FOLLIES IN REHEARSAL By Peter Filichia
The first four words in Ted Chapin’s EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE haven’t aged well.
However, in his remarkable history of FOLLIES from pre-production to closing night, Chapin isn’t responsible for the now-obsolete start of the sentence.
Frank Rich is.
In the foreword of the 2003 book, Rich wrote “More than three decades after its premiere, FOLLIES remains the most elusive of landmark Broadway musicals.”
Now we must update that line to “More than five decades,” for FOLLIES recently celebrated the golden anniversary of its Winter Garden premiere on April 4.
So what better time to revisit EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE, easily one of the greatest books among all those written about musical theater? What other one is so detailed in showing the time, energy and money spent on costumes for a cast (of forty-seven, no less)? No, twelve dollars then isn’t twelve dollars now, but an inflation calculator will tell you that it translates to seventy-eight dollars today for a first row orchestra seat. Looking back on it now, they were giving it away.
Chapin admitted that “my experience would have been a whole lot less interesting had the show not become FOLLIES.” How right he was when writing “It is now considered a legend, a cult, a landmark.” But, as Chapin conceded, “At the time, we were all just hoping for a good, old-fashioned smash hit.”
More invested in its success were Harold Prince, the producer and co-director; Michael Bennett, co-director and choreographer; James Goldman, librettist – and last, but hardly least, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
As they were planning to bring this original musical to Broadway before the end of the 1970-71 season, Chapin was a twenty-year-old student at Connecticut College. He first petitioned the school’s powers-that-be to do an independent study and assist on this new show. To his delight – and ultimately ours – he was granted approval to be, as he said, “free labor.”
The budget would have been higher had he received a weekly paycheck. Chapin couldn’t be sure of the exact number of investors, but he believed there were “somewhere between 170 and 207” who provided between “$875 and $52,500.” But the show budgeted at $700K eventually cost $800K; some say Prince put up the rest.
Could that extra expense be why Prince wasn’t inclined to spend more to rent the Winter Garden sign? How shocking to find that he was slow to agree to it. Can you imagine a long-running show at that theater that didn’t sport the glorious sign which then took up virtually the entire block?
That’s especially true of FOLLIES because of David Edward Byrd’s unforgettable logo. As Prince stated, it was “the best poster I ever had” – an opinion that undoubtedly lasted the rest of his life. Thousands upon thousands have agreed. If I had a nickel for every apartment I’ve entered where either a window card or three-sheet was in evidence, I’d have enough to buy a pepperoni pizza (and not merely from a ninety-nine-cent outlet).
From the first day of rehearsal, Chapin saw the staff “work hard to create something a little different from anything that had come before.” It didn’t come easily. For a while, the script literally concluded with the lines “Still to be written.” No wonder that Prince describes that opening day of rehearsals as “sort of a group nervous breakdown.”
Worse, Sondheim had yet to write what would become “Love Will See Us Through,” “The Right Girl,” “Buddy’s Blues” and “Live, Laugh, Love.” And if those weren’t enough, there was that music for the Bolero, too, which was his responsibility. (He’d compose that in a taxi.) At least he did have one new song to debut that day he met the cast: “Ah, Paree!” for French Follies character Solange.
Not in attendance that morning were Craig (HERE’S LOVE) Stevens, John (THE PAJAMA GAME) Raitt or Don (SILK STOCKINGS) Ameche. All had been considered for Benjamin Stone, but John McMartin landed the part. Barbara Cook wasn’t around, either; although she’d been mentioned for Sally, she had to wait more than fourteen years to play her when she did FOLLIES IN CONCERT.
Observing that day, however, “was a large contingency of family and friends” including John Guare, who came away entranced by the show’s possibilities. Louis Botto of LOOK magazine had already been impressed, for he’d previously read the script and had stated “It is to the American musical what VIRGINIA WOOLF was to the American drama.”
Yes, just as Albee’s play had done, FOLLIES offered two marriages in crisis. Sondheim’s songs, wrote Chapin, were “full of heart even when they delineate arid disappointed lives.” Goldman, in an earlier letter to Prince, had written “Our people have unfinished business with the past and when the show is over they have finished with it.”
Chapin let us see how vitally important Michael Bennett was to FOLLIES. Costuming the ghosts in black-and-white costumes was his idea. When he heard that Heidi Schiller, the operetta star, was to be seen in wheelchair, he suggested that she stand upright and hold a cane.
Most remarkably, after Bennett had heard Sondheim’s opening number – “Bring on the Girls” – he asked that it be replaced. Sondheim could have pulled rank, saying among other utterances that he was working on Broadway when Bennett was a high-school freshman. But he obliged and replaced it with (the much better) “Beautiful Girls.”
Considering that “Who’s That Woman?” turned out so spectacularly (it’s still the best production number I’ve ever seen), there’s no surprise in learning that this was the first song that Bennett tackled in rehearsal. He knew he’d need ample time to do it right.
Because set designer Boris Aronson ordered a stage that would be raked – and many of the cast members weren’t as young as they once were – Bennett was the one who said they’d best rehearse on it for two solid weeks before leaving for the Boston tryout.
The most eerie Bennett revelation? That he predicted he’d be dead by forty-five. Alas for him and all of Broadway, he was even a year younger when he died of AIDS.
Chapin took us through the false starts and experimentation. Prince originally didn’t like “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow.” “Broadway Baby” was originally before “Ah, Paree!” Carlotta’s number “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” originally involved her escort Randy. The couple that would sing “Rain on the Roof” were first known as “The Whistling Whitmans” but their warbling was eliminated and the actress was replaced.
Chapin said that during rehearsals, “on a couple of occasions I stood in for a waiter” which he found “sort of fun.” But for the most part, he was often busy at his typewriter (the computer of its day). He didn’t have an easy time of it, for Sondheim insisted that every comma, semi-colon, period and question mark be exactly what he’d written. Hyphens were killers on “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” for lyrics are always printed in capital letters and a typewriter demanded the shift key for hyphens. Alas, Chapin misspelled a word when typing lyrics to “The World’s Full of Boys” and had to retype the entire song over again only to learn that in the interim it had been cut.
Until it was, there was a question on whether Phyllis or Sally would sing it. Both were originally slated to duet on “Losing My Mind” before it became Phyllis’ solo and at last Sally’s trademark number. Wrote Chapin, “One had to wonder why it had taken three-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal for everyone to realize that.”
In the Loveland sequence, Buddy was to deliver a Will Rogers-like monologue until the idea of “Buddy’s Blues” became a better option. At first two men in drag – including future Tony-winner Dick (HAIRSPRAY) Latessa – portrayed the women in his life.
A rumor spread that the showgirls would be topless. (They weren’t. Not ever.)
Along the way, FOLLIES, as Chapin reported “evolved with a general shift away from a linear story and into a mood piece.” Yes, and at one point, Prince became moody. He complained that he had “nothing to do” because “other people hadn’t done their jobs” and that he’d “lost all enthusiasm for the show.”
Well, that’s the difference between him and us. Besides, he’d get it back as is proved by his later endearing sentiment: “Even if people don’t realize it, this is the most important thing going on in the world.”
Everyone who’s a Broadway Baby understands.
(Next week, we go to Boston with the show.)
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.