If only the powers-that-be at RCA Victor had listened to Stephen Schwartz.
The story he told me while we traveled to a children’s musical theater festival in Atlanta made me tremendously sad.
It’s about to make you sad, too.
The discussion started because I had only recently discovered The Pipe Dream, a 1969 RCA Victor album – which featured singing and songs by Schwartz. He was one-fifth of a quintet.
“One of the band members was David Spangler, who wrote Nefertiti,” said Schwartz. “We were classmates at Carnegie Tech, as Carnegie Mellon was called back then.”
When I asked if the name of the group was a tribute to a certain 1955 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, he smiled and shook his head no.
“That record happened because I was producing albums for RCA Victor from 1969 to 1971,” he said. “I mostly dealt with new acts and rock performers.”
Because musicals are Schwartz’s first love, though, he got to hear demos and backers’ auditions – and discovered Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.
He told his bosses to sign it — and that he’d produce it as a two-record set.
“But,” Schwartz told me, “RCA executives thought that the characters were ‘too old’ to interest the record-buying public.”
Yeah, they would have jumped at the chance and through hoops to sign the group known as the Stones. But the Stones known as Ben and Phyllis? Nope.
Actually, most of the people in Follies aren’t really old, but middle-aged. The four leads have a few good years ahead of them — well, if they straighten out their marriages.
In a way, one can understand RCA’s point of view. At that time, Hair was still selling extraordinarily well. It had been the Number One Album in all categories for thirteen weeks, and would stay on the charts for fifty-nine weeks. With its riding as high on the charts as the characters were in the show, the RCA brass might well have assumed that the future was in rock musicals such as Hair and not in traditional-sounding Broadway shows such as Henry, Sweet Henry.
That’s undoubtedly why the one original cast album that RCA allowed Schwartz to record was the one that Walter Kerr called “my favorite rock musical”: The Last Sweet Days of Isaac.
And so, Follies went to Capitol, which treated it not unlike the way Sweeney Todd dealt with his customers. “Beautiful Girls,” “Don’t Look at Me,” and “I’m Still Here” were horrifyingly abridged. “Rain on the Roof,” “One More Kiss” and “Loveland” didn’t make the original record (although the former was included in the CD many years later). Much dance music and pungent lines of dialogue were missing, too.
So we had to wait until that heavenly 1985 concert at what was then Avery Fisher Hall to get a two-disc album of Follies. Barbara Cook, Carol Burnett, Elaine Stritch, George Hearn, Jim Walton, Lee Remick, Liliane Montevecchi, Liz Callaway, Betty Comden and Adolph Green – all terrific, to say the least. Frankly, the price of the discs is worth it just for having Phyllis Newman’s getting everyone to hoof it up in “Who’s That Woman?” (after Stritch dryly noted that “I haven’t danced in 30 years.”).
And what company recorded it? Ironically enough, RCA Victor, then under very different management.
(And have you noticed that each and every Follies recording since made has been on two discs?)
Little did Schwartz know then that when the time came for the 1972 Grammys, the show album category would find Follies a nominated loser to Godspell — which had music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. But with all due respect to Godspell, would it have emerged victorious if Follies had had its score fully preserved on two discs?
And if the RCA brass thought that the characters in Follies were too old what must they have thought about Schwartz’s other enthusiastic recommendation: Kander and Ebb’s 70, Girls, 70. The number was chosen because almost everyone in the show is a septuagenarian. (Why then not 70, Girls and Boys, 70?)
The show ends with the most life-affirming song in the entire musical theater canon: Mildred Natwick’s insistence that we say “Yes” to life much more often than we may be inclined to do. As Fred Ebb instructs, “When opportunity comes your way, say yes.”
Well, after Stephen Schwartz said yes to 70, Girls, 70, the opportunity came RCA’s executives’ way and they said “No.” Aren’t we lucky that Columbia Records followed Ebb’s excellent advice?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.