One Last Look At Where It All Began

In 1969, Stephen Sondheim was in a bind. He hadn’t been represented on Broadway since his collaboration with Richard Rodgers (a promise he’d made to his dying mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, several years prior) on the ill-fated 1965 musical, Do I Hear a Waltz? And he hadn’t been heard as both composer and lyricist since the 1964 Anyone Can Whistle, which lasted all of 9 performances.

For the past several years, he and his collaborator, James Goldman, had been working on a new musical entitled The Girls Upstairs, which had been optioned by producer Stuart Ostrow. More recently, Sondheim and George Furth had started work on a new musical to be produced and directed by Sondheims’s long time friend, Harold Prince. At that point, it seemed that Sondheim would have two shows opening on Broadway during the 1969-70 season.

And then Ostrow let his option lapse on The Girls Upstairs. Sondheim lamented to Prince that he saw years of work going down the drain, to which Prince made the following proposition: If Sondheim would agree to finish the show with George Furth first, Prince would agree to produce and direct The Girls Upstairs as his next project.

Ever the pragmatist, Sondheim agreed, which turned out to be a stroke of profound good luck. The Sondheim-Furth collaboration turned out to be Company, which opened in April 1970 to strong reviews and potent box office. More importantly, the collaboration between Sondheim and Prince became a turning point in the American musical. Over the next eleven years, they would present six shows, all of them distinctly different from each other and, until the last of them, considered to be a high-water mark of musical theatre creativity, if not always commercially successful.

But back to The Girls Upstairs, which – to that point – told a realistic story of a reunion of former showgirls and their husbands and what had happened to them over the 30 years they had all known each other. The show also had hints of a possible murder mystery: during the first act, it developed that each of the four central characters had cause to commit murder; the second act would reveal why and what happened. But Hal Prince had other ideas.

He recalled a photograph that had been taken of Gloria Swanson in the ruins of New York’s Roxy Theater, which had been razed in 1960. Swanson had been one of the greatest silent film actresses and had fallen into obscurity until 1949, when Billy Wilder offered her the role of Norma Desmond in his masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, which was released in 1950. As Norma herself said, it wasn’t a comeback, it was “a return”. Now, some 11 years later, she was immortalized in that photograph. And it occurred to Prince that he didn’t want to direct a realistic story about former showgirls with murder on their minds; he had something much bigger in mind. And that’s when Follies was born.

Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson amid the rubble of the Roxy Theater, 1960

As a result, James Goldman jettisoned most of the original plot and, instead, created a mood piece in which the former showgirls and their husbands were now obsessed with life-altering decisions they had made decades before and the ramifications of those actions. The play would now take place inside a theatre on the eve of its demolition. Goldman and Sondheim had discovered early on that, as they eliminated plot points, the play became more interesting. Additionally, in earlier drafts, the 4 central characters lapsed into behavior as if they were 30 years younger. Now a consequential decision was made, instead, to have their younger selves portrayed as characters in the play. They would, literally, be beside themselves with grief.

This was precisely the kind of theater that lit a fire in Hal Prince. Recognizing that this production would be bigger and more demanding than anything he had done before, he decided to elevate his choreographer on Company – a young man named Michael Bennett – to serve with him as co-director. As the score was now approaching 22 musical numbers, there would be plenty for both of them to do: Bennett would be responsible for the musical staging and Prince would direct the book scenes.

It was to be the most expensive show to date to open on Broadway with an $800,000 budget. The celebrated scenic designer, Boris Aronson, would create the magnificent sets, Florence Klotz, the hundreds of costumes required, and Tharon Musser the intricate lighting.

Set Model - Boris Aronson
Boris Aronson’s set model for Follies – note the apparitions on the upper levels

Loveland - B&W
The main set transformed into “Loveland”

Final Scene.JPG
The final set piece – the theater is now partially demolished

Loveland Beauties
Florence Klotz’s Loveland beauties

The set, in fact, was so complicated and challenging to work upon that Prince decided to rehearse the show at the scenic shop in the Bronx so that the cast, some of whom were already in their 60s and 70s, could grow accustomed to the stage, thus saving valuable time when the show moved out of town. So, every day, the cast would board a bus in midtown Manhattan and travel uptown for intensive rehearsals. (This move also created additional pressure on the scenic shop, as it reduced the time it had to build the sets.)

