without needing to catch a breath. The men, meanwhile, were mostly musically-talented knights in shining armor who would come in and, after a melodramatic romance of ups and downs or confusions and controversies, would eventually swoop the women up and they would tap dance away into the sunset as the audience burst into applause.

Credit : Johan Persson

For all my interest in women’s issues, it never occurred to me how biased musical theater is against older women. Sure, being in my mid-forties meant that when I take part in musical theater every summer in northern Michigan, I often get roles as the comic relief like the middle-aged secretary (“The Pajama Game”) or the screaming banshee wife (“Oliver”). But in my mind, those “mature” side roles were often more fun to play, though I still figure one day I could land a role as Maria with some good makeup to iron out the wrinkles. Interestingly, and I guess not surprisingly, musical theater seems to have plenty of starring roles for older men (only a middle-aged Captain von Trapp or Henry Higgins could be taken seriously), yet until recently I never realised there were few plum starring roles for older women in mainstream musical theater.

All this was highlighted to me the other evening when I went to see the new adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” at London’s National Theatre. Here’s a production that is centered on the story of aging beauties and it’s been getting rave reviews–maybe this is something many of us have been craving but we didn’t know it.

What makes “Follies” incredible—aside from the funny lines, great songs and feel-good-about-life tap dancing—is the focus on older females as the leads, presented as complex characters who are smart, funny and who heartbreakingly examine their past and present lives through a number of rousing and quippy songs. The plot revolves around a theater in 1970s New York that is about to be knocked down to make room for offices. It was in this theater where for a number of years, Weisman’s Follies (something akin to the Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes) lit up the stage with their dances and songs and now they have come back to see the theater, and possibly each other, for a final time.

Imelda Staunton, who has had roles in everything from “Harry Potter” to “Vera Drake”, takes on the main role of sad Sally Durant Plummer, who is still in love with her former roommate’s husband. Pudgy and wrinkled, she remembers her glory days when she glamorously strutted across the stage with confidence and her future ahead of her.

Credit: Johan Persson

Every time Sally or any of her former Folly colleagues are on stage in their middle-aged or elder selves, the “ghosts” of their younger selves are on stage with them, a reflection of who they were and who they had hoped to be. Dame Josephine Barstow, the 76-year-old soprano, brought the house down as Heidi Schiller, particularly when she sang “One More Kiss” with Alison Langer who plays her younger self. Di Botcher’s (Hattie Walker) comedic turn singing “Broadway Baby” and Tracie Bennett’s (Carlotta Campion) “I’m Still Here” are both equally delightful and heart wrenching. It’s the recognition, through quarter and half notes sung at perfect pitch, that our dreams remain alive though our bodies have begun to fail us.

It was during one rousing singing and dancing number where the younger selves are behind their future selves, both groups tapping their hearts out, that it hit me that I had not seen anything other than young women in starring roles in musicals. While it was a topic I was keenly interested in terms of film and television roles (for example, the issue comes up over and over again whenever Dame Judy Dench has a new starring role, exampled by a recent spate of stories to coincide with her newly released “Victoria and Abdul” or that Reese Witherspoon can play a romantic, if middle-aged, lead in “Home Again”), I just never made the same connection with musical theater. That while I am quick to bash Hollywood for keeping older women out of many juicy starring roles, for some reason I was blind to the same thing happening on Broadway and the West End.

What is so brilliant about “Follies” is not just the music and the dancing, but those themes examining aging, loss and sadness are pretty deep for a musical (I mean, let’s be honest, most musical plot lines are pretty thin soup).  Mr. Sondheim shows us that despite the aches, the worsening eyesight and the spare tire around the abdomen, women still love, still dream, still have hopes, still have crushes, still have desires. Here’s hoping that not only will playwrights and dramaturges be inspired to create more starring roles for older women, but that casting directors might consider a Maria Von Trapp who has to wear glasses so she can tell all those children apart or an Eliza Doolittle who might have a few wrinkles–she did, after all, have to get up early to sell those flowers– as she learns how to enunciate. Bravo to Mr. Sondheim for the reminder that, yes, we are still here.

Ginanne Brownell Mitic

Photos courtesy of the National Theater: 1) Singing on stage; 2) Dame Josephine Barlow at the top of stairs; 3) Di Botcher as Hattie Walker


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