OK, so I begin with an unabashed grin … I got to meet Bernadette Peters on Saturday night, and I was thrilled. I’ve been a big fan of hers for nearly 30 years, I have all of her records, I’ve seen several of her Broadway musicals, and I have soundtracks of them all.
On Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, I attended opening night of a major revival of the musical Follies, which won seven Tony awards when it debuted in 1971. Then, I was lucky enough to find myself backstage with a chance to shake hands with the star. That was the highlight of the evening: the play itself was profoundly depressing, and I found myself wanting to console Bernadette for having to play such a heart-rending role.
The plot line of Follies is that, just before an old theater is torn down in 1971, the producer of “Weismann’s Follies” gathers former show girls from the 1920s and 30s for a reunion. The play centers on two of the former dancers, Sally (played by Peters) and Phyllis (played by Jan Maxwell). Both are miserable in their marriages. Sally still wishes she was married to Phyllis’ husband, Ben, and her own husband, Buddy, has a mistress. Phyllis has grown weary of Ben’s emotional distance, both have dabbled in affairs.
Though there are a few light moments, the show is filled with regrets, recriminations, the ghosts of youth, and songs that are both sad and angry. At one point, both focal marriages appear to be over and with good reason, but at show’s end all have surrendered themselves to living in misery because it seems the best they can do. Hope, in the play, is a rare commodity.
All of that struck a nerve with me, I suppose, because I think many people invest way too much time and energy on regrets. We have all made decisions, for good or bad, that influenced who and where we are today. It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing “what if?” and wondering how life would be different if we have made different choices.
The truth is, we can’t know. Life might be better; it might not. Most of us, I think, make the best decisions we know how to make, given the information we have and the level of maturity we possess when it comes time to choose a course. None of us can see the future when we make those decisions, and the truth is that none of us can look back and say with certainty how our lives would be different if we had made different choices in the past.
We have done what we have done; we are who we are; we remain responsible for making choices about who and what we will become. As I see it, there’s little room in that equation for regrets: we need to find a way to be thankful for what lies behind and hopeful for what lies ahead.
Getting stuck in the past or resigning ourselves to misery in the present — now those are follies.