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Side by Side With Robert Johanson
by Bruce Janiga

Robert Johanson is the Artistic Director of the Paper Mill and is directing this production. The following interview took place while the Paper Mill Playhouse's production of Follies was still in rehearsals. Later that day they held their first run-through of the show which was attended by a group of friends including Stephen Sondheim and a representative of If the run-through is any indication this show is going to be a hit.

How did you come to the decision to do Follies?
I'd seen it originally on Broadway; it was one of the first shows I ever saw. At the time I didn't realize how special it was because I thought all Broadway shows were just as good. But it turned out to be something that stayed with me after I saw many other shows all over the world. I always remembered Follies as being very special and I always wanted the opportunity to direct it. This year being our 60th Anniversary, we have this huge celebration this spring, it seemed like the right show to do because it's about the old and the new, a combination of the past and the present. It's a very nice tie-in. So we were able to get the rights and we decided to go with it.

What's so special about it for you?
As a director it's special because it is so complex for a musical; it has real depth and complexity. You are challenged to bring to life many story lines to bring forth the right emotions so that you really care about it. I love the idea of this old type theater, this heartfelt sentiment which is what they are trying to bring back to life and I think there is something very touching about all that. So it really has appeal to me.

It's amazing the buzz this show has generated. We have a group of over seventy-five coming from as far away as England and France and I understand from the box office that you've had calls from as far away as Tokyo. It's amazing that it has gone twenty five years without a revival.

The thing I'm leaving out is that it is just brilliantly written. The lyrics are amazing. The music is beautiful. It's the most beautiful music Sondheim ever wrote because so much of it is pastiche; it's melodic; there's so many different things in it. And the book is quite intriguing. You really can focus on every part of the book. It takes a lot of attention because every part of it has to be right.

Tell us about the book you are using. There was a Broadway book for Follies, then a London book and you are using something a little different.
Goldman and Sondheim weren't terribly happy with the London production. They tried a lot of new things for that to see how they worked and trying them they found they didn't really a lot of these choices. So when I approached Mr. Goldman and spoke with him about doing this, having seen the London production as well, I said, I really want this to have more of the feeling of the original because I think it's more appropriate for the piece. It has a more haunting quality. There's more depth. I think they wanted to lighten it up, making it more of a musical comedy in London and I think it lost much of what the show really is. But I said, Some of the book is overwritten and I think if you get some of that imbalance and structure it a little differently the show would be much better. So there was a good deal of restructuring of this story to make it more efficient and really get to the heart of the story for the audience and to really clear things up because it's very important for the audience to not be confused.

So you worked with him very closely?
Oh yes. We still are. He'll be here today because he wants to pick at it, little things here and there. But I think they're very pleased with where it is now. I think they threw out too much of it the last time now they have what they would have originally have put in but in a different fashion.

You have an incredible cast for this production? How did that all come together?
I feel like once we decided to do Follies it was just as if the gods were with us because everybody seemed to become available and fall into place the way they should. I always thought that Carlotta should be a woman who had been a dancer who became a movie star because that's what the role is. If you have that real person doing it, the role is exactly who that person is and Ann (Miller) is just perfect for it because she really was a dancer, she really was a movie star. Donna McKechnie is really Sally in real life. She's very much a Sally. She has that girl next door thing; she wears her heart on her sleeve; she's very vulnerable. Originally she came in for Phyllis but when she came in I said to her, Donna, you are right for Sally. And she said, I'm so relieved because everytime you have a show that has a dancing role in it you think of Donna for the dancing role. People don't think of Donna for just a dramatic role. So she was thrilled to have the opportunity to do this. Dee (Hoty) is about as sophisticated as one could possibly get. She's perfect for Phyllis. Larry (Guittard) is a Sondheim veteran; he understands Sondheim very well. He's the right age to play Ben. Tony (Roberts) is perfect for Buddy. Even the supporting people: you have to cast it perfectly all the way through. Having Donald Sadler, a Tony Award winning choreographer, up there dancing, I couldn't be happier. It all just fell into place. Everybody was interested and available; it wasn't that difficult to get them all together.

This production will be remembered as The Paper Mill 'Follies'. Do you have a concept that you would like this to be remembered for? Is there any sort of particular twist you want to put on it to make it stand out from the others rather than just repeating what was there?
It's more realistic than the original production. We've got much more out of Mr. Weismann, the role played by Eddie Bracken. We have this idea that he really was this great character like Ziegfeld. So the whole reunion party is a series of surprises that Mr. Weismann has manufactured. Originally it was just a scaffolding set that moved into different positions and things are played out as more abstract and impressionistic. But this really is a gigantic vast, empty theater for which we've created this unbelievable, decaying proscenium and into this vast space he introduces all of these elements that are surprises that are actually pieces from the Follies; they may be decaying but they're still there. So it's more grounded and once you set up that premise you never know what's going to come out and he keeps surprising us all night long. I think the original production got onto the concept but then ignored the concept because what was just repeated itself. Now this one is a little more...I think you're going to be surprised with what we've done.

Rehearsals have been going well?
Great! They were incredible. This cast is unreal. I'm like this big traffic cop. They're all so good I don't have to teach any of them how to act. It's really refreshing to have people this good and you're already at the place where you're polishing it.

Any rough spots?

How about highlights?
There's no question that Ann Miller singing I'm Still Here is a highlight. Its unreal. The first time she sang it Sondheim cried. She's very entertaining it in but it's just that it's her! There she is seventy years (?) old standing out there doing it, well. She's still here .

It's really art imitating life.
It is.

In Sunday in the Park there's a moment at the end of Act One where it all comes together and it's just pure magic. Does Follies have a moment like that for you?
Definitely. When we finally get to the actual follies. The whole show builds to this surreal follies when the actual characters play out the follies in their life at the middle of Act Two. And when that bursts out into that on stage it's very similar to that. It's startling: the entire company has come together to do this fascinating, surreal follies. That moment is amazing. The other moment is when we meet the girls. It's just one of the greatest moments in musical history. It's really something to see.

Tell us about the set. The model is incredible.
Our theater is fairly new. It's fifteen years old because it burned down and now it's rebuilt so we wanted to create the atmosphere of the fabulous Weismann Theater that was built for the 1918 Follies. So Michael Anania has created an amazing proscenium arch with boxes and dustsheets that go way out into the auditorium so that you really are in the presence of this old theater. And we wanted to get across the idea that for Mr.Weismann the whole idea was presenting truly beautiful women in his way and so the proscenium is a host of beautiful women bursting out of it; they're all in various forms of exotica really and it's really quite a statement since that's what this is all about; the glorification of woman. And all these women remember that because that's when they were the most glorified in their lives. Their lives went on and they had other things happen to them but this is their moment.

PBS is involved in financing the show and filming the show? Are we going to see it on television at some time in the future?
We're hoping so. There are still logistics that have to get worked out, should this particular revival want to go on to another life, say it were possible for it to go to Broadway, then they would postpone the PBS showing.

So there's talk about moving to Broadway? People are considering it?
Yes. But no one is going to say anymore until the see it on stage and then it will all happen.

What's the budget for this show?
I think to get the whole thing up and running it's close to $2 million.

Is it the biggest production you've ever done at the Paper Mill?
I think the budget for The Wizard of Oz was bigger. But we have so much stock, we have a lot of stuff that we can reuse in this show. Many things that are appropriate for an old show. So it's not like we have to build everything brand new.

I see next year you're considering doing Gypsy. Is it a move on the part of the Paper Mill to do more Sondheim shows?
I think we should do a Sondheim show every year. If this one goes over well you'll probably see us do Night Music and Into the Woods and some others.

Will there be a recording of this production on CD like your recent production of Children of Eden?
I think it all depends on what Mr. Sondheim wants to do with it. Once he sees it all together up there if he feels secure about it then that's a possibility.

Is there anything else you'd like to add? Anything that you want to get on record for these Sondheim fans out there?
I think it's nice for them to know that he's been amazing. He's been here working with everyone. He's been so supportive. He really is a true genius of the theater. Not just as a writer but the way he communicates to the performers and all of us what his intention is and how he can help us to better get to that. He's a master; there's no question.

Thank you Robert.
You're welcome. I hope you enjoy it.

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