In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review a Connecticut revival of The Will Rogers Follies. Here’s an excerpt.
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Will Rogers is mostly forgotten now, but he used to be famous in a way that has a peculiarly modern feel to it. A self-styled Cherokee cowboy turned lariat-twirling vaudevillian, he told jokes, most of them political, in between rope tricks, blandly assuring his listeners that “all I know is what I read in the papers.” In time the jokes became the point of his act, and he moved from vaudeville to Broadway to radio to, finally, Hollywood, where he made 69 movies, three of them directed by John Ford, knocking out a popular syndicated newspaper column in between takes. H.L. Mencken once called him “the most dangerous writer alive” to his face, and while Mencken was kidding, it was on the square. Rogers’ cornpone opinionizing (“Politics has got so expensive that it takes lots of money to even get beat with”) was taken so seriously by his fans that Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt both went out of their way to curry his favor. He would be vastly better remembered today had he not died in a plane crash in 1935. Instead, he has become a footnote to the history of America in the 20th century—except when “The Will Rogers Follies” is performed….
A Tommy Tune-directed glitzmobile with a score by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green and a book by Peter Stone (“1776”), it ran for 981 performances and won six Tonys, including the best-musical and best-original-score prizes. But “The Will Rogers Follies” has yet to return to Broadway, and even though it continues to be staged on occasion by amateurs and students, professional productions of the show have long since become rare enough that I made a point of going to Goodspeed Musicals’ revival to find out what I’d been missing—and was very happily surprised by how entertaining it proved to be.
The premise of “The Will Rogers Follies” is that Rogers (David Lutken) has come back from the dead to star in a “Ziegfeld Follies”-type bring-on-the-showgirls revue that tells the story of his rise to fame and fortune….
The success of a show like this is wholly contingent on its star, and Mr. Lutken, who understudied Rogers’ part in the original Broadway production and is now best known for playing Woody Guthrie in his own “Woody Sez,” has star quality in abundance…
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Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for Goodspeed Musicals’ revival of The Will Rogers Follies
The cast of the original Broadway production of The Will Rogers Follies, introduced by Julie Andrews, appears on the 1991 Tony Awards telecast:
Will Rogers introduces Franklin D. Roosevelt at a 1932 campaign stop in Hollywood. Roosevelt, then governor of New York, was running against Herbert Hoover for the presidency. This clip was part of a Pathé News theatrical newsreel: