Although many musical theater enthusiasts know that Stephen Sondheim criticized the lyrics of Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin, they may not know that he could be just as tough on Ted Chapin’s typing.
On the 1971 production of FOLLIES – 10 years before he’d start a 40-year tenure as president and chief creative officer of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization – Chapin was a production assistant on the now-legendary musical. Part of his job was typing the new material that the composer-lyricist would write during rehearsals and in Boston.
The latter location, in fact, is where Sondheim gave Chapin the lyric to the song that he initially called “I’m Here.”
And here was Sondheim who, recalls Chapin, “called me on every mistake I typed.”
Sondheim was as stringent about punctuation as Vivian Bearing is in WIT. Chapin’s use of semi-colons, commas and periods were all questioned (as were his question marks). Keeping every hyphen in the right place wasn’t easy, either, with all the back and forth alternation of shift-keys for “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.”
Sometimes Chapin made errors of a different nature. “I typed ‘gallop’ instead of ‘galop,’” he recalls. “I didn’t know at the time that there was a type of lively ballroom dance called a gallop. But there is.”
Chapin’s FOLLIES job was part of an independent study that he undertook during his junior year at Connecticut College. Through the years, he never disposed of his journal or his notes.
Around the turn of this century, he was reminiscing about his FOLLIES experiences to a woman who suggested that his findings from 1971 would make an excellent book.
So Chapin started what would become EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE: The Birth of the Musical FOLLIES.
He consulted a lawyer to ask about the potential hazard of using quotations. “I was happy to hear that one doesn’t have to worry about libeling the dead,” he said.
That allowed him to replicate the flirtations that Yvonne De Carlo, then 48, made to the 20-year-old assistant.
Robert Gottlieb, who would be the book’s editor, told Chapin that if he indeed did have an affair with De Carlo, he should come clean. However, Chapin swears to this day (without a scintilla of regret, mind you) that there was nothing dirty going on.
Still, just to be on the safe side, Chapin made sure before the scheduled 2003 publication that Sondheim, producer and co-director Harold Prince, bookwriter James Goldman’s Bobbie and John Breglio (the administrator of co-director and choreographer Michael Bennett’s estate) all had a look-see before the initial publication.
Of the four, Chapin reports that Sondheim was the one who read a few pages and insisted, “You got a lot of things wrong.”
“And,” says Chapin, “he objected to some of the punctuation there, too.”
Chapin didn’t have to feel discouraged for very long. “A week later,” he reports, “Steve said it was one of the best books about musical theater.”
Which nobody can deny. EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE is a banquet of delicious behind-the-scene nuggets. However, after almost two decades since the initial publication, Chapin decided to revisit the work. The result is a new edition from Applause.
Not that Chapin was interested in revisionist history. “What I wrote in 1971 and 2003 I kept as is. I didn’t pretend to have wisdom then that I didn’t have.”
What he did add was an additional afterword in which he conveyed more information on FOLLIES IN CONCERT, the Grammy-winning album of the famous, never-to-be-forgotten 1985 event that Masterworks Broadway has kept in print.
Chapin set the wheels in motion by approaching Thomas Z. Shepard, the cast album guru at what was then RCA Victor.
“Tom and RCA had already made a commitment to Sondheim,” Chapin says. “They’d even recorded MARRY ME A LITTLE and the Whitney Museum SONDHEIM EVENING. So I thought that they’d be interested in doing a studio cast album of FOLLIES that would right the wrongs of the first one.”
There were plenty of those. Although the original album does have an illustrious cast, its many, many abridgements and excisions are enough to call it FOLLIES LITE.
Shepard had the idea not to just settle for a recording; he suggested a concert. Recalls Chapin “Tom approached The New York Philharmonic while I went to Sondheim himself, who was in favor of it. But after dealing with the RCA executives, Tom told me ‘We’re not going to make the album,’ citing the extraordinary expense it would take.”
But the gods of the theater smiled on us, and we did get a recording that included nine performers who had either won or would receive Tonys: Barbara Cook, George Hearn, Liliane Montevecchi, Phyllis Newman, Mandy Patinkin, Ted Sperling, Elaine Stritch, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Chapin has a hunch on who footed the bill: “Francis Goelet, who was on the board of the Philharmonic. He had three passions in life: opera, salmon fishing and musical theater. I even heard him at dinner once come out with a lyric from BAJOUR,” Chapin adds with understandable astonishment.
