FOLLIES ON BROADWAY By Peter Filichia
The day before FOLLIES closed its Boston tryout, an important decision was made.
It would seem to have been a no-brainer, but the person who made the ruling on March 20, 1971 certainly was known for his extraordinary brain: Harold Prince, the smartest producer of his era and arguably the most intelligent director of musicals as well.
And yet, although Prince had booked the Winter Garden, he was reluctant to rent the nearly-block-long sign atop the theater.
That’s one of the most surprising items in Ted Chapin’s wondrous EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE: The Birth of the Musical FOLLIES. It has spurred me to spend April commenting on both this landmark 2003 book and the musical itself. Even four columns aren’t enough to pay tribute either to Chapin’s book or, of course, the Sondheim-Goldman-Bennett-Prince masterpiece that recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.
Renting The Winter Garden sign was expensive. The initial cost would be $3,000 and the monthly rent $250. Today that respectively means $19,430 and $1,620.
But imagine playing the Winter Garden and not using the sign. As Prince’s associate producer and right-hand-woman Ruth Mitchell told him, any show that plays that theater but doesn’t use the sign comes across as a flop. The implication is “Why should we pay for that? We won’t be here long.”
Prince was obviously concerned about money, for FOLLIES had seen its $700,000 budget soar to $800,000; Chapin had heard that the extra hundred grand came from Prince himself. To his dying day, Prince said that if he had the chance to produce FOLLIES again, he wouldn’t – not because he wasn’t proud of what he, as co-director and producer had put on stage, but because he couldn’t justify the expense to his investors.
However, Prince had already co-produced a hit at the Winter Garden: WEST SIDE STORY, which had reached legendary status even before its lyricist Stephen Sondheim as well as James Goldman began to write what would become FOLLIES. WEST SIDE STORY certainly used its mammoth sign to tell everyone who passed by what was below and behind it.
Four years before that hit, WONDERFUL TOWN also proclaimed its wares on the Winter Garden sign. Yes, on that one Prince was “only” the assistant stage manager. (We learn in Chapin’s book that Ruth Mitchell did have great respect for Prince as a director-producer, but she did feel that when it came to stage management, he wasn’t as impressive.)
Oh, one other thing: WONDERFUL TOWN also gave Prince his first job as understudy. He was the would-be Frank Lippincott, one of Eileen Sherwood’s suitors.
(Does anyone know if he ever went on?!?)
So Prince reported to work eight times a week and obviously saw the impressive sign – oh, maybe not! The Winter Garden stage door is on Seventh Avenue, isn’t it?
Well, let’s just chalk up Prince’s waffling on whether or not to use the sign as temporary insanity. And who wouldn’t go insane both producing and co-directing the gigantic FOLLIES? We’ve come to call an onerous task “a bear,” but this one was a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Discussions abounded. Should there be an intermission? In Boston, there had been none, but one was now tried after “Who’s That Woman?” which gave way after “Too Many Mornings.” Then they returned to playing the show straight through, which pleased Prince more than Sondheim.
Should “Love Will See Us Through” include its verse? It came and went and came back again.
Any actor who’s survived rehearsals and an out-of-town tryout would seem to be secure in his job. But at FOLLIES’ second Broadway preview, the musical had a new Dimitri Weissman, as Ed Steffe was demoted to understudy and Arnold Moss took his place.
And if a musical isn’t hard enough to develop under normal circumstances, Gene Nelson, who played Buddy, learned that his eight-year-old son had been hit by a truck and was in coma. Whether or not Nelson should return to California was an agonizing dilemma for him. His wife told him to stay with FOLLIES, and he did. But imagine the mental agony he endured.
You may be surprised to learn that Nelson was the performer who received the largest salary: $2,000 a week. Alexis Smith (Phyllis) got $1,500, John McMartin (Ben) amassed $1,250 and Dorothy Collins (Sally) and Yvonne De Carlo (Carlotta) each received $1,000 (despite the fact that the latter actress had far less to do).
As they approached opening night, co-director and choreographer Michael Bennett told the cast “Someday I’m going to do a show about dancers and you’re all going to be in it.” Only the first nine words of that sentence turned out to be true. Actually, Stephen Boockvor, a FOLLIES singer/dancer, did wind up being a replacement Zach in A CHORUS LINE, but he was the sole original cast member who appeared in that smash hit during the show’s fifteen-year Broadway run.
Time and Newsweek magazines assigned writers to follow FOLLIES and both flirted with the idea of making the show a cover story. When Time did precisely that, Newsweek not only didn’t put FOLLIES on the cover, but did no story at all – “for a variety of reasons,” the editor said, elaborating no further.
No wonder that Florence Klotz, who’d win a Tony for her dozens upon dozens of FOLLIES costumes, told Chapin “Don’t go into show business.” But did he listen? Five-and-a-half years later he was co-producing a play that also came to Boston but never left there. However, within the next five-and-a-half years he was put in charge of what is now known as The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.
(Chapin can hold a job; he’s been at R&H longer than either Benj Pasek or Justin Paul has been alive. In the Introduction to his 2003 book, he realized “I am now the same age or older than many of the principals.” And now only Ethel Shutta of “Broadway Baby” fame would be older.)
Finally, they opened. Two of the reviews from the three major papers were contradictory: Clive Barnes of The New York Times tempered his “a serious attempt to deal with the musical form” with “sentiment finally engulfs it in is sickly maw.” Martin Gottfried of the Post maintained “They have recreated the past with dazzling success” but added “the story is the weakest part.” Only Douglas Watt of the News was totally enthusiastic: “So brilliant as to be breathtaking at times.”
Barnes did say, though, that FOLLIES contained “some of the best lyrics I have ever encountered.” Chapin gave a stronger and more accurate evaluation of Sondheim: “FOLLIES would be the catalyst that made the skeptics aware of his full talents.” Yes, Sondheim’s score for COMPANY was much heralded by then, but it could have just been a fluke success; FOLLIES showed Broadway that every successive Stephen Sondheim musical would be the most anticipated one of its season.
Yul Brynner said that FOLLIES was the best musical he’d ever seen (and by that time, he’d witnessed plenty of performances of THE KING AND I from a very good vantage point). Mary Jane Houdina, FOLLIES’ Young Hattie, was so intrigued by the musical that she spent one of her vacation days seeing the show from out front.
Yet one of FOLLIES’ biggest fans may well have been a component to its downfall. John Guare, who had attended the first rehearsal as well a Boston performance, was writing his own musical at the time: TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, which would snatch the Best Musical Tony from FOLLIES.
(Years later, when I asked Guare if he thought TWO GENTS or FOLLIES would win Best Musical, he said, “Frankly, I thought the winner would be GREASE.”)
Despite 522 official performances, the $800,000 investment, FOLLIES, according to Chapin, lost $792,000.
And 792,000 may well be the approximate number of those unborn or too young in 1971-72 who wish they could have to have seen the original FOLLIES. If the musical were there now, they’d rush to the Winter Garden even if the sign above the theater advertised Kaopectate.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.