Janie Dee and Joanna Riding are two of the UK’s finest musical theatre performers. At the National Theatre the return of Dominic Cooke’s acclaimed production of Follies currently stars the two actresses. Dee continues magnificently as Phyllis (could she ever leave this wonderful show?). However, Cooke has re-cast his Sally and Riding is now taking the role to even greater heights.
The pairing of these two women has made for one of London’s most sensational casting decisions in years. Cognoscenti of London’s theatre however will know that the two have shared a National stage before. In 1992 they led Nicholas Hytner’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel as Julie Jordan (Riding) and Carrie Pipperidge (Dee) and such was their excellence then that they BOTH(!) won well-deserved Olivier Awards in 1993 for their work.
So, while this time hop of 27 years to 2019 isn’t quite the 30-year gap that Dimitri Weismann marks at the reunion of his fabled Follies, there’s the slightest, almost whimsical hint, of life imitating art as these two wonderful women work their magic on Sondheim’s sensational show.
Making this casting even more exciting is the news just announced, as this interview is published, that on Sunday 19 May, Riding and Dee will return to the capital’s Cadogan Hall for one night only in a concert production of Carousel that will see them reprise their award-winning performances. My own memories of Hytner’s Carousel production are wonderfully vivid and so it was both a joy and privilege to spend an afternoon in the company of these two fabulous performers. Amidst a rare burst of some Southbank springtime sunshine, we sat by the River Thames and talked of Follies, Carousel, friendship and musical theatre….
Janie and Jo – Follies was outstanding in 2017. This time around, it’s even better. Tell me about the chemistry between the two of you that is so very palpable.
Jo: That chemistry of Carousel… Well what was happening on stage with those two was kind of happening off stage as well, because I think that Carrie looks after Julie. She looks out for her. “You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan, but I kind of like you, and I’m going to look after you.” And that was exactly what was going in the rehearsal room.
I was very green and wet behind the ears, and I was having a bit of a hard time and Janie sort of came to my rescue and took me under her wing. A couple of little meetings in the dressing room just to have a nice chat saying: “Are you alright? Don’t take any notice.”
Back then I’d never worked at the National. I’d done very little and a lot less than Janie and with her I just felt looked after in her very, very good hands and I’ve adored for that ever since. And yeah, it’s kind of strange now that we’re playing these old friends in Follies, with the sort of little crappy one looking up to the big glamorous one!
Janie: Just before this interview Jo and I were looking at some Carousel pictures and there was one of Jo at the sewing machine, in a scene in which she had been required to age up (during the show) say 20 years and I also had to turn up with these ten children or something that I’d had with Mr. Snow and it was a lovely photo of us – as Jo said, it was almost like Sally and Phyllis!
Jo in Carousel, 1992Jo: One at her wits’ end, and the other looking ever so glamorous, despite the fact that she’d spat out ten kids. You did look incredibly fabulous for having spat out so many!
Janie: Julie and Carrie in Carousel, were very, very good friends and we kind of felt that friendship very truly whilst we were in the show. And we have stayed friends all through our lives until now. I’ve seen a lot of Jo’s work. I went to see her in stuff and always thought she was amazing and I’ve got to know her various boyfriends over the years too. I don’t know her husband so well –
Jo: My boyfriends before the husband, that is. Make sure you add that!
Janie: Before the husband, of course! What I mean is that on and off stage we’ve kept in touch. And then, recently, we were brought back together, which was really wonderful, by Alex Parker to do A Little Night Music. And so that again kind of gave us a bit of a jolt, didn’t it?
JB: Julie and Carrie were friends. Are Sally and Phyllis friends, in 1971, at the Weismann’s Follies reunion party?
Janie: No, I think they’ve grown apart. But I think what Phyllis is dealing with is not unlike Pinter’s play, Betrayal. The betrayal isn’t just of the people who had sex, it’s the betrayal of the friendship as well, that obviously was the kernel of it all.
It was a good friendship between these two girls. And was it 30 years before that? So in 1941, it was Sally who took Phyllis under her wing and said “You can come and stay with me, and I know somebody. My boyfriend can bring an extra man for you,” who ends up being Ben who ends up being her husband. And then we see what happens 30 years later when they return for the party, the reunion.
