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SPOTLIGHT: Philip Quast on Sondheim and the follies of us all

Barbara Loots


In Stephen Sondheim’s Follies you meet two couples (and the memories of their younger selves) attending the 30th reunion of the Weismann Follies, a once-popular revue. During the course of the evening, the couples’ façade of happiness crumbles as their regrets get the better of them all. Originally titled The Girls Upstairs by Sondheim, producer and director Harold Prince changed the title to Follies, saying he was “intrigued by the psychology of a reunion of old chorus dancers” and loved “the play on the word ‘follies’”. With that came the acknowledgement that the musical is not just about the follies of “the girls” —stylish Phyllis and gullible Sally— but also about the follies of their equally troubled husbands, political philanthropist Ben and salesman Buddy. Renowned actor Philip Quast took to the stage as Ben in Follies’ much-praised 2017 National Theatre revival. In the run-up to the NT Live screenings of this production in South Africa (at Cinema Nouveau and the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town), Quast shared some thoughts about Sondheim, his character in the show, and his love for theatre.

Australian-born Quast started his theatre career in 1981. His influence on the musical theatre industry has been so pronounced that it would be hard to find many true lovers of the genre who don’t know the name ‘Philip Quast’. He even has his own Urban Dictionary listing, where his name is defined as ‘The BEST Javert ever’! When one looks back at Quast’s career, it appears he has a fondness for the darker characters —the type Sondheim productions are known for. The rationale behind Quast’s gravitation to these roles is found in his approach to theatre and acting, and his appreciation of Sondheim’s method of story development.

‘I’ve been very fussy about choosing what I do, because I’ve done the other composers. I’m really drawn to the classical theatre and dramatists. For me, Sondheim and the people he’s collaborated with have always been theatre dramatists. The story and the text is the driving force for me. So, I found it hard doing other musicals that generally aren’t him, because there are so many other problems to solve and you are hiding a multitude of things. With Sondheim your job as an actor is to try and work out what the acting choices he has made are. Because he is a dramatist, he always writes for the performer. So, your job is to actually work out how he’s envisaged it to be performed.’

Apart from the theoretical angle, Quast’s preference for Sondheim’s style of theatre has always had a practical one, too, because he’s an Australian who’s spent a great deal of his working life in London. ‘The difficulty in being here is connected to the accent,’ says Quast. ‘When I was able to do ‘American’, I was able to fit in and I didn’t have to worry about trying to sound British.

His practical-mindedness and understanding of Sondheim’s approach to storytelling aren’t necessarily the only reason Quast has won three Olivier Awards. Although his insight and honesty are a big part of it, his character and his commitment to his craft are his truly impressive traits. For his Follies audition, Quast waived the option of doing a video audition and instead got on a plane to audition in person.

‘I don’t see how you can audition on a video; I just don’t. Then it becomes all about the singing. I needed to be in the room to work. How else does the director actually know whether I’m flexible and I can be worked with? It’s as much me auditioning the director. In the end I need to be able to enter the rehearsal room knowing that the director wants me because of the process we have already started.’ Quast commits to any role from the moment he steps into the audition room. ‘The rehearsal starts at that first audition; you’ve got to go in and explore it with the director straight away.’

‘Sondheim actually strongly dislikes his productions being called a Sondheim musical,’ Quast continues, ‘because that description automatically excludes the book writer, and the original director in this case. Sondheim would not have been able to write what he did, and come up with what he did, without Hal Prince actually saying, ‘No, that doesn’t work, rewrite it’. So, you have to treat the audition the same way, as part of a collaboration. If it doesn’t work out, and it feels like we can’t work it out together, then I was never meant to be in the role. I have to enter that rehearsal period knowing that we have already begun the work.’

Quast also takes issue with the idea that Sondheim’s work is overly technical because it doesn’t give singers enough breathing room. ‘In some ways, it’s actually easy: He’s already made the acting choices for you. Most of the actor’s job when you are doing Sondheim is trying to come to terms with what it’s like being an American. Americans tend not to breath in the same places as the English and other countries do —they drive through the thought to the end of the line. Technically, most of your rehearsal is spent becoming American.’

That doesn’t mean that Americans are verbose or tend to ramble on; ‘Americans are just very witty and you have to develop a very sharp mind’ to keep up. ‘So most of the rehearsals are actually spent trying to discover that wit and trying to not be so polite about the material.’ So for Follies, too, Quast had to open himself up to this process of becoming American, as ‘the first three or four weeks of rehearsals were [about] learning to be front-footed and much quicker thinking than we give the Americans credit for’.

When he talks about the darkness of the characters he tends to portray, Quast shows a deep understanding of all facets of humanity. He considers himself a generally empathetic person. ‘For me, you can’t ever judge a character. I find those darker characters much more interesting, because that’s what most of us are —we have that darker side and I am generally not frightened to go there. Sondheim realises that we are all flawed as people, all of us; he makes no judgment about that. The characters just tend to be there warts and all. It’s not a case of “that’s the good person, that’s the bad person, that’s the romantic lead”; all of us are troubled.’

