It's difficult for me to believe that it was thirty-one years ago I attended the opening night of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies reunion concert at Lincoln Center. Not billed as such, but that's the way it felt to many of us who were there. For fans of the musical, it was a reunion. With no hard evidence to back this up, I would stake that of the 2,700 who bought tickets, an overwhelming majority had seen the original production sometime during the fifteen months it ran on Broadway between 1971 and 1972. And if this wasn't our chance to see Follies again, it was a sacred opportunity to hear it sung the way it was supposed to when the original was recorded—backed by no less than the orchestra of the New York Philharmonic.
Lee Remick in Follies in Concert (1985).
You see, due to a producing decision, only a truncated version of the exhilarating Sondheim score was recorded, inflicted with a mix of tiny cuts (eliminating a couple of songs altogether) that didn't allow for the full flavor of its two dozen songs to burst through. This was back in the day when cast recordings were limited physically to an hour's time on one disc. In rare cases, two-record sets were produced such as Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock and Joe Masteroff's She Loves Me. In fact, in the same Broadway season as Follies, two shows produced two-record sets: Melvin Van Peebles's Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and Galt MacDermot, John Guare and Mel Shapiro's Two Gentlemen of Verona (which went on to beat Follies at the Tonys as Best Musical). The decision to not spend the money and produce a two-record set of Follies is the sort of shanda that has irked theatre fans for three decades. As for reasons why, and for all things-Follies, please read Theodore S. Chapin joyous memoir, Everything Was Possible, the story of his time as a college student working behind-the-scenes on the original production, from early rehearsals to its out of town run in Boston, then onto Broadway and beyond. The book is required reading for anyone who has ever had experience of (or had an interest in) a life in the theatre.
The cast gathered for Follies in Concert (as it was billed) was an impressive one: of the four leads, three were age perfect and vocally adept: George Hearn as Ben, Lee Remick as Phyllis and Barbara Cook as Sally. The odd man out was Mandy Patinkin, twenty years junior to Hearn and Remick, and twenty-five years junior to Cook. That year, Patinkin was starring in Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George, and the thinking was that since this was a recording, what did age matter? But there are still some that might have yearned for an older sounding actor to blend in, and who also find Patinkin's histrionics a bit much (and he delivered that night on that score, for sure). Had I been its casting director, I would have pushed for Alan Alda or Jerry Orbach, either of whom might have been better suited for Buddy.
But no matter. The rest of the cast was near-to-perfect. In the roles of the Whitmans, it was the sublime idea to have Betty Comden and Adolph Green perform "Rain on the Roof," so we could finally hear this adorable song which was cut from the original cast recording. The Tony Award winner, Phyllis Newman (the wife of Adolph Green) was given "Who's that Woman?" and Carol Burnett, with a return to the New York stage for the first time in twenty years, sang "I'm Still Here." Liliane Montevecchi, a recent Tony Award winner for Nine, sang "Ah, Paree!" and most extraordinarily (in perhaps the evening's biggest ovation) Licia Albanese and Erie Mills sang "One More Kiss." This number, wherein an aging opera star sings in harmony with her younger self, was the most egregious cut of all when the original cast recording was being preserved. Justine Johnson and Victoria Mallory were brought in and did indeed record it, but with the one-hour time restriction, found themselves (as they say in the film business) on the cutting room floor. Later, when CD's replaced LP's, the longer length now happily allowed for Johnson and Mallory's version to be returned to its proper place on the album's running order.
As lovely as their singing is and how wonderful it is that we have their rendition, it was Licia Albanese, who at seventy-six years old was the evening's revelation. Counterpointing with the youthful Mills, these coloraturas nearly brought the house down—literally. I will never forget the foot stomping that occurred and the feeling that Avery Fisher Hall might be all but destroyed.
Interestingly, for this concert format a great many changes were made from the original, which left this version less than definitive. Some music was changed, new reprises were added, and in a total change of course, the character of Buddy as played by Mandy Patinkin sang "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" all by himself, portraying the two chorus girls who are usually included in the number.
I had an interesting vantage point that night, too. Though ideally not as close as I might have been, my orchestra seat put me across the aisle and about two rows behind Sondheim himself. So for an added bonus, I got to watch him watch the show. His reactions were, for the most part, highly enthusiastic. This was after all, opening night (of but two in total) and the charge in the air was electric. Sondheim is no passive observer either and wears his heart on his sleeve. He went mad for anything Lee Remick did. They were close friends and he simply adored her, raising his hands above his head to applaud her in number after number. Conversely, although the audience ate her up, from all appearances Sondheim did not appreciate what Elaine Stritch did to "Broadway Baby." Although she would go on to perform this song for the next thirty years in concert and cabaret, her highly original take on it, from all I could see, did not please its composer. Give it a listen on the live recording made of this Follies in Concert, and you will hear that he was in a distinct minority to the audience's response, though I agreed with him that it was over the top (if undeniably funny). Of course, I could write an entire column on the original "Broadway Baby," Ethel Shutta, who during the run of Follies, was its oldest cast member and all she brought to the song. In fact, I think I'll do just that when her birthday comes around on December 1st.
Ironically, another justification for this concert (besides raising money for a worthy charity) was that a documentary video was shot. But when you consider the motivation was to get complete recordings of these songs, there is a certain frustration level at play while watching the documentary, as practically none of the songs are done in their entirety. Oh, well. As a pair of songwriters once wrote: "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.