Jo: It was quite a brief time, wasn’t it? We worked out that they were probably working at the Follies for not much more than a year to 18 months before the war hit the USA, so we didn’t get that long together, did we?
Janie: It’s trust, it’s when you trust somebody. It’s to do with trust, I guess. And forgiveness. But with Phyllis, I feel she’s coming to the reunion party for a few reasons. Not only to get things clear, but also to try and move on somehow in one way or another. It’s almost like she dares it all to happen, I don’t know. I’m still trying to work it out!
JB: Janie – How have you felt the show evolve from it’s first time around?
Janie: Watching it this time? Well I’ve noticed that Dominic Cooke definitely has revisited his own production from last time and thought, “Hm, I’ll change this and I’ll change that – because the show could be better or more profound.”
And the fact that we as the two main players are so different has shifted it into a slightly different place. You know, having enjoyed last year’s production so much, it’s hard to make comparisons and I don’t want to make comparisons. But what I would say is that there’s something about the relationship between Sally and Ben now that just feels more dangerous to Phyllis. And that’s a big shift that’s actually made it, I think, different for me as a performer, different for me as the character Phyllis. Our pairing has sort of shifted the show into darker territory.
Jo: Quite astonishing, isn’t it, that Dominic hasn’t rested on his laurels? He had a five-star hit on his hands, so he could have just brought a couple of people back. “Yeah, you do your thing, walk it on.” But he hasn’t. The fact that he has gone where he’s gone with it and he has decided to fiddle with a five-star show. That’s brave.
Janie: I said to him at the end of the last one, “Oh, I’m so sorry that we’re finishing. I still haven’t finished my work on this.” And he said, “Good, ’cause I would like to try it again.” And he knew then, and I think-
Jo: Did you know then that you’d come back?
Janie: I then knew that I wanted to come back, because I really didn’t feel like I’d finished
JB: Jo, your songs very much define Sally’s vulnerability. What, over the years, do you think has seen Sally crumble – we know that she has attempted suicide at least once – while at the same time Phyllis has hardened?
Jo: Oh. I guess a lot depends on personality in the first place. How one person copes with shit compared to another. I don’t know. I think … It was a different start out, wasn’t it? I (Sally) was in love with someone who rejected me. Phyllis is in love with someone, believed that that person was in love with them, stayed with them, but then learned over the years, actually, he didn’t love anyone, really, other than himself.
Janie: Not even. Definitely not himself!
Jo: No. Actually incapable of love. So I don’t know why they’ve both turned out the way they’ve turned out. I can’t answer that. If Mr. Sondheim was here….
Janie with Alexander Hanson as Ben in Follies, 2019Janie: I think working on our backstories has been great. I worked on my backstory with both of the women playing Young Phyllis (Christine Tucker in the 2019 revival) and we’ve got some nice stuff in, but there’s more this time.
Christine was new to it, and she’d gone mad on her backstory – some wonderful stuff that we had come over from Ireland to get to Philadelphia, and Phyllis’ father was killed.
So I’m not going to tell you, because that’s my secret, but I now know why Phyllis is the way she is. Or at least I know why I think she’s the way she is!
But the thing about theatre is that I don’t think actors should ever tell the audience what they should think. Nor should writers for that matter!
One of the beautiful things about theatre is that you interpret it for yourself. So whatever you think was the reason that Sally crumbles and Phyllis stays strong, whatever that reason is, it is for you to work that out, not for us to tell you. That spoils it!
Jo: I think that through Sally Sondheim does tell us a little clue, and that’s when she’s talking to Ben and she said, “You don’t know how to feel things. I feel things. I feel things.” And I think she is, she’s a bleeder. And it all comes out. She’s a very emotional creature, she’s not reserved. And I think that, perhaps, could even be her undoing. I mean, it’s good to get your feelings out, but I think to feel things so acutely that they become unbearable…
Janie: I thought, “Ben’s trained Phyllis not to cry.” I think he just has wanted the wife that he’s got, and now he’s got the wife that he’s got, and he doesn’t want her anymore, or he doesn’t think he wants her anymore. But he actually trained her to be the person she is, and that’s to push down the stuff. She’s pushing down all the emotion. Whereas Sally has never been told, “Don’t be who you are.”
