By John Carroll
Originally published on Advocate.com January 16 2012 4:00 AM ET
Just when you thought it was safe to go to the theater... I’m baaack!!
Last time I was here, I was in the Broadway show Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Remember that show.... no? Moving on. I am now back on “The Broadway” in the critically acclaimed Kennedy Center production of Follies starring Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines, and Elaine Paige.
It’s amazing. The last show I did was with Patti Lupone and now this show I'm with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Paige. Talk about an embarrassment of gay riches! I spend all of act one in Follies-land playing the 26-year-old boy-toy of Ms. Paige. I get to walk around in a tailor made tuxedo with "The First Lady of the British Musical Theatre" on my arm, dripping in mink and stand on stage with her as she belts out Stephen Sondheim's iconic anthem, "I'm Still Here". Let me just tell you, this English diva is everything you would want her to be and more. She is funny as hell, witty, generous; an all around beautiful spirit and EP can rock a pair of Christian Louboutins like no one’s business! Let's just say, I've had worse jobs.
Follies takes place at the first (and last) reunion of the Weismann Follies before the theater is torn down to make way for a parking lot. All the showgirls and their significant others gather to reminisce and pay homage to the "shoulda-coulda-woulda's" of yester year. At the beginning of the show, the door at the back of the stage opens to fire off a procession of Broadway big shots as they arrive at the party, one by one. Bernadette, Jan, Danny, Ron, Elaine, Jayne Houdyshell, Terri White, Don Correia, Susan Watson, Rosalind Elias, and Mary Beth Peil are all waiting behind the set, gearing up like thoroughbreds before they are off and running through the gate. I am fortunate enough to be backstage, waiting in line with Elaine Paige to enter. It is amazing to see how everyone gets ready for his or her performance. The energy is palpable. It is something quite magical that the audience never gets to see.
When Elaine and I enter, the audience inevitably erupts. I love to tell her that they are actually applauding for me. …cricket...cricket... It usually doesn't go over very well.
From day one Follies has been a magical journey. I mean meeting Stephen Sondheim is the equivalent of meeting the f-ing Wizard of Oz. At the end of our dress rehearsal at the Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., our director, Eric Schaeffer introduced him to the company. Though we had seen him from time to time during the rehearsal process, this was the first time he had seen a run through of our production. Mr. Sondheim made his way to the edge of the orchestra pit to address us all standing there on the stage. We waited with bated breath to hear what the wizard himself was about to say. Musical theater performers wait their whole careers to work with this genius and most never have the chance, so you could image the weight this man’s words have. After our thunderous applause and cheers for him died down, he looked at us all and said, "You all look like you're having a lot of fun."
Um, excuse me...what?
Now, in theater when you see someone whose performance you really did not care for, there are a couple of things you could say. "I saw you up there!" and, "You were on that stage!" are a few good things to tell them when what you really want to say is, "I thought you really sucked," or "It would have been better if the theater had caught on fire."
"You all look like you're having a lot of fun" is probably the worst of the worst. The proverbial kiss of death from S.S. himself. Needles to say he had some notes, we made some changes, and I do believe, the great and powerful Oz is now a very happy man.
There have been so many highlights to this experience. Whether it’s opening the stage door after every show and seeing the crowd of fan’s faces fall as they realize I am not Bernadette Peters, or when I mistakenly thought Elaine Paige was forgetting a lyric to “I’m Still Here,” so I shouted out “Bebe’s Bathysphere!” which in my defense is a line from the song, however a line that wasn’t for yet another three verses. Live theater folks!
However, I’d have to say one of the biggest highlights was the cast recording. I am a Juilliard trained dancer. I am very aware of the talents I bring to the table and a voice that Sondheim would fall in love with is probably not one of them. Being in the recording studio with a 28-piece orchestra, this amazing cast and Stephen Sondheim on the other side of the glass was a “pinch me” moment. Of all the amazing singers I know, the irony that I am the one on a Sondheim recoding is not lost on me. However, I will brag about it to anyone who will listen.
I love my job. God knows I do. However, I wasn’t too overjoyed to find out we had to work on Christmas Eve, Christmas day, New Years Eve and New Years day. I really don’t know who wants to celebrate the birth of Christ or ring in the New Year with Follies, the show about old ladies, dead showgirls, and philandering couples, but apparently, you’re out there.
At first I was pissed that I wouldn’t get to see my loved ones for Christmas, but then I came into work and found that coveted blue box from Tiffany’s at my dressing room station with a beautiful ornament in it from Bernadette Peters. I sat with Elaine Paige in her dressing room as we exchanged the gifts we bought each other and she sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to me with childlike joy. I walked out the stage door after the performance and the endless amount of tourists who seem to occupy Times Square had all but disappeared, leaving the streets empty and quiet. I looked down the streets of the Theater District with all the marquises lit up giving off their own Christmas-like glow and realized I am on Broadway and there really isn’t any other place I’d rather be.
Follies is performed at New York’s Marquise Theatre through January 22. It will be transferred to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles beginning May 3. For more information on John Carroll, visit his website here.