Jenifer Foote, Sanny Burstein, and Kiira Schmidt in the Broadway version… (Joan Marcus/ )
Less than two years ago, the Kennedy Center moved its revival of the sprawling 1998 musical “Ragtime” to Broadway. It was a group tug: Crowded above the title were the names of almost 20 individuals and producing groups that had a hand in making the move happen.
Now the Kennedy Center has moved its production of Stephen Sondheim’s sprawling musical “Follies” to New York. This time the push north seems largely attributable to Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser. And above the title, the producing credits belong almost entirely to the Kennedy Center.
“We’re learning over time,” Kaiser says.
The lessons have been coming more frequently as the Kennedy Center cautiously rekindles what was, during the reign of founding chairman/Broadway producer Roger Stevens, a hot route to New York. The Kennedy Center’s admired 2006 revival of Jerry Herman’s “Mame,” starring Christine Baranski, didn’t make it to Broadway after a long flirtation. “Ragtime” did transfer but closed quickly and lost money.
Now comes “Follies,” already in previews at the Marquis Theatre off Times Square before its official Sept. 12 opening.
In Washington this spring, with Bernadette Peters headlining, the show was practically a sellout (96 percent total attendance). The idea for the Washington production — a rare first-class revival of one of Sondheim’s most beloved but challenging musicals, with past and present intermingling as performers gather at a derelict theater — dates to the “Mame” days. That’s because, Kaiser explains in an interview in his office, “I tend to work five years ahead on big projects always.”
What he was looking ahead to was his anticipated departure from the Kennedy Center when his contract was up this year (he has since renewed through 2014). He needed his last production to be special. Kaiser had made an early impression on Washington with the ambitious multi-show Sondheim Celebration in 2002. So he was drawn to “Follies” as an appropriate bookend to his Washington stay. He quickly recruited his “Mame” creative team, director Eric Schaeffer, musical director James Moore and choreographer Warren Carlyle.
In 2009, Peters was at Schaeffer’s Signature Theatre in Arlington to bestow the troupe’s inaugural Sondheim Award on the composer-lyricist himself. During the gala fundraising dinner, Peters says, Schaeffer mentioned that a “Follies” was on the drawing board. Peters was interested, having long been intrigued by the role of Sally, the chorine who regrets not getting her man (and who thinks she might still be able to).
Last year, as Peters was stepping into the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” Schaeffer and Moore took her to dinner. They told her that they would have a 28-piece orchestra for “Follies.”
“Her eyes lit up,” Schaeffer says, sitting in the Marquis Theatre after a technical rehearsal. “She was like, ‘Really?’ ”
“That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to say yes to bring it to New York,” Peters says in her dressing room at the Marquis. “People on Broadway don’t see shows like this anymore, with 41 in the cast and 28 people in the orchestra.”
So by last August, the Kennedy Center was able to announce that its project had a star. “Then everyone wanted to do it,” Schaeffer says. “You’re like, ‘This is good.’ ”
“I always say this, and I mean it: We don’t produce our works to move them” to Broadway, Kaiser says. But “I would be lying if I said that, once Bernadette agreed to come and as we were moving along with this project that we didn’t say, ‘Hmm, maybe it could move.’ ”
The reviews were largely encouraging when the show opened in May. With a fabled score featuring “I’m Still Here” and “Losing My Mind” accompanying James Goldman’s book and a cast that included Jan Maxwell as Phyllis (Sally’s glamorous rival), Danny Burstein and Ron Raines as the leading men, luminaries Elaine Paige (the original Evita) and Linda Lavin (TV’s “Alice”), transfer buzz was inevitable. Maxwell says the rumor mill churned pretty aggressively backstage. “But there’s nothing you can do about it, except do your best,” she says. “And everybody was doing that.”
A key question was whether a Broadway theater would be available. In June, the Nederlanders, one of the main theater-owning operations in New York, said the Marquis could be had through the end of the year. Kaiser took it, and he sounds as if he was ready for the opportunity.
“We’re much more involved and more in control than we were with ‘Ragtime’ and than we would have been with ‘Mame,’ ” Kaiser says. “Follies” made $1 million above Kaiser’s projections in Washington, and he describes the investment in transferring the show as “substantial.”
“That means that we get to make a lot more decisions,” he says.