Monday, April 04, 2011
The road Sondheim took in 1971
By Edward Copeland
That clip of Laurence Guittard accompanied by Donna McKechnie as well as Michael Gruber and Danette Holden, the actors playing the young versions of their characters Ben Stone and Sally Durant, and Billy Hartung as the young Buddy Plummer, comes from the great 1998 production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies by the Paper Mill Playhouse of Millburn, N.J. Follies premiered on Broadway 40 years ago today, the second in Sondheim's incredible run of musicals directed by Harold Prince in the 1970s. It followed their groundbreaking musical Company the year before which earned 14 Tony nominations and won six, including best musical. A big difference with Follies was that its famed choreographer Michael Bennett was credited alongside Prince as co-director. I was fortunate enough to see the Paper Mill production of Follies, living in Parsippany, N.J., at the time. What a heady cast it had. In addition to Guittard (who earned a Tony nomination as Count Malcolm in the original Broadway production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music) and McKechnie (the original Cassie in A Chorus Line), the cast included Dee Hoty, Tony Roberts, Eddie Bracken, Ann Miller, Kaye Ballard, Phyllis Newman and Liliane Montevecchi. I'd never seen a Follies production before that, but it already was one of my favorite Sondheim scores, despite the fact the cast recording of the 1971 original is widely considered one of the all-time botch jobs. It's so incredible that many numbers were cut during the process of putting the show together so Paper Mill did a great service by doing a cast recording that not only included the show's songs but recordings by the cast of the many cut numbers, making it the most complete recording ever. It's a treasure, but then almost every song from Follies is a gem even if, as is often the problem with many musicals, especially Sondheim's, the book by James Goldman doesn't meet the same level of excellence as the brilliant compositions. As our intrepid Senior New York Theater Correspondent Josh R said, "On rare occasions — and I think that they are more rare than many are given to suppose — a book doesn’t make or break a show, and the score of Follies is so rich, varied and gorgeous to listen to that it can probably absorb whatever deficiencies the show has as a whole. Certainly, Follies’ flaws haven’t prevented it from enjoying an extended life beyond its initial production; the show is always seemingly going up somewhere, and audiences are always happy to greet its return." How true Josh's words are, and that's why I salute the 40th anniversary of Follies' Broadway opening.
The story takes place in 1971. The Weismann Theater, home to The Weismann Follies since 1918, is about to be torn down. Dmitri Weismann, the impresario who produced the shows, is giving a party on the stage of the theater and has invited all the living performers, along with their husbands and wives, to celebrate the nostalgia of the occasion. During the course of the party, we meet them all, but the action chiefly involves two chorus girls from the 1941 Follies, Sally Durant and Phyllis Rogers, who were best friends then and haven't seen each other since. They are escorted by their husbands, Buddy Plummer and Benjamin Stone, who courted them when they were in the show.
Stephen Sondheim writing his description of Follies in Finishing the Hat
The musical's first number is "Beautiful Girls," sung by the character of Roscoe, that introduces all the women. I used the clip from the Paper Mill production not only so you could see all the talented actresses assembled for the production but so you could see the introductory speech of Dmitri Weismann given by none other than Eddie Bracken, who film buffs know from many Preston Sturges classics and younger moviegoers will recognize as Roy Walley from National Lampoon's Vacation. Roscoe is played by Vahan Khanzadian.
Believe it or not (actually, it's quite easy to believe given his penchant for puzzles and his co-writing of the film The Last of Sheila and his short-lived play Getting Away With Murder), Sondheim and book-writer James Goldman, who won an Oscar for adapting his own play, The Lion in Winter, originally intended Follies to be a musical murder mystery. As Sondheim wrote further in Finishing the Hat, a must for any Sondheim fanatic as he goes over the process and lyrics for all his shows between 1954 and 1981:
The first draft of the script began with a brief moody opening, as the guests — the four principals and the other Weismann performers — arrived, shadowed spookily by their ghosts. Once the mood had been established, the plot proper began. When we read the draft over, we found that once the plot began, the show felt contrived and convoluted. So on the second round we extended the setting of the mood a bit longer and more elaborately, and delayed the machinations of a plot until later in the evening. Once again, as we read it to ourselves, the show gripped us until the plot took over. Gradually, we realized the obvious: what was wrong with the show was the plot — the mood and atmosphere were everything, the events secondary. The epiphany was clinched when we attended the first-anniversary party for Fiddler on the Roof, which was held on the stage of the Imperial Theatre. After a couple of hours had gone by and the guests were getting nicely soused, I suggested to James we sit in the orchestra and watch the activity on the stage. As we did so, one of the guests looked at his half-eaten sandwich with dismay, glanced around to find a place to deposit it and, not succeeding, dropped it into the orchestra pit. I turned to Jim and said, "There's our show."