The new afterword also tells of the 50th reunion of FOLLIES (which, ironically enough, had dealt with a reunion). Would that all connected with the 1971 musical could have attended, but at least some of the musical’s original personnel lived to see the day and enjoy the festivities (such as they were on Zoom).
What surprised Chapin most on that April 4, 2021 night was what David Edward Byrd, who gave FOLLIES the greatest logo in all of Broadway history, said. “He told us that he had turned 80 that very day, so his 30th birthday occurred when FOLLIES opened on April 4, 1971.”
If EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE isn’t in your possession, chances are it’s either because you’ve read it so many times that it fell apart or because you loaned it to someone who just couldn’t bring himself to give it back. If you’re revisiting it or reading it for the first time, you’ll savor the stories.
Chapin mentioned that John Guare attended the first FOLLIES rehearsal and was a devoted fan from that moment on. Could Guare ever have guessed that his own musical, TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, would eclipse FOLLIES as Best Musical at the 1971-72 Tonys?
“John was both bemused and embarrassed by that,” says Chapin.
Chapin reported that Mary Rodgers, Sondheim’s longtime friend “said some unflattering things” after she saw FOLLIES in Boston. Those who have read Rodgers’ memoir SHY have learned that Ms. Rodgers could be frank. “After I read the first 10 pages of SHY,” says Chapin, “I said, ‘Oh, so it’s going to be that kind of book.’ A friend told me, ‘Well, at least you weren’t blowtorched.’”
We find that Prince was reluctant to pay $3,000 to paint the long rectangular sign above the Winter Garden marquee, let alone the $250-a-month rental. “Hal was that concerned about the budget,” Chapin says.
But can you imagine FOLLIES playing at a theater where the nearly block-long sign still advertised the four-performance GEORGY that had shuttered more than a year earlier?
As for the rumor that Prince put up his own money when the production needed it, Chapin is still unsure of that. “I looked through his papers at Lincoln Center,” he says, “and I couldn’t find anything to substantiate that.”
You may know that “I’m Still Here” was preceded by “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” Chapin adds that De Carlo was buttressed on one side by an actor who played a poet and sang in high voice; on the other was an actor who portrayed an athlete who sang in a low voice. “I taped ‘Foxtrot’s final performance,” confesses Chapin.
(Maybe he couldn’t type, but, oh, could that boy tape!)
What Chapin couldn’t predict was that FOLLIES would become a landmark and a legend. “We were all just hoping for a good old-fashioned smash-hit,” he admits.
So everything wasn’t possible.
We all know that “Everything was possible” comes from “Waiting around for the Girls Upstairs” and is followed by “and nothing made sense.” That brings us to the one item in the book that may not make sense to you.
Chapin reports that after Sondheim had written an opening number called “Bring on the Girls,” Bennett asked him to replace it.
However, would you have been surprised if 40-year-old Sondheim had said to 27-year-old Bennett, “Listen, kid, in 1959, when you were a 16-year-old dropping out of high school, I was enjoying my second hit on Broadway – GYPSY – which followed WEST SIDE STORY, the musical that provided you with your first professional job.”
No. Sondheim replaced “Bring on the Girls” with “Beautiful Girls.” Many would say that is the greatest opening number in the last half of the 20th century. So we have Bennett to thank in two ways – first for requesting a new song and then staging it magnificently.
Chapin believes that Sondheim agreed because “he was still hungry in 1971, and he respected Michael, especially after what he’d done with COMPANY the year before.”
However, you can hear at least the melody of “Bring on the Girls” on the FOLLIES IN CONCERT album. A second CD was required to include the musical’s final five numbers, so the disc was filled out with STAVISKY, the score that Sondheim wrote for the 1974 Alain Resnais film. “Auto Show” is the melody to “Bring on the Girls.”
While we’re at it, STAVISKY’s “Operetta” and “Salon at the Claridge #2” were once part of FOLLIES, too, respectively as “The World Is Full of Boys” and “Who Could Be Blue?”
And who could, with FOLLIES IN CONCERT and EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE?
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements – is now available on Amazon.