There was some anxiety over the fact that the musical score hadn’t been completed when the show went into rehearsal. With the show’s new structure, the last half hour consisted of a Follies-esque sequence entitled Loveland, during which the 4 principal characters would each confront their personal bête noir in a song or production number. But some of these numbers couldn’t be staged, because they hadn’t been written. It is said that Michael Bennett had to order costumes for two of these numbers without actually knowing what they were going to be. As the rehearsal period drew to a close, Sondheim delivered the missing numbers, which were quickly staged.

The company traveled to Boston for its out-of-town tryout and played its first performance by the seat of its pants on a Saturday night in February 1971. The physical production was so complex that it wasn’t until the first performance that the show could be run start to finish without stops. There were other problems. The opening sequence – a prologue in which all the characters and their “ghosts” were introduced – was confusing to the audience. A number written for Yvonne De Carlo, cast as a former showgirl now turned television star, was a one-joke song and much too long. As the show was intended to play in one act without intermission, pacing and flow became an issue. Alexis Smith, who had been cast at the regal Phyllis Rogers Stone, hadn’t yet asserted herself and lacked the confidence to take center stage and deliver a star performance.

And there was one other major problem bubbling up to the surface: Michael Bennett didn’t like Goldman’s book, feeling that it was too dark and depressing. While it couldn’t be argued that Follies was a dark show (it was intentionally so), it offered at least the possibility of hope at the end of the evening. Bennett wanted a play doctor (Neil Simon was rumored to be his choice) to come to Boston and add some lightness to the proceedings. But he was overruled by his co-director, Hal Prince, who (not insignificantly) was the show’s producer and, therefore, the “muscle”. He liked the doom and gloom and felt – along with Goldman and Sondheim – that it served a larger purpose. The theme of the show was that one must learn to live with the decisions that you’ve made in life, rather than to dwell upon the past and become paralyzed by the mistakes you may have made along the way. “The Road You Didn’t Take” is not the end of the line; it’s a detour to someplace else.

One of the brilliant aspects of the original production was that, as stated in the playbill, it took place “tonight” and was set at “a party on the stage of the Weismann Theatre” – meaning right now and in real time. It therefore gave the show an immediacy that cannot be reproduced in revival. The show looked back to 1941 – the last year of the fictional Weismann Follies – and, thus, created a context for its audience in 1971. Thus, the references in the score, which today’s audiences might not grasp: Benda Frazier, Windsor and Wally, Pinko and stinko, Beeby’s Bathysphere, heebie jeebies – would be recognizable to 1971 audiences. They would also recognize Prince’s original cast as names from their collective past: Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Yvonne De Carlo, Gene Nelson. And those with longer memories might dimly recall some of the supporting players: Ethel Shutta (herself a Ziegfeld girl), Fifi, D’Orsay, Mary McCarty. John McMartin, whose brilliant performance as Ben Stone has never been surpassed, was a journeyman actor but – at that point – didn’t have the name recognition of the other leading actors.

Dorothy Collins & Alexis Smith
Dorothy Collins and Alexis Smith

Gene Nelson and John McMartin
John McMartin and Gene Nelson

Yvonne De Carlo
Yvonne De Carlo

Ethel Shutta
Ethel Shutta, introducing and immortalizing “Broadway Baby” at age 74

Fifi D'Orsay - Ah! Paris
Fifi D’Orsay

Mary McCarty
Mary McCarty leads the ladies in “Who’s That Woman?”

During the four-week Boston tryout, many changes were made. It took Bennett until the very end of the Boston run to come up with the prologue that would stick and absolutely and unambiguously set the tone for the evening. Sondheim locked himself in his hotel room to come up with a replacement song for De Carlo, a little ditty called I’m Still Here, which is said to have been based on the life of Joan Crawford and has become an anthem for cabaret ladies of a certain age. The show was tightened and the production fine-tuned to the point that it became a very well-oiled machine.

