By Peter Filichia
Twenty-five years ago this week, a few thousand people had one of the greatest Broadway experiences of their lives – and they weren’t even in a Broadway theater.
No, Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center proved to be the center of the Broadway universe on September 6 and 7, 1985, when Follies in Concert played there. These represented the first performances that a star-studded Follies had had in New York in more than a decade.
Is there any musical from any era that has had such a hold on musical theatre lovers as Follies? Stephen Sondheim wrote wonderfully evocative pastiche numbers in the styles of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Sigmund Romberg, DeSylva, Brown and Henderson. In addition, the songs he created for his two unhappily married couples showed a musical and lyrical complexity that was in tune with a steadily more jaded world.
Broadway wasn’t up for that bitterness and cynicism – especially in James Goldman’s book. From April 1971 through July 1972, Follies did manage to stay open at the Winter Garden, but tickets were never at a premium – unless one counts the $2 balcony seats that always seemed to be packed with returnees who’d be seeing their beloved show for the umpteenth time.
Follies wasn’t much helped by its original cast album, which truncated Sondheim’s brilliant words and melodies on far too many occasions – even with one of his most acclaimed songs, “I’m Still Here.” Many felt that Follies needed to rectify that mortal recording sin with a new recording, and RCA Victor record producer Thomas Z. Shepard was ready to provide it. Better still, a live concert in which the show would be recorded could get those thousands of Follies devotees in one place to pay homage to both the show and Sondheim.
The concert ran two nights; now, a quarter-century later, it’s still here in the recording that was culled from both performances. How do I know that? I attended the first performance, where Mandy Patinkin went up on his lyrics, apologized to us, and started again. That’s not on the final product.
What’s really remarkable is how many of the performers who played the principals are still with us – which one might not expect, given that Follies deals with many senior citizens. Granted, we have lost both Betty Comden and Adolph Green (the Whitmans). At least they lived to see 91 and 87 respectively; Lee Remick (1935-1991), who portrayed Phyllis Rogers Stone, died much too young. But even 97-year-old Licia Albanese (Heidi Schiller) has stayed on this mortal coil.
Some are still working. Elaine Stritch — who played former showgirl Hattie Walker and sang “Broadway Baby” – proved that she is indeed just that; she’s currently appearing in the musical Sondheim wrote right after Follies – A Little Night Music. Barbara Cook – who portrayed Sally Durant Plummer, the housewife who’s been in denial and is ready to face life at this Weismann Follies reunion – was no less devoted to Sondheim earlier this year; she had a Tony®-nominated turn in Sondheim on Sondheim at Roundabout’ Studio 54. Liliane Montevecchi (Solange LaFitte) recently signed to do From Broadway with Love, a benefit in Santa Fe on Dec. 4, with Kaye Ballard and Donna McKechnie. Mandy Patinkin (Buddy Plummer) will play a tortured writer in Compulsion at the Public Theatre later this season.
George Hearn (Benjamin Stone) played the Wizard inWicked not that long ago. Carol Burnett (Carlotta Campion) portrayed “Grandma Maureen” in the 2009 film Post Grad and is in Glee, too. Also seen here and there are Andre Gregory (Dimitri Weismann), Arthur Rubin (Roscoe) and Phyllis Newman (Stella Deems). She not only started The Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative that helps those with breast cancer, but she also appeared as herself in a documentary about female wrestlers called Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar – words that could apply to most every woman who appeared in Follies in Concert.
The concert had too much music for one CD, but not enough to fill two. As a result, Sondheim’s score for the 1974 French film Stavisky filled out the second disc. But even here you get a bit of Follies, in a manner of speaking. “Auto Show” offers the original melody of “Bring on the Girls,” an earlier version of Follies’ opening number, that was replaced by “Beautiful Girls.” “Operetta” was to be a song called “The World’s Full of Boys/ Girls.” Finally, “Salon at the Claridge #2” was a reworking of “Who Could Be Blue?” which Young Ben was to sing to Young Sally.
But the main event of the two discs, of course, is Follies in Concert. And while the original cast album of Follies weighed in at a puny 56:07, Follies in Concert at 85:41 gave almost an extra half-hour of music.
No, that’s not fair. Some of the extra time went to applause. If I may indulge in a personal moment, I can say that that Sept. 6 evening I attended had thousands of others and me rabid to show our appreciation for a musical that could never possibly get enough appreciation. And at the end of the night when Sondheim sauntered on stage, I let out a roar that I’d never before heard emerge from me before – and one I have never heard come out of me since.
If you were too young to be there, let your youth be your consolation – and let your ears feast on what happily remains.
Peter Filichia writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia.