Two on the aisle(s) -- 'Follies' and 'The Invention of Love'
Careerists on Broadway: Love's labors
I've stood on bread lines
(CNN) -- How closely do your work and personal lives travel through time?
Some of us tend to see our days structured by career moves -- "That happened when I was at Dow Chemical," or "We met just after she'd started work at Deloitte and Touche." Others might overlay personal-life events onto their careers: "We'd just had Sally, so that would have been that teaching stint he did at William and Mary."
Two shows, just opened on Broadway, bring thoughtful perspective to the intersections we all encounter of work and life.
Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love" -- originally produced in London in 1997 -- is having its Broadway premiere with Robert Sean Leonard and Richard Easton at the Lyceum Theatre through May 27.
And Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" is being given its first New York revival since its 1971 premiere. It's at the Belasco Theatre, in a Roundabout Theatre production with Judith Ivey, Treat Williams, Blythe Danner and Gregory Harrison.
"Follies" is a musical, one that -- like much of Sondheim's work -- has had an uneven reputation and production history. The show, Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times on Friday, "has resurfaced as a small, bleak and pedestrian tale of two unhappy marriages."
"The Invention of Love," Brantley writes, "captures Mr. Stoppard's brimming self-delight and enthusiasm" (familiar to film fans of Stoppard's "Shakespeare in Love").
Both shows use hindsight to sharpen their characters' present-moment understanding of themselves.
'The Invention of Love'
There's a career quip right at the beginning of Stoppard's "The Invention of Love." It's 1936 and the poet A.E. Housman is met at the river Styx by the mythic ferryman on his way to Hades. The boatman is expecting two people to arrive.
Charon: A poet and a scholar is what I was told.
"The Invention of Love" is based in the poet's diary, Stoppard having learned from it that Housman ("A Shropshire Lad," 1896) had spent his life and career -- he was a formidable Latin scholar in Oxfordian academic circles -- pining for a young man who never returned his affections.
"The sense of suppression," Stoppard told Lincoln Center in an interview, "or self-suppression, and pressure generally which came off even this photograph of the page of this diary was so strong and so moving. There was a love story here."
The resulting play stages Easton as the 77-year-old Housman -- now dead -- revisiting himself as an Oxford student, ages 18 to 26. That younger self is played by Leonard ("The Age of Innocence," "Dead Poets Society" and "Driven," scheduled for release this month).
The heart of the show is its dialogue between the older and younger Housman ("I am not a poet by trade," he once said, "I'm a professor of Latin"). In these exchanges, Stoppard uses intricate references to the scholarship of the time and laces it with a clear picture of how classicists were working in the late 19th century to divest ideas of homosexuality from concepts of Greek and Latin culture.
Housman was caught, as a careerist, in a world that couldn't tolerate his emotional nature. And it's in Stoppard's retrospective on that career that we see where much of Housman's life's impulses were repressed.
"Why does my glib tongue stumble to silence as I speak?" Housman asks at the end of the play's Act I. "At night I hold you fast in my dreams, I run after you across the Field of Mars, I follow you into the tumbling waters, and you show no pity."
Theater audiences are more accustomed to Stoppard's literary sophistication than filmgoers. In such works as "Shakespeare in Love," he has popularized his references so they're more accessible than some will find them in this show. Nevertheless, many playgoers may recognize parts of themselves, personally, that somewhere along the way were sacrificed for career standing, even for security in their field of work.
"The Invention of Love" reminds us that there's always some private cost to public life, although it may not be something we recognized well until we look back at it over time.
If Sondheim's "Follies" were set at Christmas, the characters might be talking about ghosts of careers-past. It's the eve of the demolition of a once-great theater and Dimitri Weismann (Louis Zorich) -- very much a Florenz Ziegfeld-style impresario -- has brought his former showgirls and their spouses back for an onstage reunion.
Much of the show's music anchors the company in show business and in careers that have followed for the characters. And, as in "The Invention of Love," we see characters in both older and younger times -- the younger ones appear as ghosts in the deserted Weissman Theatre, represented in this production by the heavily distressed interior of Broadway's Belasco.
"Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" is a number sung by suitors of the showgirls who once hung out at the stage door exit while the stars of the evening changed to go dancing.
"Broadway Baby," as sung by Betty Garrett, is a minor anthem to careerists who never quite lose the devotion of their personalities to what they do for a living -- "Hey, Mr. Producer, I'm talking to you, sir."
But it's probably "I'm Still Here" that may touch today's working audience more than it might have even in 1971. Polly Bergen, cast as Carlotta, sings the number in this production. And it's not hard, in an era of rapid job-change, frequent layoffs and market-churning unemployment reports to find yourself admiring the satisfaction of a character who can tick off challenge after challenge and belt that she's "still here."
In an age when so many of us identify closely with our work -- as author Al Gini so clearly defines the syndrome in "My Job, My Self" -- a few theatergoers may leave the Belasco patting themselves on the backs at the thought that they, too, are "still here" in some capacity.
But they'll also be struck by something akin to Stoppard's comment in "The Invention of Love," too. There are characters in "Follies" whose personal lives, now seen from the icy perspective of the reunion, are permanently damaged. Bad marriages (these guys, it turns out, were waiting for the wrong girls upstairs) have soured what glittering burlesque costumes once dressed in youthful hope and sequined dreams.
At evening's end, several of the personal fiascoes here are played out in vaudevillian comedy, a near collision of painful private lives with cartoon-manic careers. The most compelling of these numbers goes to Harrison, who sings in "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" exactly the indecision that's wrecked his life:
"I've got those God-why-don't-you-love-me, oh-you-do? -- I'll-see-you-later blues/
Whatever "Follies" of personal sacrifice you might have made in your own life -- or career misses you perpetrated while chasing a gold-glittering little image of glamour -- they're on parade somewhere in Sondheim's haunting number "The Road You Didn't Take."
And between these two shows, there may be new meaning available to the category of audience in New York once termed the "tired businessman."
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