FOLLIES IN BOSTON By Peter Filichia
That’s how many were needed to accommodate the ornate sets and costumes that made their way from New York to Boston a half-century ago.
They were required for FOLLIES’ pre-Broadway tryout at the Colonial Theatre. There the new musical would experience “four intense weeks,” as Ted Chapin described them in his magnificent 2003 book EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE: The Birth of the Musical FOLLIES.
It was based on the twenty-year-old college student’s independent study. Chapin served as the show’s unpaid assistant; pro-rated, however, he’s probably been paid back in full from his well-deserved advance and (we hope) plentiful royalties.
And the chance to see this particular musical develop was of course priceless.
Chapin beautifully described the glorious Colonial: “This was what the Roxy must have been like before Gloria Swanson stood in its rubble.” He was referencing the photograph that had captured that scene and had been published in Life magazine eleven years earlier. It was a great inspiration for this new musical by James Goldman (book), Stephen Sondheim (score), Michael Bennett (co-director and choreographer) and Harold Prince (co-director and producer).
For FOLLIES would be set in the fictional Weismann Theatre only hours before its demolition. Former impresario Dmitri Weismann held a final reunion for those who’d appeared in his annual extravaganzas between the two World Wars.
But getting from one photograph to a full-scale ambitious original musical wasn’t easy. We feel bad when Chapin tells us in detail how hard everyone is working on “Uptown/Downtown” when we know it will be replaced by “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.”
As was the case with every out-of-town tryout, day rehearsals didn’t stop once the cast left New York; they preceded performances at night. At one such session, a new line got a laugh from the cast. Prince said, “What’s that funny noise? Laughter? Whatever it is, we don’t want it.”
Yes, for better or worse – coincidentally a term heard by those getting married – FOLLIES would deal with wedlock and emphasize the second syllable.
There were highs, such as when the rehearsal pianists gave way to a full orchestra. “Everyone got swept away by the excitement of the violins, flutes, trumpets and all the other instruments making the songs sound like real music,” wrote Chapin.
Seeing those costumes was unforgettable, too. Chapin remembered “birdcage hats, a large dress with three cherubs hanging on for dear life, different colored skirts and dresses; the place looked like a fantasyland.”
In “Loveland” (the sequence that replicated a Ziegfeldian extravaganza) the six dresses were themed First Love, Young Love, True Love, Pure Love, Romantic Love and Eternal Love – which describes the unconditional love that many have for FOLLIES.
But, Chapin admitted, “the larger the show, the higher the number of things that can go wrong.” He reported that “Beautiful Girls” was “a shambles at the tech rehearsal.”
(It certainly didn’t stay that way.)
“Who’s That Woman?” needed older women to tap dance – but on a severely raked stage where they could easily fall and injure themselves. Their fear and stress were removed by having three offstage dancers on microphones tap their troubles away.
Prince may well now and forever hold the record for accepting the most Tonys. And yet Chapin reported that at one rehearsal he said “I don’t know what to do here” before “Michael joined him onstage and came up with two good solutions right away.”
Bennett’s contributions weren’t minimized. He took Sondheim aside and had him play songs that had been discarded early in the game. When Bennett heard “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” he seized it for the prologue, where it remains to this day.
And how about the time when Mary McCarty was ill and Bennett stepped in to play her role in “Who’s That Woman?” (Don’t you wish you were a fly on the wall THAT day?)
But just as there were highs, there were lows, too – including the “very small” attendance at the first Monday performance.
(Those hundreds of empty seats would have plenty of takers today.)
When Fred Kelly seemed unimpressed with what was happening, Chapin mused to himself “Maybe the show was more ordinary than I thought.”
(In fact, no.)
Yet new material was needed, so Chapin “had some serious typing to do” what with “no access to a Xerox machine.” Pity his fingers! He had to press down hard enough to make “nine good copies” from thumb-smudging carbon paper. Worse, he had to repeat the task three times.
John Guare, who’d attended the first day of rehearsals in New York, couldn’t wait to see FOLLIES on Broadway. He took time out from writing the book and lyrics to his own musical to come to Boston to see an early performance. It was one in which Carlotta Campion (Yvonne De Carlo) sang the benignly ribald “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” which implied that her man was, to quote CHICAGO’S Mama Morton, “a mattress dancer.”
Guare suggested that her song should instead be about survival. Prince didn’t much like the one-joke song, so Sondheim responded that “he would favor writing an entirely different number.” He started thinking about one that would be inspired by Joan Crawford’s experiences.
Meanwhile, De Carlo feared that “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” was being replaced because the staff believed she couldn’t do it effectively enough. What is indisputable is De Carlo’s own important contribution to the new song. During rehearsals, she happened to mention that her recent acting roles seemed relegated to “somebody’s hot-pantsed mother stinko by my swimming pool.” That casual remark turned out to be a vital component of the new song, once again proving that one never knows where good ideas will come from.
“I’m Here,” as the song was first called, saw some lyrics dropped along the way. “Wally and George’s affair” morphed into “Windsor and Wally’s affair.” “I’ve been through five commercials” gave way to “I’m almost through my memoirs.”
De Carlo said that when she first sang it for Prince, he cried. At a rehearsal when she went up on lyrics, Chapin reported that “everyone turned to Steve who was momentarily flummoxed. ‘I was so involved with the song,’ he said, ‘I forgot what the next line was.’”
At its first matinee, “I’m Here” got approval, said Chapin, “even from the candy lady in the lobby – a tough critic.” It went over so well that it was considered a candidate for the show’s eleven o’clock number. Yet the amazing fact is that Sondheim, only after a full nine days after finishing the song, finally decided (or realized) that its name should be “I’m Still Here.”
That may be more remarkable given that Chapin proclaimed that Sondheim “could zero in on any problem, with precision and without hesitation.” What especially impressed Chapin was Sondheim’s advice to the two women in “Buddy’s Blues”: “You’ve both been to acting school and have had exactly one lesson.”
Also seeing FOLLIES in Boston was an unlikely attendee: Soupy Sales, the children’s TV show star. No, he wasn’t an avid musical theater aficionado, but rumor had it that he was having an affair with one of the dancers.
A more insidious rumor circulated that Jack Cassidy would replace John McMartin. Luckily for all but Cassidy, that didn’t come to pass.
Chapin reported that “applause during the women’s entrances during ‘Beautiful Girls’ never happened the same way twice.” But what did happen for certain: Goldman gave Sally a line about “cold corpses” near “In Buddy’s Eyes,” but Chapin said it “had the company actually gasping at the first read-through.” It never made it to a rehearsal.
The three Boston newspaper critics were split: one rave, one mixed, one negative. Harvard senior Frank Rich, who in less than a decade, would be the chief critic for The New York Times, wrote the review that impressed the staff the most.
Audiences were equally split. “Reaction romance to performance … friend to friend.” Chapin said some were “enchanted” while others were “disappointed.” Sondheim’s friend Mary Rodgers came to town and “said some unflattering things.” Nevertheless, Sondheim, after nine days in which he didn’t even catch even a single performance (thanks to writing new songs), saw the show and said “I am absolutely thrilled.”
And Prince predicted “It’s going to run for a helluva long time.”
Yes and no, as we’ll see next Tuesday when FOLLIES finally arrives on Broadway.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.