I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant, but I’m not a fan of reunions. I’ve always thought they were too focused on the past – and often more sad than joyful. Lately that feeling’s been reinforced as a consequence of Stephen Sondheim’s death. Sondheim’s musical theater work is not traditional in the Rodgers and Hammerstein sense. No tunes to whistle. No catchy one liners. No surrey with the fringe on top. I had a philosophy professor who told me Kierkegaard was hard work but worth the effort. I feel the same about Sondheim.
The more I dig into his repertoire, the more complex and difficult it becomes. First came West Side Story and Gypsy, shows he wrote the lyrics for but others wrote the music. They were big Tony Award winners, but Sondheim wanted to write both words and music. His first successful effort was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but it wasn’t until Company (1970) and Follies (1971) that he found the formless form that became his signature style and marked a sea change in musical theater.
Both productions won multiple Tony’s. I’m especially taken with Follies, a period piece built around the reunion of a group of showgirls from Weissman’s Follies (think Ziegfeld), a musical revue that took place between the two World Wars. The play is set 30 years after their last performance. The “girls” are getting together in the crumbling theater where it all took place to reminisce.
Follies makes my case for reunions. There’s anticipation and nostalgia for shared experiences and past relationships, but for the most part they disappoint and trigger memories of old resentments and unmet hopes.
At my age, the future has a short horizon but backward is a dead letter file. One of the jokes about reunions is that participants often say “Who were all those old people?” We want to see ourselves as we were in the old days, but we’re not the same people we were 30, 40, 50 years ago – inside or out. We are those old people.
I’m a member of a several groups that get together regularly, grade school (annually), fighter squadron (every two years), high school, college, and law school (every five years or ten years) and Pan Am where I was a pilot for 20 years. I’ve been to a few of these gatherings over the years, but the only ones I’ve enjoyed are the informal ones with old friends. There are relatively few unfulfilled expectations.
The hardest ones, for me, are the annual Pan Am gatherings. Notwithstanding the fact that I dislike reunions in general, this one is a petri dish swarming with anger and maudlin memories of the company’s collapse along with the subsequent loss of income, pensions, friendships, and in many cases identities.
In Follies, the old showgirls, shadowed by ghost-like younger versions of themselves, snipe at each other and clumsily replay their greatest hits. One sings I’m a Broadway Baby. Another one belts out I’m Still Here. They circle each other. They smile and stab, but the curtain came down 30 years ago.
Pan Am collapsed 30 years ago in December. Once the world’s greatest airline, it failed to adapt to a changing environment, was mismanaged, and fell on hard times. An unregulated industry allowed vulture airlines to swoop in and cannibalize its assets. In a few short years it was out of business.
I loved my time at Pan Am and the many friends I made there, but I’m not interested in replaying our greatest hits. I’m not judging those who do attend. I understand wanting to see old friends, but it doesn’t work for me. The crowd is too large. No time to really visit. It feels like we’re the remnant caught up in a time warp and circling the drain. We’re old now, fearful, and dying off. Is that all that’s left? I definitely feel a kinship, but most of my friends have changed and moved on.
Ironically, I received an email this morning from the pilot friend who has held this group together for 30 years. It was to tell us that the reunion scheduled for San Diego last October and rescheduled for April this year has been cancelled. Covid is the culprit, and he, the prime mover, is finished. “Due to my age (90) and physical capability I will not be involved in any future Pan Am social events.”
More than 300 former employees were signed up to attend the gathering in San Diego. His departure probably signifies the end of the Pan Am reunions. He has my deepest sympathies but it feels like the right time for the last curtain call.
Follies is worth watching (as is Company). Both plays hold a mirror up to the past and ask us to examine it and our relationships realistically.
“Folly plural follies:
- a lack of good sense or normal prudence and foresight, as in “his folly in thinking he could not be caught.”
- a foolish act or idea, as in “the prank was a youthful folly.”