And I don’t know, it’s interesting that we don’t know what happens after the end of this. The end is not the end, is it? Nobody dies. It’s not the end. It’s … You don’t know, you make up your own mind.
JB: I picked up on your use of the word forgiveness, earlier on in this conversation, which is not a word that I’ve often associated with Follies’ message. Can you expand on that?
Janie: I’m not saying that forgiveness actually happens, but I am saying that it’s up for grabs. You know, it’s a good take on humanity, actually, in a world that is crumbling around us, and how we are trying to hold on to some kind of value somewhere which we might want to call love.
But maybe love is not it. Maybe respect is more it, or something. I don’t know, it’s asking lots of questions, but I wonder if love is the answer? Because love … If you look at what happens to most relationships that start with love, it takes a very special pair of people to keep that love alive for ever and ever and ever and not let it divert into boredom or hate or the worst, indifference.
JB: Between you, aside from Follies, you’ve played many of Sondheim’s great female characters. Desiree, Anne, Countess Charlotte Malcolm. What are your thoughts on how Sondheim writes for women?
Janie: Not unlike Shakespeare, he seems to understand profoundly what it is to be a woman. The pain of a woman and the joy and the sexuality. And how does he know? I understand that he had a difficult relationship with his mother.
Jo: I think perhaps, he doesn’t necessarily understand women, per se. I think he understand what it is to be the kind of person that has been oppressed and repressed over the decades, over the centuries. I think he understands that. I think he understands the battle to be heard, to be seen, to survive against the odds. Maybe he understands that, which happens to be part of woman’s story, but not exclusively. And I think maybe that’s it.
JB: Jo – with Every Day a Little Death in A Little Night Music and Follies’ Losing My Mind, you have sung to of Sondheim’s most painfully poignant numbers. How perceptive is he as a writer?
Jo: Well again and again, he nails it, doesn’t he? He tears into your soul. I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know how he manages to get the knob of something and turn it into song. I wish I did. I am just the conveyor of his material. I’m the medium. All I can do is interpret it the best way I can do that by finding little dark corners in me and interpreting the best I can. But I find him incredibly perceptive.
But again, it’s very subjective, isn’t it? There are those that don’t like Sondheim, that don’t get Sondheim, my mother included. And for her, that’s not what musical theatre ought to be. It’s too dark, it’s too complex. It’s … I think it takes her somewhere she doesn’t want to be taken to in a musical.
Janie: Jo, do you remember? Sondheim came to see us in Carousel and the reason he came to see us in Carousel was partly because he probably wanted to see it and he was here, but also because he was sort of brought up with Richard Rodgers, who was almost like the godfather or something of his talent. So he had Rodgers and Hammerstein, I believe, bringing him up, and others.
And Bernstein who he worked with on West Side Story. He had these greats kind of running alongside him, and whilst he was picking up some of their talent or influence or musicality, he was bringing himself up as well.
But I think when he came to see us, he really loved Carousel, and I’d love him to see this with us again. I think he’d be really happy.
Jo: I wonder if even he knows why he’s so perceptive and why he can write like he can write. I just find often, incredibly talented people, just the way they can put something down on paper, whether it’s music or it’s words or what have you. They just have this gift for getting to the knob and turning a screw on something. I don’t even think they know how they do it.
JB: I had never described Sondheim as Shakespearean, prior to this 2019 review of Follies.
Janie: Did you? Because Dominic Cooke has described Follies as a bit Shakespearean.
Jo in Follies, 2019At this point the wind turned breezy and we moved back into the National Theatre itself. The blustery weather reminded Jo of the National’s 1998 touring production of Oh! What A Lovely War that had been staged in a tent. Jo: Fiona Laird was the director – who had been one of the staff directors here during Carousel and I had one of the most incredible moments I’ve ever had on a stage in that show.