As unbelievable as it seems today, the two top New York theater critics at the time, Clive Barnes and Walter Kerr at The New York Times didn't care much for Follies when it opened. Barnes wrote April 5, 1971, the morning after its opening, "The musical Follies, which opened last night at the Winter Garden, is the kind of musical that should have its original cast album out on 78's. It carries nostalgia to where sentiment finally engulfs it in its sickly maw." Barnes did at least acknowledge it had some good lyrics, an understatement, to say the least, but Clive sounded sour when complimenting those as well, giving the music that accompanied them a thorough lashing at the same time:
Mr. Sondheim's music comes in two flavors — nostalgic and cinematic. The nostalgic kind is for the pseudo-oldies numbers, and I must say that most of them sound like numbers that you have almost only just forgotten, but with good reason. This non-hit parade of pastiche trades on camp, but fundamentally gives little in return. It has all the twists and turns of yesteryear, but none of the heart — and eventually the fun it makes of the past seems to lack something in affection. The cinematic music is a mixture of this and that, chiefly that I doubt whether anyone will be parodying it in 30 or 40 years' time.
The lyrics are as fresh as a daisy. I know of no better lyricist in show-business than Mr. Sondheim — his words are a joy to listen to, even when his music is sending shivers of indifference up your spine. The man is a Hart in search of a Rodgers, or even a Boito in search of a Verdi.
I have no access to what Kerr wrote since that requires a fee, but it should be remembered that the musicals of Prince and Sondheim in the 1970s marked a bit of a changing of the guard. Barnes, whose first love had always been as a dance critic, had reviewed dance at various publications since 1953 and theater, film and television since 1956. Walter Kerr, himself an occasional writer of plays and musicals, whose collaboration with his wife Jean Kerr, Goldilocks, won two Tonys in 1958, seven years after he'd first began a job as a theater critic, also taught speech and drama at The Catholic University of America. Don't see any conflicts there. Still, it didn't stop him from getting a Pulitzer Prize in Criticism for his theater reviews in 1978. Thankfully, the Old Guard didn't represent everyone in 1971. In fact, it prompted another writer at The New York Times, Martin Gottfried, to pen a contrary opinion on the new musical in the same newspaper that ran Barnes' and Kerr's pans. Gottfried wrote on April 25, 1971:
Neither Clive Barnes nor Walter Kerr liked Follies and they are this newspaper's drama critics. I am not about to say that they were "wrong," and right and wrong, rave and pan are the least of theater criticism anyway. I do believe, though, that every artwork is either good or it isn't, and I am convinced that Follies is monumental theater. Not because I say so but because it is there for anybody to see. Moreover, its importance as a kind of theater transcends its interest as an example of a musical. I mean to notice this in The New York Times because if this truly great work is not recognized in these pages, then a part of reality will have gone unrecorded here.
Follies is not just another hit show. Had it not succeeded so tremendously at what it was trying to do, the attempt alone — the very idea — would have made it a landmark musical. At a time when our musical theater is in a frightful state, devoid of even its traditional professionalism, this production has moved it to a new plateau, has reminded us that the musical is a theater form. For those who take the musical theater as seriously as it deserves, this show will henceforth be the standard. Aspirations to opera are now obviously absurd. The musical stage is unique and capable of the mighty.
Follies is a concept musical, a show whose music, lyrics, dance, stage movement and dialogue are woven through each other in the creation of a tapestry-like theme (rather than in support of a plot).
One major publication saw that Follies represented something big on Broadway and it demonstrated how important a moment the opening of this musical was the way it signified other landmarks in politics or world events: Time magazine put the show on its cover with Alexis Smith, who played the original Phyllis and won a Tony for her performance, giving a high kick next to the headline "That Old Magic Relights Broadway." The article in the May 3, 1971, issue titled "Show Business: The Once and Future Follies." The lead will make you cry, given what legitimate tickets on Broadway go for 40 years later. "The newest hot ticket on Broadway these days — $55 a pair from scalpers — is an admission to a haunted house." $55 for two tickets from a scalper, presumably above ticket price? That's a lucky discount price now for a single seat. Sigh... "Elegiac strains of the '20s, '30s and '40s hover in the wings. Ectoplasmic chorines, all beads and feather boas, wander across the stage like Ziegfeld girls come back to life. Characters are at once 19 and 49. Time bounces off the walls, like sound and light brilliantly altered and distorted. The show at the Winter Garden Theater is called Follies, a title self-consciously suggesting irony and double meanings. At its worst moments, Follies is mannered and pretentious, overreaching for Significance. At its best moments — and there are many — it is the most imaginative and original new musical that Broadway has seen in years." Though, as even I said at the beginning, while the score might be peerless, it's within the book where the problems lie. As the Time article later states, "Some contend that James Goldman...has supplied less of a book than a book jacket." Before I leave this critical reception alone, I have to mention a great find that the wonderful Paper Mill recording includes. It's an article called "The Last Musical," reprinted with permission, that ran in The Harvard Crimson on Feb. 26, 1971, by one of its students, a certain young man named Frank Rich. He's reviewing the Boston tryout of Follies before it made its way to New York. I'll just quote one small portion that young Mr. Rich has to say about Follies.
