Plush Velvet Sometimes
Ted Chapin's Everything Was Possible chronicles the gestation of the legendary Broadway musical Follies.
The peculiar pull of Follies for this crowd is due partly to the musical's considerable merits and partly to its elusiveness. Groundbreaking though it was in 1971, it was far from universally praised. Set at a reunion of "Weismann Follies" performers on the eve of their theater's destruction and zeroing in on two unhappy marriages among the attendees, Follies was innovative in text, score, theme, and presentation. But while its bitter, cynical tone thrilled some theatergoers, it turned off many others, especially nostalgia-seekers who expected something more like the revival of No, No, Nanette. Clive Barnes, then the chief critic of the New York Times, gave the show a near-pan; it lost the Best Musical Tony to Two Gentlemen from Verona (the biggest upset since The Music Man edged West Side Story); and, despite a healthy 522-performance run, the eye-filling $800,000 production lost its entire investment. All that remains of the original production are a few TV clips, some ephemera in private collectors' hands, and a sloppily recorded, criminally truncated cast album. No wonder the show's partisans feel so cheated.
Well, cheer up, Follies fans: You've hit the mother lode. It seems that Ted Chapin, now the president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization but in 1971 a stagestruck undergrad at Connecticut College, somehow convinced his faculty advisors that serving as the "gofer" (go fer this, go fer that) on Follies and recording his reactions to the rehearsal process would be a good way to get two courses' worth of credit. Flash forward a few decades: Chapin has refashioned his 1971 diary, bolstered it with more interviews, and added the sometimes-rueful insight that comes only with age -- as Follies' principal characters know too well. The result is Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies (Knopf, 331 pages, $30). As Peter Filichia suggested in his July 18 column, no one with a Follies fixation will be able to live without this book.
Chapin was in the right place at the right time -- he admits as much in his introduction -- and it's hard not to be a little envious. He had an influential arts-administrator father (Schuyler Chapin), and family friends included the likes of Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Mary Rodgers Guettel. But, it must be added, Ted Chapin did his duties extremely well. Along with fetching sandwiches and coffee for Sondheim, Goldman, co-directors Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, and a cast of 51 (!) headed by Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson, Dorothy Collins, and John McMartin, these duties included copying and collating the constant script changes (this was long before modern copier technology; Chapin simply plunked ten carbons into an IBM electric typewriter), typing and distributing frequent lyric updates (Sondheim could be a scorpion about semicolons), and shuttling new orchestrations among Sondheim, musical director Hal Hastings, and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick.
It was a dream job for a young musical theater enthusiast, especially one who had just seen the Prince-Bennett-Sondheim Company and recognized its revolutionary aspects. About the worst thing that happened to Chapin during his tour of duty was being dispatched to welcome Elaine Stritch to a Follies preview in New York and getting snarled at by the great lady. (These were her drinking days.)
FIFI D'ORSAY: Zere is no place for me to sit.
ETHEL SHUTTA: Hey. Squattez-vous.
There's plenty of you-are-there history, too. At one point, as the dancers take a rehearsal break, Bennett tells them how, someday, he wants to create a show just about them.
Chapin even manages to build drama around events whose outcomes we already know. Bennett stages and restages the prologue at least a half-dozen times (he finally gets it right). Yvonne De Carlo bursts into tears when "Can That Boy Fox Trot!" doesn't land; Sondheim assures her it's not her fault, retires to his piano, and returns a couple of days later with "I'm Still Here." "Losing My Mind" is assigned to Alexis Smith as Phyllis, which makes no sense for the performer or the character, until Sondheim realizes it's perfect for Dorothy Collins's Sally. Bennett and Gene Nelson struggle endlessly with "The Right Girl," trying to re-create the athleticism of Nelson's long-ago movie-musical numbers without killing him. During the show's out-of-town tryout in Boston, "Buddy's Blues" is performed by Nelson and two men in drag (one of them is Dick Latessa). "Loveland" is at first a mess, an incoherent spectacle of flying Boris Aronson scenery and uncoordinated onstage nervous breakdowns. And Aronson's set, like Follies itself, is multileveled and difficult to navigate.
The personalities and interrelationships among cast and crew emerge slowly, but Chapin is perceptive here, too. Collins, so right for Sally, is lovable and supportive to everyone and a bit sad underneath. Nelson is outwardly an amiable pro but hard-driving and easily dissatisfied. Smith is the movie queen, a bit vain and stand-offish but witty and, ultimately, a team player. (There's a final, wonderful anecdote involving her and Collins in the ladies' lounge at a 1985 Follies in Houston; I don't know how it filtered back to Chapin.) Among the supporting players, D'Orsay comes off as an insufferable prima donna (you really want to smack her one), Shutta as a salty, practical old pro (at one point, she asks for and receives a raise on her $225-a-week salary). As for Sondheim, he's usually in the background observing or off at his piano or apologizing to the impatient Bennett for working so slowly and methodically. Then there's the fiftyish De Carlo flirting with young Chapin and the latter not entirely putting her off.
Throughout, opinions of the show itself vary widely among the participants. Prince appears to do a good job of communicating the overarching themes of Follies and ensuring that the company members are "all working on the same show." The real surprise for this reviewer comes after Follies receives its first batch of mixed reviews in Boston. Among them was one in the Harvard Crimson by undergrad Frank Rich. Widely circulated backstage, it delved carefully into the show's past-commenting-on-the-present motif, its implicit preoccupation with death, and its bittersweet examination of misspent lives. Titling his piece "The Last Musical," Rich concluded: "There is no getting around the fact that a large part of the chilling fascination of Follies is that its creators are in essence presenting their own funeral." This stunned the cast and crew. According to Chapin: "Pathos, resonance, pain, memory, reality -- those were the ideas and emotions everyone was going for. But not the death of musical theater."
Among other things, Follies is about ghosts, and there are many in Chapin's book: Smith, Collins, Nelson, McCarty, Shutta, Bennett, and on and on. The author brings them alive, warts and all. He's backed up by some 50 production photos -- many of them showing a worried-looking Prince, eyeglasses perched on forehead, contemplating the crisis du jour -- and eight pages of full-color photos and art, including the famous 1960 Life magazine shot of Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of the Roxy that inspired the show.