“Hat’s off, here they come!” Those ‘Beautiful Girls’ of the Weisman Follies will be getting together once more starting May 7 through June 19th in the new, widely anticipated Kennedy Center revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s enigmatic classic, “Follies”. Playing at the luxurious Eisenhower Theater in Washington D.C., the story explores a group of performers who reunite for one last reunion on the eve of their old theaters’ demolition, forcing them to face the changes brought about by the passage of time and the ’road you didn’t take”. Starring Bernadette Peters as Sally, Jan Maxwell as Phyllis, Linda Lavin as Hattie Walker and Elaine Paige as Carlotta Campion, also featured among the A-list cast is Musical Theater Veteran, Susan Watson as Emily Whitman. “Everyone’s getting very excited about this one!” she enthuses; “this is kind of fun to be going off to do a big musical again! I’ll be interested in [“Million Dollar Quartet’s”] Eric Shaeffer directing and Warren Carlysle as the Choreographer and to see what THEY do with it!”
Of course, big stage events are nothing new to Ms. Watson, a seasoned professional with some of the most celebrated musicals of recent times to her credit. A native of Tulsa Oklahoma, Susan admits she almost seemed predestined for a career in music, recalling how when she was eight years old, the family took a trip that some might consider fateful for the young girl. “I saw a production of “Oklahoma” in New York when our family was visiting and it really struck me–’that’s what I wanna do!” Surprisingly though, this lady with the voice of gold recalls that her very first time on stage wasn’t as a singer, but as a dancer! “I was about ten years old when I was in a Christmas Play in which I played a Ballerina, and I sort of got the beginning lesson of being on stage.”
Graduating from high school, she auditioned for and was accepted into “Julliard“ in NYC to study music and voice, where she spent a year. However, during this time she heard about a wonderful new show titled “Westside Story” and knew from the start she wanted to be a part of it. Sending letters directly to the theater, this tenacious up-and-comer would enquire when they were auditioning for cast replacements. Eventually her efforts paid off. “I got a reply that they were planning to take the production to London and they were going to be auditioning people in the Fall.” So, cast as a “Jet” named Velma, she headed off to London, foregoing her second year at the prestigious school.
Shortly after returning to the states, she appeared in a unique little tune-filled one-act staged at Barnard College in upstate New York; it was titled “The Fantasticks”. Written by a pair of newcomers named Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, if the lady has had a long association with the works of Stephen Sondheim, this is songwriting team who have probably had the most impact on her career. Susan’s involvement gave her the equally unique accolade of being the very first ever to play Luisa, the dreamy-eyed heroine in what would become the longest running musical in history! “It was just this one-act musical,” she reveals; “but we worked very hard doing backers auditions for the show to be produced.” As fate would have though, while preparing for “The Fantasticks” realize its first full-on production, the gifted young songstress was cast in another ground breaking musical–this one on Broadway. Originating the role of bobbysoxer Kim MacAfee in 1960’s hit “Bye Bye Birdie”, she instantly became one of musical theater’s favourite teenagers! “I got ’Bye-Bye Birdie’ and it was to open in May–the same time when they got their money, and we both opened the same month! I can remember saying to Harvey Schmidt, ‘What am I gonna do? I love this show so much but they’ve asked me to do ’Birdie’!” Happily, Schmidt’s wisdom and kindness took center stage. “He said, ‘It’s a BROADWAY show, Susie–you have to take it!, which was very dear,” she smiles. “Looking back, I’ve had a wonderful ‘trip’ on Broadway. I think one of the happiest thoughts is getting on the bus to go downtown to the Broadway area to do a show every night!”
Since then, this veteran of the footlights has performed in numerous productions–by Jones and Schmidt especially. In fact, if Mary Martin was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s favourite to write for, and Liza Minnelli was the same for Kander and Ebb, so has Watson been inspirational for this team! In 1964, she recreated her role in a TV version of the “Fantasticks” starring Ricardo Montalban and John Davidson. She likewise reminisces about visiting the guys in Italy a few years later while they were working on another of their Broadway mega-hits, “I Do, I Do”, and being asked to help them work out a distinctly challenging section in what would become the show’s signature piece, “My Cup Runneth Over”. Little surprise then when it came time for her to record a CD, she dedicated it to the two gentlemen whose music she has helped immortalize. Taking its title from a number in their play, “Collette”, (based on the life of the French Authoress) “Earthly Paradise” is a celebration of the songs of Schmidt and Jones, available from ‘CD Baby’ (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/susanwatson) “I’ve done so many of Tom and Harvey’s shows over the years, I wanted to do their songs“ ” she beams; “and it was great fun. I had a nice time making this!” And it shows–the collection is a veritable goldmine of hard-to-find numbers, alternate versions of songs, and genuine buried treasures–all which rank it as must-have listening for anyone who savors the art of a genuinely exquisite vocalist!
Currently gearing up yet another momentous project, she laughs, “This is gonna be something at the Kennedy Center,” adding “It will be fun too, cause I‘ll be working with some really good pros. We have some VERY strong people doing the leads.” In addition, the woman once hailed as “The Quintessential Ingénue Grown Up” is insightful as to why this specific show engenders such amazing devotion from its fans world-wide. “The music is just gorgeous and the songs are so interesting. It’s a rather dynamic story of how people were and are, and how they see themselves–and ’realize’ themselves.” Called “A Beautiful, Broken Hearted Musical” by the New York Times, the score alone is counted among the composer’s most moving and profound, boasting such standards as “Broadway Baby,” “Losing My Mind,” “Who’s That Woman?”, and “Listen To The Rain On The Roof” (–the tap dancing duet presented by Watson and Terrence Currier who portrays Emily’s husband, Theodore.) “The more you hear the songs and the music, the more it grows on you!” the actress notes.
Furthermore, Susan divulges that “Emily” is one half of the terpsichorean twosome, “The Dancing Whitmans”, explaining “I can tell you that since last they were seen on the stage as a young duo, they’re now dance teachers.” As it happens, this detail too, has given her a chance to draw from her own life-experience. “During my early years, there was a wonderful teacher in Tulsa,” she observes; “Emily’s situation takes me back to Miss Eva, my teacher, so I think I’m going in that direction with it as far as ’who am I’ in this.”
Like the “dyed-in-the-wool” trouper she’s playing, this award-winning stage star has successfully navigated the changing phases of a life “treading the boards”. Understudy, Principal, Featured Player or Character Part, if anyone deserves to belt out “I’m Still Here” it’s this awesome talent. “I can’t complain–I’ve touched many different aspects of music with it all around me. How lucky I am to have had that. A lot of people don’t get to do what they love to do all the time!” For more information about “Follies“, log onto:
www.kennedy-center.org/tickets ; Tickets may be charged by phone through Instant-Charge from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m EST daily by calling (202) 467-4600 or toll-free at: (800) 444-1324.
Special Thanks to Paul Lambert, Stephanie O’Neill and The Kennedy Center, and Ms. Susan Watson for their assistance in making this story possible.