The much talked about star-studded revival of Follies opens tonight in NYC. I'm expecting mixed reviews, which is par for the course with this show. As beautifully scored and written as it is, it's a bear to perform and do just right. It's designed to be played as a one act show. However, it's hard to force an audience to sit through two-plus hours of a show like this. The Drowsy Chaperone and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee got away with it because they were over the top comedies; Follies is much darker than that. So, Follies is normally played in two acts, but that means cutting off the action right when it starts to build toward the finale. That's not even getting into the technical demands on the singers and dancers for the show. If I had to pick a signature song from Follies, I would say it would have to be "I'm Still Here." It's an anthem of determination that fights against having a definitive anthemic quality until the final few moments. The song is standard in cabaret and review settings for a good reason: it's brilliant. It's a perfect showcase for the right kind of singer.
In the context of the show, former Weismann's Follies performer Carlotta explains that "I'm Still Here" was her one solo number during her time with the show. Unfortunately, it was cut for being too funny when the producers wanted a serious song. Now, the song works better for her. It's a nice moment for a character who, up till that point, is trying to get someone--anyone--to pay attention to her role in the cast reunion.
The song was originally performed by Yvonne De Carlo, who you might better know as Lily Munster.
Unfortunately for historical purposes, Yvonne De Carlo developed a bad reputation for rarely singing this song correctly all the way through. She'd transpose lyrics or completely flub up the song. It would have helped if the song wasn't constantly shortened for recordings and appearances she was invited to. The original cast recording is also an abridged version of the song.
What's interesting to note here is how slow the song is performed. It's a long song with a lot of repetition before it hits the more recognizable final moments. Originally, the production allowed Carlotta to really milk her one solo song in the show. Slowly but surely, the tempo was pushed to make the song seem a little shorter. Even this is faster than the song was originally performed. That's a shame. It's Sondheim. You have to catch the lyrics.
The song "I'm Still Here" is almost a memoir of the performer's life. It's a clever list of things she has gone through--good and bad--that allow her to still be performing at this point.
I've stuffed the dailies In my shoes. Strummed ukuleles, Sung the blues, Seen all my dreams disappear, But I'm here. I've slept in shanties, Guest of the W.P.A., But I'm here.
She knows that she's not the biggest star, but she's doing what she loves to do.
I've gotten through "Hey, lady, aren't you whoozis? Wow! What a looker you were." Or, better yet, "Sorry, I thought you were whoozis. Whatever happened to her?"
As an actor, nothing hurts worse than being mistaken for another performer. Nothing.
In 1985, Carol Burnett had the opportunity to show off her more dramatic chops in an acclaimed concert staging of Follies in London. It was recorded on DVD with rehearsal footage and interviews and even played a two-night engagement at Lincoln Center in NYC. While Burnett isn't the best singer to perform this song, she acts it so well you hardly notice any shortcomings. It's a great acting performance.
If you recognize the song but can't place why (and aren't a big theater person), you probably recognize it from Shirley MacClaine's performance in Postcards from the Edge. Note the changed lyrics to the song. Stephen Sondheim himself rewrote it for use in the film. He's very flexible with his own work if you ask for his advice. Key changes? No problem. Cuts? Why not? New lyrics? If they fit, not an issue.
2001 saw the first Broadway revival of Follies. Polly Bergen gives a Tony-nominated performance as Carlotta and she was extraordinary in this show. She takes the song and turns it into a conversation with the other people onstage. Her Carlotta isn't performing the song like she's reliving a lost moment in a show. She's living it. While that is the context in the show, it feels like Bergen isn't even winking at the audience that she's performing. It's a great interpretation. And note the key change. She doesn't have or need the high notes to make this a showstopper. The song stands up without the high belt at the end.
And now, famed theater performer Elaine Paige will be taking on the role eight shows a week on Broadway. She originated the roles of Eva Peron and Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Weber's Evita and Cats. Paige makes a brave choice in her interpretation of "I'm Still Here," almost screaming out the end of the song as if she's desperate to stay no matter what. It's not going to appeal to everyone. I think it's a brave choice.
In conclusion, here's Sketchy Details' favorite Eartha Kitt killing this song at the Oliver awards in the late 1980s. She was a replacement Carlotta in the 1987 West End revival. This is the type of role she always did well with onstage. I love her so much.
Anyone have tickets to Follies yet? I'm waiting on my monthly stipend for some theater work to kick in to even consider ordering tickets. Even then, I think I'm hedging my bets on budget seats to Lysistrata Jones. Something tells me that will be gone by Valentine's Day if it makes New Year's. Sound off below.