Although a whole lot bothers me about musicals, there are some things that I love, specifically, what stems from history. I almost never listen to a cast recording and get goofily carried away. I start thinking about the place and time of it, the look of the cabs that passed outside the theatre, the hats and coats on top of the heads of the audiences and the political and social concerns inside them.
I like the document of the cast album. It’s so rare to allow history to sing in your ear.
As a document, the original cast recording of 1971’s Follies was shredded from the start. People now acknowledge that the show is, if not really a perfect masterpiece, then one of Stephen Sondheim’s most compelling, and widest-ranging. Its daring was what turned people off: It’s about middle-aged people having nervous breakdowns when they return to an abandoned theatre, Weissman’s, that once was the centre of their young romantic lives. At the end, a demo crew breaks through the wall and everyone leaves, shattered. Wheee!
The promise of self-doubt and meltdowns with top hats (particularly during Vietnam, when the middle class had enough to regret) didn’t appeal to many people back then, so it wasn’t destined to run for long. And the show’s casting, scenic, and narrative demands are extreme enough to mean the show is rarely revived, perhaps rightfully so, which makes the original production a brief flash of mythology for New Yorkers and singers alike. But in 1971, as it was running, of course no one knew how hindsight would inform its legacy, or that “I’m Still Here” would become a standard.
So everyone allowed themselves to be stupid. Harold Prince was in a snit over something CBS had done with one of his forevermore forgettable movie ventures. CBS’s Goddard Lieberson was the undisputed master of cast recordings, but Prince was so pissy he didn’t care. So he gave the recording rights to Capitol, which had experience mostly in cynical commercial pop recordings — not in documents. Those Hollywood Boulevard types didn’t understand that cast recordings are, in a sense, snapshots of a moment. They are museums to a work of art that will only exist in that form once. They pay homage to specific cultural and economic conditions as much as they strive to entertain eccentric grandmothers and closeted future showboys.
Anyway, the lush and rangy score was hacked, compressed, and disemboweled to fit on one tinny LP.
For the recording, Capitol rented a ballroom at the Manhattan Center on 34th near Eighth Avenue. The venue itself was a ruined theatre, having been built by Oscar Hammerstein I in a failed bid to unseat the Metropolitan Opera as New York’s dominant opera institution. Today, in further proof of the continued re-ascendancy of vaudeville-by-television, the building is where America’s Got Talent has its annual New York auditions.
A year before, CBS gave Sondheim’s Company 18 and a half hours of recording to get things right — which they needed, considering how drunk Elaine Stritch was — but the more complex and orchestral Follies was given just a single day to nail everything and clean up. In his book Everything Was Possible, Ted Chapin remembers it was a day of buzzing mics, flipped switches, and crossed signals. Not only was everything cut to hell, but people had only a few minutes to record unfamiliar, newly gutted versions of their songs before hitting the street again.
Even the album cover was lazy: the show’s poster was slapped in the middle, not even cropped, so there were long white spaces on either side.
On YouTube, I found some files by JonthesYT, a guy I don’t know, but whom I know I already love. A true historian who appreciates that cast recordings are perhaps more about American cultural preservation than mere entertainment, he has created the Follies original cast album the way it should have been. By mashing up, deftly and with an engineer’s ear, the original truncated disc with good-quality live recordings of the short-lived 1971 show in performance at the Winter Garden Theatre, he has matched the performances as they truly are.
Here’s the musical triptych of “Rain on the Roof,” “Ah, Paree!”, and “Broadway Baby.” In 1971, only the second two were included, and “Broadway Baby” was chopped in half.
From a custodial point of view, it’s horrifying to think that “Broadway Baby,” which is now a familiar tune that’s regarded as an American classic song, was not recorded in its full form by the person who first sang it. The person who first sang it, Ethel Shutta, is also fading away thanks to a lack of documents preserving her, even though she was a fixture on American stages and radio for some 73 years.
Thanks to Capitol and Hal Prince’s hissy fit, we were deprived of that artifact. But this guy has re-assembled it and restored it, with dozens of hidden edits in each track, to a sense of its truth, if only on YouTube.
My favorite one is “Losing My Mind” by Dorothy Collins. It’s already one of my favorite songs, but her little step-up on “mind” at the end of the bridge (which wasn’t recorded but was rescued from a live performance) is an interpretation I’ve never heard before. Now, I realize that had this bridge been recorded, every girl singer since 1971 would have sung that lick. Because that’s what we do, like it or not: We sing like the original sang it. Further proof the cast recording is a more powerful document than a pop song: it guides interpretation forever.
It’s a stupid little thing, really, and it may be something that only musical fans will appreciate. But it’s at 2:55:
I suppose there is an argument to be made for the idea that because Follies‘ original document was so awful, people have spent decades re-inspecting the work and trying to redeem it. And without James Goldman’s sometimes hard-to-swallow book to compare beside the score, Sondheim gets all the glory, while regional theatre companies everywhere fail to realize the many hazards that prevent the final piece, once mounted, from connecting the way they hoped it would. Thanks again to the document of the cast album, for boosting life where previously there may have been only shame.
People love to mock musicals. Even the people in musicals mock musicals, because they don’t want to be seen as so unhip as to lack a sense of humor.
But musicals are not all about jazz hands and kick lines and belters dressed up as French peasants. They are markers of our culture — and they are distinctly American, since we invented them. Their successes inform us about our national rhetoric, and their failures tells us about our culture, too.
There’s a slice of American history in every disc, just as there’s something to learn from a black and white movie on TCM, a jazz album, or a comic book.
Follies is coming back to Broadway in August. As proof that producers perhaps still don’t precisely grasp the full feather of history of the piece, it will play the 25-year-old Marquis Theatre, whose construction (and that of the vertical bunker of the Marriott tower above it) demanded the demolition of five antique theatres on the block.
The Marquis Theatre itself created four theatre ghosts like the Weissman’s. It’s as if they’re mounting their show in the very parking lot that replaced Weissman’s haunted playhouse.