Tom Sutcliffe finds hope as the leaves fall

In April 1972 I was in New York, attending the Met Gala celebration of the retirement of Rudolf Bing, which I reviewed for the Guardian a year before landing a job there. I also caught the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Winter Garden Theatre, having seen his previous musical Company in London a few months earlier.

Follies was a wonderful Hal Prince and Michael Bennett production, with the latter’s typically inspired meaningful choreography that a few years later was the heart of A Chorus Line. Follies showed a reunion in a Broadway theatre about to be torn down to make way for an office block. The guests were all mature stars who had worked “there” for Dmitri Weismann, and included two main couples with their stage-door Johnnies – whose not so happy marriages were the real business. The songs were all bitter-sweet evocations of the about-to-vanish world of Ziegfeld Follies and showgirls, Variety and Vaudeville, and the reality of the lives led by ill-paid Broadway gypsies satisfying a public appetite for glamour and fake romance and the charm of scantily-decked-out lovely ladies – though American taste was not as frank and lewd as Paris’s Folies Bergère.

While in New York I also sampled the extraordinary Easter Pageant at Radio City, a kind of fashion show with choreography on an enormous scale. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock Jesus Christ Superstar was running in London, but Broadway still felt it was king of the musical comedy genre. Sondheim’s Follies originally ran for almost two years, and lost all its money. I thought both the songs and the whole show, with its superbly eye-catching dance numbers, were brilliantly perceptive, exciting and absorbing. The “intelligent musical” only became horridly successful in the hands of Lloyd Webber, Sondheim’s nemesis, who knew how much sugar to add to the recipe. Sondheim as poet on Bernstein’s sublimely moving and touching West Side Story did not rain on the parade, but lyricised with exemplary genius.

So, how did Follies at the National Theatre and on tour live up to my happy memories of its famed Tony-winning original? To start, with the pseudo-Greek amphitheatre of the Olivier cannot do intimacy, and the famous distinguished cast in Dominic Cooke’s staging (including Imelda Staunton and English opera star Josephine Barstow) does not belong in the world of theatrical “Follies” – or own the heritage of the American entertainment industry in all its fading commercial glory, which was the stuff of the original cast (Yvonne de Carlo, for instance, singing “I’m still here”). The choreography is a bland ghostly show, with none of Michael Bennett’s touch. Hal Prince really was a great director who created many Sondheim partial-successes; but Cooke is not.

What the National’s Follies offers is hard-working “performances” – and very little emotional authenticity or conviction. Reviews have been amazing; but then they always are, with these Brexit days requiring endless reassurance that we Brits are still great at anything. The public cheer roundly and long at the end. But really this testing, unusual and, yes, brilliant material is as foreign to our current West End as Ivor Novello would be. Sondheim is now a cult, propelled by his inescapable and sad recycling of his continuing deep discomfort over his parents’ broken marriage. If only he could help us laugh at human tragic folly the way Feydeau farces do, the way Shakespeare, Molière, and great operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Handel, Mozart (whom Sondheim says he does not get), and even bitter Ben Britten do.

I was depressed to find that David Storey, late brilliant author of The Contractor, Home, In Celebration and The Changing Room, was just as guilty as Sondheim of fuelling his creativity with family wounds and grizzles in his moping late play The March on Russia (an irrelevantly intelligent title if ever there was one) at the Orange Tree, Richmond. Lindsay Anderson’s delicate direction of the play, when first seen at the National, somehow made it seem less sour and contrived. Sondheim and Storey’s reserve and cleverness would have been better served by more of crazy Strindberg’s overflowing fury and energy. The acting was well up to high Orange Tree standards, especially that of Ian Gelder and Sue Wallace. But some problem works require genius to make them bloom.

At The Grange in Jane Austin’s rural Hampshire, Jonathan Dove’s newly orchestrated Mansfield Park showed its composer’s consummate touch – a bit too much blend in the first half of Sondheimish curlicues and minimalist repeats, but settling down to opera’s task of moving characterisation through properly delivered confessional-song as the second act wore on towards Fanny Price’s happiness with clerical Edmund. Michael Chance’s takeover of the summer opera theatre bequeathed to Lord Ashburton by Wasfi Kani is already bearing the rare ripe fruit of an autumn new work premiere that sells out and truly appeals. David Parry conducted with typically abandoned drive and freedom. The cast of – mostly – newcomers to the opera business was wonderful: especially Martha Jones and Henry Neill as Fanny and Edmund, but also Oliver Johnston’s perfectly registered Mr Rushworth. The staging may have been a bit simplistic and mechanical; but the acting and singing made up for that. Opera needs more public money as well as new works, but judging by this its future (especially at the Grange) is bright.