It is a measure of this show's brilliance (and its brilliance is often mind-boggling) that it uses a modern musical form, rather than the old-fashioned one that the Follies helped create, to get at its concerns. As in his Company of last year, producer-director Prince has thrown out the time-honored musical convention of using songs to advance a simple-minded script in favor of letting the music add new levels of meaning to a sophisticated libretto (by James Goldman). In this way, the central plot idea of Follies becomes merely one more ingredient of the show rather than its raison d'etre.
Though Follies ran 522 performances, it ultimately lost money in its Broadway run. It did earn 11 Tony nominations and won seven, though it lost best musical to Two Gentlemen of Verona even though Sondheim won score and Prince and Bennett won direction. Given its less-than-successful original run and the expensive production itself, there had been no rush to mount a Broadway revival. There was a 1986 all-star concert version mounted at the New York Philharmonic, mainly to create a more complete recording than the 1971 OCR. A documentary of the concert with many of the performances is available on DVD, but it just gives you a taste. There is no commercially available record of a complete production as there is with so many other Sondheim shows for people unable to see stage versions to watch.
I keep bringing up The Paper Mill production so much, not only because I got to see it and it was phenomenal, but it drew such praise there had been discussion of transferring it to Broadway for a revival. The cast, many of whom I mentioned earlier, included Phyllis Newman as Stella Deems performing "Who's That Woman?" and Liliane Montevecchi as Solange La Fitte performing "Ah, Paris," — the same parts the actresses played in the 1986 concert version. Unfortunately, for some reason James Goldman nixed the transfer, disliking some changes Paper Mill made. However, Goldman died later in 1998.
A different revival, approved by Goldman's widow Bobbi, did open on Broadway in 2001, and Josh R did get to see it. Josh writes that the 2001 revival:
...placed the emphasis on decay but showed little respect for the true show’s assets, (Phyllis) was played by Blythe Danner, performing in the manner of one attending the funeral of person they didn’t know particularly well — the character may be jaded, but the actress portraying her should probably try to avoid seeming bored being onstage. The critical flaw of the production came in cast non-singers in the principal roles; in addition to Danner, the Roundabout production featured Judith Ivey as Sally, Gregory Harrison as Ben and Treat Williams as Buddy. (Bobbi Goldman) justified this approach to the press by claiming it was more grounded in realism — Phyllis and Sally were always supposed to be minimally talented chorus performers who never had the singing chops to be stars. That might make sense in a show in which lack of talent (or someone’s delusions of having it) plays into the pathos of the situation, and enhances the audience’s experience of it — Natasha Richardson’s tinny vocals in the 1998 revival of Cabaret brought the hopelessness of Sally Bowles’ plight into much clearer focus than Liza Minnelli’s collection of showstoppers ever did. A deconstructionist take on a show that was deconstructionist to begin with can only work if the dramatic structure can support it — and the book of Follies can only fitfully support the score as it is.
Josh's take wasn't an isolated one as the Broadway revival didn't come close to garnering the raves that the Paper Mill production did and didn't last long. The 2001 revival only garnered five Tony nominations and won zero. Perhaps one of the changes the Paper Mill version made that displeased the Goldmans was the swapping of one song, though I think Sondheim would find that more troublesome since he was the composer. What makes that silly is that it was a great switch. They took Phyllis' original good song "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" and replaced it with the fantastic "Ah, But Underneath." Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat that for reasons he can't recall, he rewrote the "Loveland" sequence, where the four principal characters get their big solos, for the London premiere production and that's where "Ah, But Underneath" originated. He says in his book that while he probably wasted his time writing most of the other songs in the London version, "Ah, But Underneath" has proved a worthy substitution for "Lucy and Jessie" in some productions, so he didn't object. In the 2001 Broadway revival, "Lucy and Jessie" was back. I couldn't find a good YouTube copy of Alexis Smith singing "Lucy and Jessie" from the original or even one of Blythe Danner, so I've substituted Donna Murphy singing most of it at an 2007 Encores concert. After that, there is a good quality clip of Dee Hoty as Phyllis performing "Ah, But Underneath" in the Paper Mill production. You decide which is the better song. I don't think it's a contest.
