One thing that makes the original production so different (and arguably more effective) than subsequent productions was Boris Aronson’s brilliant set. If you think of Follies as a series of brief, overlapping conversations happening in various corners of an old theater, then we, as the invisible audience eavesdropping on these private conversations, need to be able to glide (like ghosts) from niche to niche, moment to moment.
In most productions (like the clunky Eric Schaeffer production), the director makes the actors leave their corner, walk downstage center (glass in hand), do their short bit, wait for the audience reaction, and then walk away, just as the next group comes downstage and repeats the exercise. It’s a really artificial concept, and slows the pacing and the naturalism of the party. It also forces the actors (for the most part) to be standing.
Aronson’s set was a series of moving, raked platforms at different levels with steps, which could come together to form a long, curving staircase (Beautiful Girls), or seamlessly carry actors from some far corner of the stage to down front without the need for them to stand up or change their conversation positions. The effect was like a movie camera on a boom, moving us (the audience) rather than the actors. Conversations seemed to be overheard, not telegraphed. And a tall, lanky chorus girl ghost could glide in and out as well.
The platforms also made it a bit difficult to dance because of the rake and the different levels. I remember The Ballad of Lucy & Jessie as being particularly difficult on the diamond-shaped platform where it was performed. It forced a brilliant choreographer like Michael Bennett to be even more creative with his cast of older actors. I also remember how much I loved The Right Girl, because of the dance break that let Gene Nelson (an excellent Buddy) dance up, over, and around the set, ending in a slow, spiral, slide down what could best be called a stripper’s pole. And Loveland was played on top of these platforms as well, a lace doily of a backdrop against a not-to steady foundation.
I think of the Aronsen set as another of the Follies characters, and a big player in the success of the original production.