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All Things Bright and Beautiful

In a forthcoming book, Ted Chapin gives a detailed and anecdote-filled account of the original production of Follies. logo
Marti Rolph and Harvey Evans in Follies
(Photo © Van Williams)
God bless Anthony Venutolo. He's an editor at the Star-Ledger, where I'm a theater critic, and he keeps a sharp eye on the pile of books that our book reviewer discards. Whenever he sees something theatrical in nature, he picks it up and leaves it on my desk on the chance that I'd be interested in it. So today, when I came to work, there was an uncorrected proof of Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies by Ted Chapin. Well, need I tell you that I didn't get nearly as much work done today as I'd expected?

Chapin has been president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization for many years now, but back in 1971 he was a 20-year-old who was hired as a production assistant on the new Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince-Michael Bennett-James Goldman musical. Chapin may have been a mere "gofer" but he was smart enough to keep a diary of a show that would turn out to be even grander than even his youthful enthusiasm could have ever imagined.

He offers a great deal of inside information that will enchant anyone who has been taken with Follies -- i.e., almost everyone who's interested in musical theater. Chapin sympathetically recalls how many older performers showed up to audition. So many of them came; so many were rejected. How intriguing to hear that such musically unlikely performers as E.G. Marshall, Jim Backus, and Jane Wyman were at least cited as possibilities for the show.

Chapin mentions that the first song he heard was "Who's That Woman?" though a closed door; of course, at that time, he was unaware that it would turn out to be what many consider the best production number ever put on a Broadway stage. He recalls that a frenetic and energetic Hal Prince showed up early on the first day of rehearsal: "I just want to start!" Yet there wasn't as much to read on that occasion as there usually is, for the last page of the script admitted in big block letters that the final scene was "still to be written."

This was the same day that young Chapin approached Michael Bennett and reminded him of the night they'd previously met, only to hear Bennett proclaim that he was "too drunk" to remember any such introduction. We find, though, that Bennett certainly remembered Gene Nelson as "the best dancer in those Hollywood musicals" and that his enthusiasm for the faded star was one reason why Nelson got the job as Buddy. Who had been staunchly behind Dorothy Collins getting cast as Sally? No less than Sondheim, who had admired her performance in a stock production of Do I Hear a Waltz? (Considering how many times Sondheim has gone on record as regretting his decision to write lyrics for that property, how nice it was to hear that at least one good thing came out of the project.)

Early in his book, Chapin subtly predicts that Bennett just might be the muscle on the show: He writes that "Michael used every second" of rehearsal time, noting only a sentence later that "Hal had a lot of time on his hands." Chapin also writes of attending a dinner party at Henry Guettel and Mary Rodgers's house, where Sondheim told the lad that he feared the show would have "no real boss" or that Bennett might try to usurp Prince's authority. (Remember, the two were billed as co-directors.)

As for Prince, can you believe that he didn't like "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" when he first heard it? Or that James Goldman sheepishly admitted to Chapin that he had no talent for writing jokes, which meant the gofer had to go find some old joke books so that Goldman could get the hang of it? That's because the spot where "Buddy's Blues" ended up was originally conceived to be filled by a song-less array of vaudeville-like jokes that Buddy would tell. This sequence reached nine full pages before Sondheim decided to write the now-classic number for Nelson. What's more, those two young women buttressing him as Sally and Margie were originally intended to be played by men in drag!

Chapin gives us a few lyrics from "The World's Full of Boys" (which, I don't have to tell you, was eventually dropped) and describes the song's choreography, too. He notes hearing the rumor that some of the showgirls might have to go topless during "Loveland" and informs us that associate producer Ruth Mitchell and costume designer Florence Klotz were a couple. Speaking of Klotz: Some of her costumes were so large and took up so much room backstage that they were hung high above the action and flown in when needed.

Every show has its problems, but who'd expect that Prince and set designer Boris Aronson would fight over a three-inch height differential? Later, Prince and Bennett went to see a production of Fidelio at the Met that Aronson had designed, and the two were devastated to find that that set bore an astonishing resemblance to what he'd conceived for Follies.

Ted Chapin with Carolee Carmello at a
rehearsal for the Paper Mill Playhouse
production of The King and I
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
We find that, early in the game, Sondheim's favorite song in the score was "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs." And we learn that Vincent and Vanessa, the couple who'd do the "Bolero D'Amour," were the only two roles not yet cast on the first day of rehearsals. (Interesting how many subsequent productions have done without a Vincent and a Vanessa, instead using Emily and Theodore to double their roles. Prince and Bennett didn't opt for such doubling: Things weren't done that way in 1971. And that wasn't how they did things, period.)

Would you believe that Fifi D'Orsay, at the time she did Follies, had never set foot in France but was actually from Montreal? She called Prince so much before rehearsals even began that he stopped taking her calls. She (and everyone else) heard "Ah! Paris" on the first day of rehearsals and not a moment before.

Stars Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Gene Nelson, and John McMartin were often called "The Big Four" by the staff, but whom do you think was called "The Big One?" Why, Yvonne DeCarlo! According to Chapin, "she was considered to have the best 'name' because of her recent television experience as Lily, the mother in The Munsters." Migawd! Still, of all the shall-we-say mature women in the cast, DeCarlo had the toughest time of all with the dancing, especially in the "mirror number." Not that she was ever in danger of being canned. As Chapin reports, Prince always made sure that, the first Sunday after rehearsals, there'd be a full-page ad in the Times -- not only to let everyone feel some sense of job security but also to remind them that those dates for the out-of-town engagements, the previews, and the Broadway opening were very real and they'd all have to work hard to be ready for them.

The $700,000 soon ballooned to $800,000, and many of us who would have liked to have been associated with the show even tangentially will look longingly at the fact that only $875 would have allowed us to be an investor. Money was so tight that Prince had to be talked into something that the rest of us would have assumed was a no-brainer: renting the big sign above the Winter Garden, where the show would eventually play.

"If people thought Company was depressing, wait till this show opens," Chapin quotes Sondheim as saying. And that, my friends, is where I am right now in the book -- only on page 49. There's much enthralling information in those relatively few pages, including an introduction by Frank Rich wherein he says: "If there has ever been an account of the creation of a major Broadway production as complete, candid, and apocrypha-free as this one, I have not found it." So imagine what's coming in the next 277 pages! The $30 tome -- with eight pages of color and 63 photographs scattered throughout the text -- will be published on October 9, and if I were you, I'd be counting the days like a kid does till Christmas.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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