Synopsis of the Follies Book by James Goldman

Follies by James Goldman Charts How Shooting Stars Fall to Earth

When Stephen Sondheim asked James Goldman to write a book telling the story of a group of showgirls, he knew Broadway would love a tale of stardom. He wanted to explore life after celebrity, and the timeless trope: what it is to fall from the highest pedestal of fame.

Follies, the musical, needed a story which captured the heart of America in 1971. A culture caught in the throes of sexual liberation, Vietnam War political protests, Woodstock, and female emancipation, would never swallow a sugar-coated version of life as a showgirl in the 1930's. This story would need grit.

Sondheim, widely regarded as one of the finest artists to grace musical theatre in the 20th century and today, envisioned social politics, and fine melodies, would form a heady theatrical cocktail.

He was right. Follies received eleven Tony Award nominations in 1972, one year after it hit the wooden boards of Broadway. It won seven of those, including Best Score for Sondheim.

James Goldman Writes Follies Drama

Set in the crumbling Weismann Theatre, a reunion held to honour past shows and ex-chorus stars sees older versions of the young chorus girls arrive, with their spouses in tow. An MC from the original production at Weismann appears, alongside former dancers, writers and hangers-on.

The story centres on the fate of former greats. As younger, spectral, versions of Weismann's guests entertain singing and dancing to tunes of a past era, the older versions explode with stories of regrets and lost opportunities.

Main character Sally Durant, obsessed with living young forever, runs into her old flame Ben, now married to her arch-rival Phyllis. Sally tries to ignite the flame between her and Ben, causing her husband Buddy to ground her down to the embarrassing reality. Since leaving the follies, Sally has been mentally ill and addicted to alcohol, and embodies a theatre has-been. The idealistic Ben, somewhat affected by his trip to the past, and his re-kindled love for Sally, makes everyone question whether he would have been better off with her, and not the controlling Phyllis.

The Story of Follies

James Goldman needed to look into the past to discover how 'follies' performances originated. These live acts, where showgirls dressed in designer glitz, feathered extravaganzas, and barely-there organza outfits, began in Paris in 1869. The theatre, Folies Bergere, meaning Extravagant Shepherdess, was named after a nearby street. The performance art-form now known as 'follies', became so popular, many forgot the name, sourced from quick glance at a street-sign, had ever been anything else.

Follies Transforms During World War I and II

The Parisian version of follies included a lot of risqué plot-lines and full female nudity. A Europe shocked by violence and war in the 1930's needed follies to adjust to its new mood. Conversely, in the USA, naked dance routines were replaced by obsessive costume detailing, with leading producers introducing a form of follies known as the Ziegfeld Follies. USA showgirls embodied patriotism, dance-hall audiences inclusive of men and women, and portrayed innocent beauty in resplendent settings.

Paris, as if in answer, did not remain sober for long. When African-American star Josephine Baker appeared at the Folies Bergere in 1936, this native New Yorker exploded on the Parisian scene, wearing a banana skin skirt, and little else. Parisian fascination with negritude, catapulted this smouldering dancer to the top of the Folies Bergere billings, in stark contrast with the developing Ziegfeld Follies in the USA. America, it seems, was just 'not ready', for full-on feminine and African nudity.

Ziegfeld Follies leads to Weismann Follies

James Goldman alludes to the sanitised American Ziegfeld Follies in his book, creating the Weismann Follies. This play on words, reflects the American cultural assignation to create a 'wiser man's' form of follies, where good husbands aren't led astray through frequenting so-called theatre performances, featuring naked, gyrating, exotic women.

This did not mean that Goldman's Follies presented a perfect showgirl universe. Far from it. When Sondheim shared a New York Times article about former Ziegfeld Follies showgirls, and their lives forty years on, Goldman lit upon a plot detailing the price you pay for short-lived fame. It is a story that continues to strike a chord with audiences all over the world.

Find Follies by James Goldman at your local bookstore.