As Jess McCabe pointed out very recently indeed, parts for older women on screen are scarce. This problem, most recently very visible in the example Jess gives of Jennifer Garner (39) being cast as elderly spinster Miss Marple, has been going on a long time. When Angela Lansbury was cast in 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate she was only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who played her son.
It’s not that this problem doesn’t exist on stage, but there is more flexibility around age—performers frequently work later into their lives and play parts that are written as much younger than the actress herself (something that rarely happens in Hollywood). Some of my favorite theater actresses—Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, and more—are more than sixty, seventy, even eighty years old, and are still active performers. Peters won a Tony in 1999 for playing Annie Oakley, who during the time period that Annie Get Your Gun is set was certainly not in her early 50s—yet the actress was.
Perhaps no show serves as a better celebration of the older actress than Follies. The show is set at a reunion of former Follies showgirls in the theater they once performed, which is about to be torn down. The core cast features numerous older women “recreating” the numbers that, in the context of the story, they once performed when young. I thought I’d share some performances from a variety of productions of the show with you all. The breadth of roles for older actresses in this show is wonderful, and a sign of one way, at least, in which live theater pulls ahead of screen work most of the time.
[video: A grainy photograph of Ethel Shutta from the original Broadway cast of Follies. It is set to Shutta (74 at the time of recording) singing “Broadway Baby”.]
[video: Footage of Yma Sumac (68 at time of recording) singing “One More Kiss” in a 1990 LA revival]
[video: Footage of Donna Murphy (49 at the time of this recording) singing “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” in the 2007 City Centre Encores! production]
[video: Footage of Bernadette Peters (63) performing “Losing My Mind” at this year’s Kennedy Centre production, opening on Broadway September 12th. This song has extremely problematic lyrics with respect to mental illness, as a warning.]
Many of the songs from Follies, including three of the above four, are not infrequently performed in a solo or cabaret context, often by women much younger than those cast in the show. While they work in this context, their placement in the original show is ultimately, I feel, much more poignant—it adds a layer of depth to songs like “Broadway Baby” that just isn’t present when they are sung by a younger performer.
There is one song, however, that is in itself an anthem of survival, and one only suited to an older performer. It’s about making it, against all odds, and about refusing to stop. About keeping going, regardless of how people’s perception of you changes—or your falling out of the public eye altogether. Here, performing at Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert, is Elaine Stritch (85 at this performance) singing “I’m Still Here”.