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Janie Dee On Returning to Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ at the National Theatre

5 April 2019 by Matt Wolf
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Second time round has proven to be the particular charm for the National Theatre’s glorious revival of the iconic 1971 Broadway title “Follies,” by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman, which opened 18 months ago in the Olivier Auditorium, gathering awards and acclaim in its wake. After a nearly yearlong hiatus, director Dominic Cooke’s production has returned, partly recast and with its original cast members in mightier-than-ever form.

That’s truer of no one than the show’s Olivier-nominated Phyllis, Janie Dee, who brings a stiletto-sharp wit to the part of the waspish Manhattan sophisticate trapped in a faltering marriage who gets two of a fabled musical’s defining numbers – “Could I Leave You” followed soon after by “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.”

“It feels like all my Christmases have come at once,” smiles Dee, interviewed  backstage following a recent public conversation about the show in which she was joined onstage by her three co-stars, Peter Forbes (Buddy), Alexander Hanson (Ben), and the extraordinary Joanna Riding (Sally). (Riding first appeared opposite Dee in the National’s landmark 1992 revival of “Carousel,” for which both women won Oliviers: Riding was Julie Jordan opposite Dee’s Carrie Pipperidge.)

With “Follies,” as with “Carousel,” Dee is embarked upon an ongoing quest to assert the primacy of musical theater. “It isn’t people all twirling and giggling,” she said during an expansive, hour-long chat. “It’s people working bloody hard to achieve greatness in singing, greatness in dancing, greatness in acting – all three have to be up there.” As, with Dee, they are.

Was it a no-brainer that you would return to this production?
I just thought there’s more and I’d love to discover it. And when I knew that Jo [Riding] was going to be Sally [replacing Imelda Staunton], it was as if Carrie and Julie are coming back as Phyllis and Sally, which is resonant for us and for the people who saw us even more resonant. What’s great is that people are saying to me that the show has shifted in a really good way; people think this is even better, which is what we were hoping. You wouldn’t want to come back and do it the same or as good: you always want it to be better.

How much of Phyllis was still in you when rehearsals resumed with the current company?
I’d sung it several times during the year we’d been off, so I had it in my muscle memory, thank goodness. And then we did an early, relaxed rehearsal just before Christmas and I came in and sang both my songs and the musical director [Nigel Lilley] said, “We don’t need to worry about that,” which was a very nice way to start. That wasn’t the case last time where I was still reaching and couldn’t really sing it. But since finishing “Follies” the first time and returning to it this year, I really haven’t stopped singing, which is actually the best thing for me. I’m better if I keep going.

What do you make of Phyllis, a character who famously asks in song, “How do you wipe tears away / when your eyes are dry?”
I think she’s utterly amazing and I respect her and I also do feel sorry for her – and I don’t actually, as well. She’s intelligent enough to see her own bitterness and not want to continue to be like that, and that’s her journey, if you like: She realizes that she doesn’t want to be a bitter hard-nosed bitch. It’s just that time and circumstances have fed into that.

Do you think she anticipates the extent to which this reunion of Follies showgirls will devolve into something life-altering for each of the four central characters?
The party begins quite well for Phyllis. She sees Buddy and they laugh, she sees Sally and they laugh and hug, and she possibly thinks it’s all going to be fine, fine, fine …. And then!

Did you bother to check out on YouTube or elsewhere any of your predecessors in this part, who include women as varied as Alexis Smith (the Tony-winning originator of the role) and on to Blythe Danner, Jan Maxwell, and Donna Murphy, to name but a few?
I looked at as many as I could [laughs]! I’d never done that before, but I thought to myself, “How am I going to sing these songs? And how are other people doing them because they do seem to be doing them!” They were all brilliant but the one that really got me was Alexis Smith. She, for me, was all about “less is more”: She had [the role] stuffed down inside her and wasn’t showing it all. That to me is the power of Phyllis, as well. She’s got the strength to keep her feelings buttoned down, until [the song] “Lucy and Jessie” in which she allows the volcano within her to leak some of that stuff into a positive place.

How do you respond, as a veteran of Shakespeare, to the remark that Sondheim is akin to Shakespeare?
It’s very dangerous to talk about any artist being like another; I don’t like it. I prefer not to say that he’s like Shakespeare or that it is Shakespeare. What that means is that you treat the piece with the respect and profundity you would bring to Shakespeare, which is to say that you approach it with the same seriousness as you would Pinter or George Bernard Shaw. For me, “Follies” has got more dangerous, more painful, more profound: I didn’t think it could be more beautiful, but it possibly is a bit more beautiful, which is the dream.

Get tickets to “Follies” at the National Theatre.