HELLO, FOLKS: WE’RE INTO THE FOLLIES By Peter Filichia
The sustained roar that came from my soul is one I’d never before heard emerge from my body.
And despite the passage of more than thirty-five years, I’ve never heard anything like it since.
It happened at Avery Fisher Hall on Sept. 6, 1985 after FOLLIES ON CONCERT had played the first of its two performances.
(Did you really think I could have waited for a second performance?)
So what caused me to bellow and finally find the soul that twelve years of nuns and priests had assured me was there all along? Was it Lee Remick (Phyllis), Barbara Cook (Sally), George Hearn (Ben) or Mandy Patinkin (Buddy)? Daisy Prince, Liz Callaway, Howard McGillin and Jim Walton respectively as their younger counterparts?
Wonderful though they were – and you can hear that for certain on the magnificent recording Thomas Z. Shepard made from the two evenings – you might assume I had screamed for them.
Or was it Elaine Stritch, Phyllis Newman, Carol Burnett, Arthur Rubin or Betty and Adolph?
No again. The unprecedented sound that burst out of me came after those worthies had left the stage and Stephen Sondheim matter-of-factly sauntered onto it. My roar was out of respect and gratitude for the magnificent score he’d created.
And needless to say, I was not the only one expressing my pleasure.
Sondheim modestly gave that mild-manner hands-forward gesture that said “It’s okay, stop.” We disobeyed for what seemed like an extraordinarily long time.
Three days later, Frank Rich, who’d recently started his sixth year as The New York Times chief theater critic, called the evening “thrilling – and possibly historic.”
Not long after writing those words, Rich may well have regretted including the word “possibly.”
We’re still talking about it. FOLLIES – which esteemed musical theater historian Ethan Mordden dubbed “arguably the greatest of all musicals” – celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this week.
How fitting that this year the date fell on Easter. FOLLIES has long since resurrected itself from its disappointing, money-losing run to classic status.
In contrast, FOLLIES IN CONCERT “merely” marked its thirty-fifth seven months ago. My seat in the middle of the orchestra cost $100, which translates to theatrical chump change today, but was a great deal of money then.
I’ve never regretted it, even months before when I wrote the check and had no real idea of how spectacular the night would be.
The real point of the concert was to get a better recording of FOLLIES than the criminally short original cast album. Producer-director Harold Prince, who had won nine Tonys when he went into rehearsal with FOLLIES, got four more during its 522-performance run and then eight additional ones after it had closed, nevertheless showed that no one is theatrically infallible.
He admitted in his memoir that “I made a mistake with the original cast album. I neglected to stipulate in the contract with Capitol Records that the entire score be recorded. There were twenty-two songs and it would have taken four sides,” he wrote, referring the vinyl’s so-called “long-playing” records. “Capitol refused on the grounds that it wouldn’t sell.”
(Had the record company splurged for two records, it would have made its money back, don’t you think?)
“The contracts were signed and there was nothing I could do,” lamented Prince. “I warned them that there would be many letters of complaint, and there were hundreds … FOLLIES ‘freaks’ who saw the show a dozen times or more campaigned in the Times for a limited edition of the complete score. But they lost.”
In 1975, I played one of my favorite albums: PINS AND NEEDLES, a studio cast recording made in 1962 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of what was once Broadway’s longest-running revue. As I did, I thought to myself, “Hmm, in the years to come, what musical from this era will get a studio cast album?” Within a split-second I not only thought but also blurted aloud: “FOLLIES!”
I had to wait a decade, but once FOLLIES IN CONCERT was brought out, I couldn’t listen to the original cast album any longer. This is a very controversial opinion, for many FOLLIES devotees (a word I prefer to “freaks”) are enamored of the original cast performances and feel all others pale in comparison.
They argue that “So many of these performers were the ones who were actually there in the years before and between the World Wars, when The Weissman Follies ostensibly took place.”
Yes, Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson, Fifi D’Orsay, Yvonne De Carlo, Ethel Shutta and Mary McCarty indeed were in attendance, and yes, they were still wonderful. As the acidic and acerbic Phyllis, Smith greatly deserved her Best Actress in a Musical Tony. And yet, had Dorothy Collins won for her Sally, there wouldn’t have been an uproar, either. The welschmerz that John McMartin brought to Ben was impressive as well.
But FOLLIES IN CONCERT had quite a cast, too. No fewer than nine past or future Tony-winners were on hand. With The New York Philharmonic Orchestra backing them up, it’s a sensational recording – partly because you can often hear the chock-full house screaming its approval.
And yet, for people such as I who feel that the material is the real star, FOLLIES IN CONCERT wins out because it offers us much, much more of the score. The original cast album immediately became FOLLIES LITE – and no one should make light of FOLLIES.
How can I settle for Capitol’s “Beautiful Girls” without the lyrics as “Faced with these Loreleis, what man can moralize?” I can’t abide hearing “I’m Still Here” without the section that runs the gamut from Gandhi to Brenda Frazier. After all, these are respectively the greatest opening number and greatest song written out of town.
(Mordden needn’t be the only one to grant superlatives to FOLLIES.)
An aside: “I’m Still Here” was delivered to us in toto only a couple of years after FOLLIES had opened in the 1973 concert SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE. Nancy Walker, then well-known as the maid on McMILLAN & WIFE, better-known as Rhoda Morgenstern’s mother on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and arguably best-known for selling paper towels on TV commercials, emerged as the unexpected champion of this song. We’re so lucky that this one-night extravaganza was recorded, but especially for Walker’s quintessential rendition.
Back to Capitol’s mortal sins: “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow,” “Love Will See Us Through,” “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” “Live, Laugh, Love,” “Ah, Paree!” and perhaps most criminally, “Broadway Baby” are all missing much music and many lyrics. Worse still, “Rain on the Roof” and “Loveland” – a vital part of the show that informs us that our four principals will express themselves in Ziegfeldian terms – are totally missing.
So is “One More Kiss,” the Sigmund Romberg pastiche on which Justine Johnson and Victoria Mallory had duetted. Kenneth Kantor, who performed with Johnson in ME AND MY GIRL, brought in his long-playing record of FOLLIES for her to sign. “She flatly refused,” he said, “because her song was recorded but didn’t make the album.”
Had he brought in the later-released compact disc, Johnson would have undoubtedly obliged, for finally the song saw the light of polycarbonate. Ah, but Licia Albanese could have happily autographed the records, cassette or CD of FOLLIES IN CONCERT at any time, and Erie Mills still can, because “One More Kiss” was one more bonus.
Could it be that Dick Jones, who produced the Capitol release, purposely ensured that “One More Kiss” wouldn’t make the recording? When he saw FOLLIES in its Boston tryout, he thought it extraneous; he also felt that having two songs in ¾ time back-to-back (“Could I Leave You?” followed it) was injurious. Prince apparently didn’t agree with him, so one wonders if this was Jones’ revenge. True, LPs couldn’t hold as much as CDs, but there were still some minutes of unoccupied vinyl that Jones didn’t use.
Conversely, FOLLIES IN CONCERT was too much for one disc and not enough for two, so Shepard added Sondheim’s excellent background score for the 1974 film STAVISKY, which has some music dropped from FOLLIES.
We really can’t blame Jones, though, for the single-record amputation. He desperately wanted to do a two-record set, but as Prince stated above, the company just wouldn’t go for it, no matter how much Jones begged.
And how do I know that he felt this way? Ted Chapin reported it in EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE, his extraordinary 2003 biography of FOLLIES’ original production. Read more about it next Tuesday.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.