This is the sixth in a series of articles analyzing the works of Stephen Sondheim, in preparation for his 80th birthday.
Towards the end of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s legendary musical FOLLIES, any trace of a linear narrative falls away, replaced by thematic performance numbers that express the truths the show’s four main characters have been avoiding all evening. Lonely Arizona housewife Sally reveals she’s spent the past thirty years driven to distraction by her unfulfilled love for Ben in “Losing My Mind.” Buddy and Ben’s regrets have similarly taken tolls on their sanity, as seen in Buddy’s manic vaudevillian number, “Buddy’s Blues,” and Ben’s “Live, Laugh Love,” which starts out polished but ends in Ben’s broken despair. Like the others, Phyllis’ number refers directly to her situation, but it also sums up the other characters, as well as the show overall.
“The Story of Lucy and Jessie” is a jazzy song that calls for a flashy performance, complete with backup dancers. The number’s cool sophistication, particularly demonstrated in its clever rhymes and tricky alliteration, reflects Phyllis’ aloof, acerbic demeanor perfectly. It’s clear that she sees herself as Jessie, who is “dressy but cold as a slab,” and wishes she could be the earnest, naive chorus girl she was thirty years before – represented in the song by Lucy, who is “juicy but terribly drab.” Phyllis never quite felt good enough for her husband, Ben, while they were dating. When he proposed, she promised she’d try to be a good wife: “I’ll study and I’ll read – I’m not much now, I know that – and I’ll walk my feet off in the Metropolitan Museum…” Phyllis transformed herself into a self-assured, capable woman – the picture of a politican’s wife – but lost the emotional openness she had in her youth. If only young Phyllis had known “she’s better than she suspects,” and if Phyllis could realize now that “she’s sweller than apple pie,” perhaps she could have prevented her marriage from being an emotionless shell of what it once was.
Phyllis’ song can also be applied to the other three main characters. Lucy can also represent Sally, who freely admits that she can be a little silly and that her life in Phoenix seems boring. Even though Sally and Ben’s affair ended when Ben proposed to Phyllis, Sally still wants what Phyllis has: namely, Ben. Ben himself wishes he could go back to being 25 and have a second chance at being the man he’d rather be – not unlike his wife’s desire to recapture the qualities she had as a girl. Buddy, Sally’s husband, could relate to “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” in a more abstract sense. His problem, as he lays out in “Buddy’s Blues,” is that he wants the woman he know loves somebody else, instead of his mistress, who has been nothing but good to him. Sally “says that I’m a washout,” he confesses. “I love her so much, I could die!” Buddy is stuck between those two women, like Phyllis is stuck between Lucy and Jessie – and like how Sally’s consuming love for Ben sometimes causes her to “stand in the middle of the floor/Not going left/Not going right.”
In the end, Sally, Buddy, Phyllis, and Ben accept their lives as they are, realizing that going back is impossible: they can only move forward, leaving the ghosts of their past -and their unfulfilled possibilities – behind.