09/16/2011 09:16 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2011

Regrets... Follies

Considering the thousands of evenings I have spent in the theater it seems odd how often I agonize over the things I missed.

There were, for example, two shows with a girl from Brooklyn (Barbra Something) that were on Broadway in the early '60s, "I Can Get It For You Wholesale" and "Funny Girl," both of which got mixed reviews -- I didn't think I should bother with them. PBS had her returning to one of her old haunts in the Village a few months ago. She assaulted a series of standards with every mannerism in her huge arsenal. None of the songs survived unscathed.

Of all the shows I kick myself for having missed the most upsetting is the original 1971 production of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." I had seen "Company" shortly before it closed. It seemed to have run out of energy, and the book struck me as a collection of sitcom episodes. (It still does.) So, a few months later, when "Follies" opened to mixed reviews I thought I could skip it.

Further, a close friend of mine was cast as the younger version of one of the stars -- when they fired the star, they had to fire my friend as well. Loyalty to him seemed another reason -- another stupid reason -- I should skip it. He saw it three or four times.

Around that time I was reviewing cabaret, and a song I kept hearing was something called "Losing My Mind," which overwhelmed me. Had I bothered to find out where it came from I might have seen "Follies" in that original, inimitable production.

I have seen every local revival since, and I am happy to report that the current one, which opened to ldeservedly triumphant reviews this week, demonstrates, 40 years on, what a profound and original show it remains.

Why are musical theater lovers so obsessed with "Follies?" As a perceptive young editor at the Harvard Crimson wrote during its tryout in Boston, "'Follies is a musical about the death of the musical and everything musicals represented for the people who saw and enjoyed them when such entertainment flourished in this country."

"Follies" is a look backward at an art form that represented innocence at the moment when Vietnam cast its shadow over everything and rendered the very idea of innocence dubious. It is a musical full of ambiguity and irony and an irresistible musical power.

James Goldman's book is about two couples. The girls were in the chorus of the Weismann Follies, which appeared every year between the two World Wars. The boys were stage door Johnnies.

Their early relationships were complicated but they married one another and left New York. Decades later, in 1971, they return to the Weismann Theater for a reunion, the night before the theater itself will be torn down. (One of the inspirations for the show was a photograph in Life of the silent star Gloria Swanson posing glamorously in the ruins of a theater being demolished, a perfect image of a world on the verge of extinction.)

Their reunion revives all the tensions of earlier times, aggravated by the stress of years of unsatisfying marriage. In this production, directed by Eric Schaefer, the book scenes have great sharpness, especially those with Ron Raines as the profoundly unhappy Benjamin Stone, married to the still glamorous Phyllis, played by the radiant, fiery Jan Maxwell. Bernadette Peters plays the pathetic Sally, constantly in mourning for her past, married to Buddy, a kind of likeable shlep, endearingly played by Danny Burstein.

The edginess of their scenes serves as counterpoint to the nostalgic giddiness of the old performers evoking memories of yesteryear.

One reason Sondheim's score is so powerful is that it is full of pastiche of old styles. Parodying -- with deep affection -- these old-fashioned styles enabled Sondheim to write unabashed show tunes, something he would seldom do again. His next show, "A Little Night Music," elegantly parodied operetta. After that he imitated Asian forms in "Pacific Overtures" and ventured into opera for "Sweeney Todd." The next time he returned to a "pop" idiom was "Merrily We Roll Along," a decade later.

There is no end of subtlety in Sondheim's "show tunes" for "Follies," but his music has a kind of openness that makes it universally accessible and appealing.

At times the show seems like a succession of vaudeville turns, as one performer after another steps up to strut his or mostly her stuff. But even the rhythm of this series of "turns" reminds us of part of the Broadway tradition -- the material allows the performer to explode, and then the audience explodes in return. It was a kind of bonding that made the theater experience something special.

Some of these turns are exceptionally powerful, the irrepressible Jane Houdyshell in "Broadway Baby," Terri White in "Who's That Woman?" and the venerable Met mezzo Rosalind Elias in "One More Kiss" (exquisitely echoed by Leah Horowitz as her younger self.) I am of two minds about Elaine Page's "I'm Still Here." She does a boffo job of "selling" the song but it lacks emotional heft.

The plot songs are done with similar force, especially Jan Maxwell's dynamite rendition of "Could I Leave You" and the bel canto serenity of Raines and Peters in "Too Many Mornings." Peters has great vulnerability in "Losing My Mind."

The physical production is simple but extraordinarily effectivve -- Derek McLane has resourcefully camouflaged the banality of the Marriott Marquis theater and provided a dazzling backdrop for the Loveland sequence with which the show builds to a climax. Gregg Barnes' costumes are designed with infinite care, especially the haunting outfits for the ghosts who wander on and off the set. Natasha Katz's lighting casts a spell over everything.

James Moore's conducting highlights all the glories of Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations.

I must confess it is hard to write about "Follies" because as soon as I hear the opening chords I melt. This was no exception. It is good to have this iconic show back on Broadway. Forty years ago it seemed a look backward. But when you listen to the "plot" songs you now see it foreshadows the road ahead, the road trailblazed by its titanic lyricist-composer.