This is what makes Ben such a great character to play, ‘because we are there warts and all’. This understanding of Sondheim’s approach to character development was clearly shared by Dominic Cooke, director of last year’s Follies revival. ‘He was emphatic that we embrace those unpalatable parts of our personality —the more you do that, the more the audience relate.’

Out of the four leads, Ben most appears to have it all together for a big part of the musical. ‘He’s got everything —the wife, the money, the power— but this artifice is there’. His fakeness makes the role ‘a difficult part to play in a way, because it is not clear what he wants’. Quast feels that we can all relate to the idea of hiding behind a façade, though. ‘That’s the same for most of us: We put on this façade. The difficulty for me in playing Ben is, How well can you maintain that lie? He covers it; he charms. Sex helps: He’s pathologically addicted to having sex with different people and that’s one way of staving it off. But his wife says, “Do you ever think of suicide? To all intents and purposes, are you dead?”. And I suspect he is. I suspect he is manic-depressive, which you don’t know. And a lot of us are depressed and we don’t really know that we are.’

Along with Ben's depression, Ben and Buddy both also reveal that they want to be wanted for ‘real reasons’ as much as Phyllis and Sally as the women at the centre of it all. ‘Women talk about the invisible years, but what women don’t realise is that men have them too. What men miss, and why they are vulnerable at that age (when their kids are out of the house and they have a midlife crisis), is the way they were looked at when they were wanted. Ben deep down knows that women probably now only look at him because he’s powerful, but don’t really want him because he is not youthful and young.’

It is this internal conflict between abuse of power and a need for acceptance of the self that brings Ben’s lies to the forefront. It is a character conundrum that Quast regards as ‘very interesting’. ‘I have to think about all of this when I play the role. You have to look into that understanding of human nature.’ This is what allows Quast to build up his character’s façade to break it down in one very dramatic moment, where Ben meets Philip in the song the song ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ and the audience catch their breath.

‘That moment has developed to the point where I’ve been able to hone it —and it really does start to become uncomfortable. The director left it up to me to slightly improvise it every night, so that the audience genuinely gets the feel the moment. I think Sondheim calls it a Pirandello moment. It’s sort of a moment when you are in the middle of something and someone goes “I can’t hold this façade up any longer”, and for a second the audience actually goes, “Oh my God, Philip has stuffed it up”, and I cease to be Ben and I become Philip. It only has to be momentary, because they are on it quickly after that. But it has to feel uncomfortable, because that’s what we all do. It’s when we get caught out in real life, caught out in a lie. Most of us spend all our lives lying and the show starts with Weisman saying, “We all come together to lie about ourselves a little”. Everyone lies in order to protect themselves. So for a moment I come out, I sing this song, and it’s all smiles and I’m saying one thing and then I falter. The pain when you get caught out in a lie is excruciating.’

Quast brings this back to his classical theory perspective. ‘I apply everything I do to classical theatre. The thing about Follies, why a lot of it breaks down and actually makes it more like Chekhov, is because that’s the third act in Chekhov where alcohol plays a part. That’s also why we didn’t want to play it with an interval, or Dominic didn’t, because as you notice we start off with champagne, and gradually we hit hard liquor. It’s the alcohol that breaks it all down. That’s what happens in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, it’s what happens in Seagull, it happens in Uncle Vanya. When alcohol plays a part all stuff breaks down and things go wrong.’

Taking all of this into account, Follies is a nostalgia-driven musical full of what-ifs, hidden lives, and mistaken intentions. For this reason, Sondheim himself declared that there is no real plot to Follies. However, if one looks at the narrative, it might rather be the case that this enthralling musical presents a moral, rather than simply a linear, story. In the end, the point of the plot(lessness) is that life is a journey of many questions and few answers, with the survival trick being how we deal with the uncertainties.

Before we conclude the interview, one question looms: Are the rumours true that Follies is to be Quast’s last appearance in a musical?

‘Yes, I think so,’ Quast answers, ‘because I just don’t know what to do after this’. He candidly admits that he would rather use his teaching skills and knowledge of the industry to aid in the development of young actors than wake up one day to a review that says his voice is not as good as it was in his youth. And he has a lot of insight and lessons to share:‘I do believe that we are in the midst of a really, really interesting social experiment at the moment, and there are not many people of my age still performing who have such a current connection with young people. Physically, if young actors have a mobile phone in their hands all the time, and they get into a rehearsal room and they all of a sudden have nothing in their hands, they have difficulties. I understand that, because I’m part of that social experiment as well. I know the effect that it has on me, because I’ve been doing it long enough to see how it can affect my acting. These days, before actors even start rehearsals, they have watched the choices made by thousands of other people before and watched all the songs sung on YouTube. They don’t necessarily go through a process of discovery in rehearsal where you make a role your own […] Every time I’ve sat down to watch Les Mis, all I’ve seen is people mimicking my performance. What concerns me is that nothing is new anymore. Actors come to material already having been influenced by the choice of others, which means everything is mimicry, just regurgitation.’

The creative community can take heart from the fact that, at the very least, Quast will not disappear from the theatre scene completely, but will simply be exchanging the stage for the classroom. This makes the opportunity (afforded by the NT Live programme) to see Quast’s Ben in Follies at Cinema Nouveau (17 to 22 February 2018) and the Fugard Theatre (17 June 2018) all the more special.

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