Of course, picking the best Sondheim songs becomes an almost futile task in general, even if restricted to only the songs written for Follies which, as I and countless others have said, earns its beloved reputation based on Sondheim's many compositions, not on the story. When I first started conceiving this tribute, I thought perhaps the most appropriate way to celebrate Follies would be to just try to re-create the show via YouTube clips of performances of the score, but there are so many, I had to leave some out, and others simply didn't have clips good enough to use. It pains me that I'm not using a clip of "Broadway Baby." I so wanted there to be a clip of the recently passed Betty Garrett performing it in the 2001 Broadway revival which Josh R said, she "delivered with a seasoned old trouper’s zest," but none exists. I also decided that I would try not to use the same performers more than once (though I break that rule for comparison purposes later on anyway) so the one YouTube clip that I really could have used I ruled out because I'm saving that artist for the closing number. Then-young Daisy Eagan singing it at the Sondheim Celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1992 is fun, but that song really needs to be heard from the pipes of a survivor as it is in the context of the show.
"Broadway Baby," along with most of the other first act numbers, all provide great single shot songs for the various former Weismann girls in a variety of musical styles approximating the eras in which the women were supposed to have been a part of the show. The four principals (Buddy and Sally, Ben and Phyllis) also have songs in this section but their big solo turns get saved for the Act II "Loveland" section, a sort of Follies within Follies. You've heard Phyllis' two alternating numbers, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" and "Ah But Underneath," but the Ben number I led this post with, "The Road You Didn't Take," actually comes from Act I. Before "Loveland" begins though, Phyllis gets another great number as she and Ben contemplate ending their marriage. I wanted to use a clip of the original Phyllis, Alexis Smith, but it was faulty, so I've gone with Lee Remick from the 1986 concert. She's singing to George Hearn as Ben.
The first of the principals to get their "Loveland" solo is Buddy and I've returned to Paper Mill again where Tony Roberts played the role and sang "Buddy's Blues," which can be referred to by a much longer, hyphenated title.
With a score as rich and varied (and vast when you add all the numbers that were in different incarnations of the show or were never in the show at all), it's difficult to try to point to one of Sondheim's compositions for Follies and name it as my favorite. If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, I might go with Sally's "Loveland" number, "Losing My Mind," which I've chosen a clip of the great Barbara Cook performing in the 1986 concert.
If we were doing this strictly chronologically, Phyllis' number (whichever one the production in question would choose) would come next. Here is where I will violate my own rule by using the same singer twice as a means of comparison. Josh R wrote of how the 2001 Broadway revival was hurt by it use of nonsingers, so in order to compare, here back to back you can listen to Gregory Harrison as Ben singing "Live, Laugh, Love" followed by Laurence Guittard doing the same number in the Paper Mill production. The Guittard clip goes into the show's finale, but cuts off before it ends, but it has enough to make my point. Harrison is the first clip.
Now, if Follies has a "hit" which everyone knows, that's "I'm Still Here," that anthem of defiance from a show biz vet sung by Carlotta. So many people have sung it, it's hard to choose who to give the honor of singing it to close this salute. The late Yvonne De Carlo (better known to some as Lily Munster) got to introduce the song in the 1971 version. Carol Burnett took it on in the 1986 concert. I got to see the great Ann Miller sing it at Paper Mill. Polly Bergen's interpretation in the 2001 revival earned her a Tony nomination and Josh said, she "more or less stole the production I saw with her full-throated, alternately wistful and defiant rendition of the standard, and demonstrated how good Follies’ first major Broadway revival could have been if every member of its cast had been able to do similar justice to its score." Sondheim has only re-written its lyrics twice: for Shirley MacLaine to sing as a fictionalized Debbie Reynolds in Postcards From the Edge and for Barbra Streisand for a comeback concert (though in Finishing the Hat Sondheim is quick to point out that Streisand added the militant feminism. Perhaps that's why he killed her plan to make a film version of Gypsy to be directed by Tom "I can work a camcorder" Hooper of King's Speech fame). Anyway, of the clips available, I felt I had but one choice, because she is a survivor and I love her. From her one-woman show "At Liberty," here's Elaine Stritch singing "I'm Still Here."
Stritch is still here and so is Follies. Later this year, a big production has been planned for The Kennedy Center in Washington. Being directed by Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer, it has a cast that will make any Sondheim fanatic salivate. Announced so far: Jan Maxwell as Phyllis, Danny Burstein as Buddy, Ron Raines as Ben, Elaine Paige as Carlotta and Bernadette Peters as Sally. Performances are set for May 7-June 19. Wish I could see it. If nothing else, I hope I'll get to hear it. I'll be here.