Imelda Staunton on the National’s new blockbuster musical Follies

Published in The Telegraph on July 14, 2017

It may not open till next month, but the first release of tickets for Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre are already entirely sold out. However thousands more are on sale today from 8.30am, at the same time as a first-look photograph of the cast is unveiled.

The level of love for the musical has surprised its star, Imelda Staunton – but then, it hasn’t had a full staging in London since 1987. The story of the Weismann Follies’ vaudeville showgirls, who return to the theatre they performed in 30 years previously, features standards such as ‘Losing My Mind and ‘I’m Still Here’, and garners serious devotion among Sondheim fans.

Of course, a major draw is Staunton herself. Quite the queen of the Sondheim musical, she won Olivier awards for performances in both Sweeney Todd and Gypsy, having been asked by the man himself to play Momma Rose in the latter. She now plays Sally in Follies, and is enjoying being part of 37-strong cast.

Still, there’s no resting on her laurels. “It’s a much bigger challenge than I thought,” she says, declaring that “the tap-dancing has made me frightened” in particular. And it’s not just the hoofing that has her spooked: with a double time-scale, staging both past and present, it is a “beast” of a show – and one which gets very dark.

“I don’t think you can dress up disappointment,” Staunton says. “It’s about the American dream, about dreams coming true… well, no they don’t actually. But I like work that’s dark, I like finding the pain – and there’s a lot of pain in this.”

Staunton considers Sondheim “the Shakespeare of musical theatre” – and says she approaches his work in the same way as any other serious piece of drama. “The songs are character speeches – it’s not just ‘oh we’re going to have a jolly song now.’”

Follies is directed by Dominic Cooke, former artistic director of the Royal Court, but not exactly known for musicals. But because Follies “feels like a play, it therefore feels absolutely right he should be doing it,” Staunton suggests.

Doing a big blockbuster musical on the Olivier stage at the National is something of a homecoming for the actress – she made her London stage debut in Guys and Dolls there in Richard Eyre’s legendary production of 1982. It’s a show still talked about in awed tones today; does she have happy memories of it?

“Well I met my husband on that stage doing that musical – so yes, I have pretty good memories!” she laughs.

Follies is a bankable hit for the National. But it was Guys and Dolls that proved musical theatre can thrive there, Staunton suggests. “Richard Eyre was the first person to do it – he believed Guys and Dolls was a classic and this building does classics,” she says staunchly. “And it was a sensation.”

“The Olivier is a very good space for musicals. It’s very nice to get back on that stage – or it will be, once I’ve got my tap dancing sorted…”

Follies is at the National Theatre from 22 August to 3 January. A NT Live performance will be broadcast to cinemas around the world on 16 November.

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