It’s a phenomenal piece, anyways, course, we’re talking back in the 1990s, and there were still some First World War veterans who could come to the show – and often they would be seated at the front of the apron. And I’d play this character, where I had to come right to the front of the apron in a sort of a nurses outfit and sing Keep the Home Fires Burning.
And there was this little old man, and he looked about 204, and he was curled up. We thought he was asleep, we were sort of joking that he’d gone to sleep right at the beginning of the show, and we just thought just like this throughout the whole show. Except at that moment, he lifted up his head, and he sang the entire song with me. I don’t know how I held it together. Every word, perfect. Sang it with me. Gorgeous, gorgeous.
Where that must have taken him and what it must have meant to him in that moment?
Janie: How did you cope? How did you keep singing?
Jo: Well, it’s the hardest thing to sing with a lump in your throat, isn’t it? But you have to. You think, “It’d be so easy for me just to go now, but I’ve got a job to do. And I’m just gonna steel myself. I’m gonna sing it. I’m gonna sing it. I’m gonna sing it. I’m gonna sing it.” And then as soon as I sat down, I was in a flood. You kind of hold it in, don’t you? Because if you lose it, the moment’s gone.
Janie and Jo in Carousel (1992)JB: Returning to Carousel, and powerful moments on stage, the first time that I saw Gemma Sutton (currently playing Young Sally in Follies) on stage was at the Arcola five years ago in Carousel where she was an outstanding Julie Jordan. Since then London has seen the Coliseum production in 2017 and then last year there was a Broadway revival with Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow. I recall discussing that Broadway show with the other Baz (Bamigboye), we both agreeing that it was the first Carousel since 1993 that had come close to replicating the magic you two had created at the Lyttelton.
Jo: My dad was such a mess when he came to see Carousel. He said it broke his heart to see his girl, his little girl so old and so sad. He said, “I don’t ever want to see it.” He couldn’t separate the two, bless him. I’m not from a theatrical background, and Mum and Dad at that point really hadn’t seen very much theatre at all, so I think when they did see stuff like that it affected them so profoundly.
Janie with Clive Rowe as Mr Snow – Carousel, 1992Janie: Yeah, my dad was like that because of you. We all were. I used to stand on the side of the stage and watch Jo every night when she felt Billy Bigelow. It’s awful in the thing, ’cause he hits her and she says to her little girl-
Jo: “It is possible for a man to hit you hard and it not hurt at all.”
Janie: That’s right.
Jo: What a line to have to say. But I had to find a truth in it. And actually, it comes from that dark side of Julie, I think. There’s a dark side to Julie who was drawn to the dark side in Billy, and there is an element of the fact that, “He can hit me and I can still love him because the idea of being without him is darker and bleaker than being with him. I cam come to terms with that. I can …” It’s a question of self esteem, isn’t it? I mean, you could talk about battered wives of course, but there’s something steelier in Julie.
Janie: I think also it’s an understanding of where the abusive person has been as a child. You know, this isn’t to say it’s condoning any kind of abuse, absolutely not. But it seemed to me that Julie was profoundly at one with Billy. They really found each other in that. And he did really love Julie, and he didn’t mean to hit her, that’s the point. His anger was something … It was his problem. His anger management was bad, and why it was bad, you can only guess at. And only the actor will know what his backstory will be for that. But the guess is that he’s been hit around when he was a little boy, right?
Jo: So there’s an understanding, and there’s, I guess, a forgiveness from that coming from her because there is that understanding, and acceptance of him and everything. That she knew what she was taking on. She knew. And loved every part of it, the bad and the good, which is real love, isn’t it?
Janie: But never the less, you would still get gasps from the audience with that line from time to time. As if to say “How can you even say such a line?”
Jo: I know, I know. But you as the actor, you can’t be thinking that. You have to find justification for it. In you, you have to find a reason where it’s acceptable to say that. You have to get underneath something in that character that makes it a truth for her. And that’s the best you can do, isn’t it?
Follies plays in repertory at the Olivier Theatre until May 11thCarousel plays for one night only at the Cadogan Hall on May 29th
Carousel 1992 – Clive Barda
Follies 2019 – Johan Perssson
South Bank 2019 – Michael Curtis