More importantly, during the Boston run and as the show began previews in New York prior to its official opening, Alexis Smith began to deliver the performance Prince knew she was capable of. It started with a replacement production number for her in the Loveland sequence, along with a new costume, which was much more complimentary and showed off her fabulous gams. Things like that can make all the difference.

Lucy & Jessie - 02
Alexis Smith, new costume and new song, takes center stage

And so, on the evening of April 4, 1971 at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York, the house lights dimmed, an ominous drumroll sounded followed by 4 somber chords from the brass section as the curtain rose on an empty and darkened stage. Downstage center was a spectral apparition, an impossibly tall and beautiful showgirl. She slowly raised her arms toward the audience – in welcome or in supplication? Imperceptibly at first, she started to move as if in slow motion, soon to be joined by other spectral figures: more showgirls, a dance team, and a line of 6 chorus girls, also in slow motion and silently mouthing the words to some forgotten tune as they strutted slowly around the stage. Suddenly, a major domo and a waiter or two strode through the scene in real time, as unaware of the apparitions all around them as the apparitions were of them. And then, breathlessly running onto the stage, appeared Dorothy Collins, as former showgirl Sally Durant Plummer, announcing to no one in particular how thrilled she was to be at this party tonight. As she began speaking, one of the chorus girl ghosts was wrenched from her position in the line and stopped dead in her tracks as her eyes bore into Dorothy Collins’ Sally – she was the ghost of the younger Sally observing what became of herself thirty years later and, perhaps, not liking what she saw. And that was how Follies began.

Follies Showgirls
Ghostly apparitions appearing during the prologue

Two hours and twenty minutes later, the curtain fell on the opening night performance. Amid many cheers, there were dissenters who didn’t go for the show feeling that, like Company the season before, it was cold and off-putting. I can well imagine that middle-aged audiences were certainly dismayed by the notion of characters who felt they had made wrong turns in their lives when younger and were now paying the price. And then there were others who, perhaps having been beguiled by the title of the show, thought they were attending a light entertainment. After all, No, No Nanette had opened to great acclaim just 3 months earlier – wasn’t Follies supposed to be more of the same?

Opening Night Relief
The cast immediately after the opening night curtain fell

Actually, anyone who took the trouble to take even a cursory look at the original poster for Follies – a somber face resembling simultaneously a Follies-type showgirl and the Statue of Liberty, with an enormous crack running down the right side – must have realized that No, No Nanette this wasn’t going to be.

Byrd Poster
David Edward Byrd’s brilliant poster design

The reviews ran the gamut from A to Z, as Sondheim might have said. Some critics loved it, some respected it, some even understood it; others dismissed it, except for the extraordinary physical production, which couldn’t be faulted.

When awards season came around, Follies was nominated in multiple categories and seemed to be the show to beat. It ultimately won seven Tony Awards: Alexis Smith (Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical), Stephen Sondheim (Best Score), Harold Prince and Michael Bennett (Best Direction of a Musical), Michael Bennett again (Best Choreography), Boris Aronson (Best Scenic Design), Florence Klotz (Best Costume Design) and Tharon Musser (Best Lighting Design). With seven Tony Awards in the bag, it seemed inevitable that Follies was perfectly positioned to take the award for Best Musical of the season which went, instead, to Two Gentlemen of Verona, produced by Joseph Papp and originally presented in Central Park and later moved to Broadway. It is instructive to note, when discussing the history of Follies, that the two major Tony Awards it lost were for Best Musical and for Book of a Musical (which, ironically, also went to Two Gentlemen of Verona).

The show ran in New York for 522 performances and then went on the road, with almost the entire original cast, first for a week in St. Louis, and then to Los Angeles for an open-ended run to inaugurate the Shubert Theatre in Century City. The LA engagement was intended to be the first stop of a national tour. In LA, the show got the kind of reviews of which a producer can only dream. And yet, the show lasted not even 3 months before closing. In spite of the rave reviews, the show couldn’t establish an audience. And so, on October 1, 1972, the original production of Follies came to an end.

The production lost its entire investment.

For those of us who fondly remember that original production, we’ve waited for a new production to recapture the magic we experienced almost half a century ago. After many near misses and disappointments, it seems that lightning has struck again, this time at the National Theatre in London.

To be continued.

 

 

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