Jason Cochran

Stuff you never knew you never knew

Follies original production Playbill

Cracked in the head, but a historical document nonetheless

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.

Follies on Time magazine

See? Musicals are too culturally relevant! They're even on the cover of TIME! What's more culturally relevant than that? (Oh... wait...)

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.

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3 comments. Add a Comment:

  1. John Ellis says:

    Right back at ‘cha. (Jonthes here). I disagree with much of this blog’s smaller points about “Follies” but not the larger jist. “Follies” was and is one of the great musical theater works, and the butchered cast LP had a lot to do with the fact this is in dispute. Outside New York, people made decisions about what to see based on listening to the cast LPs in the 50s-70s, and I should know as a stage struck kid in Kentucky in that era. The butchered LP cost “Follies” a lot of its run, probably the Best Musical Tony (it lost to “Two Gentlemen of Verona”), and a possible film deal (among others Doris Day was interested). Had it been recorded properly the LP would have had enormous impact; I remember hearing it when it was issued and thinking, well, this Sondheim guy is interesting but not worth a trip to New York. Intriguing, only. Goddard Lieberson created the cast album as an art form (I cleaned a complete live performance of Merman in “Gypsy” and it’s a different show than what the cast album makes it seem, much darker). I have tried to do what he would have done – “Follies” would have been the greatest cast album ever recorded if it had been done properly, only possibly topped if the original cast of “Show Boat” had recorded the whole score in 1928. At least I’ve had more to work with.
    I disagree about Prince’s films, at least “Something For Everyone”, too. He’s an atrocious technical director, each scene change feels like you just drove through a brick wall, but it contains Angela Lansbury’s best comic performance film or stage and is wonderful in spite of its hamfisted director.
    Here is a link to the complete fantasy follies sequence on Youtube that provoked your response:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRHwRO7SGHE
    I absolutely defy anyone with any interest in musical theater or drama to listen to it and not get drawn in. The original script had just enough conflict and tension -heat – to justify the leap into fantasy; since then the script’s drama has been as gutted and watered down as the cast album. Some day some wise producer/director will restore the script too. Being that and a playwright, actor, designer as well as a sound restorer I wish I had the wherewithal myself, it’s one of the few works worth as much attention as I give to my own.

  2. Well said, and right on. I agree that Follies is one of the great works — it’s just maddeningly imperfect. The same can be said of many of Shakespeare’s lesser plays, so that’s not a bump but a critical comment. I’ve been lucky enough to see a few major revivals, including the one in which Ann Miller gave me chills singing “I’m Still Here” (it might as well have been written for her personally). I also love your point about how the cast recording also affected the show’s fortunes during its run and with Hollywood, too — another unintended consequence of neglecting the document, and how the document directly affects the legacy. But I venture to say that no modern audience will never be able to truly know the full poignancy of Follies, since nearly none of us were alive to be entertained by vaudeville, to feel the curdling of American vitality and the cloistering of the family after World War Two, or to live through an era in which our beloved entertainment houses were gutted like Capitol cast recordings. Its idioms are things most Americans know second-hand now, or as rote clichés; to the primary audience, “I’m Still Here” was a nostalgia piece as much as it was an anthem of Depression survival, so to hear Ann Miller sing it was to hear one of the last living voices to truly connect with the references. Even the cast is much larger than can be normally sustained in today’s economy, to say nothing of the musicians. I will also venture to say that “Something for Everyone”‘s triumph would be Angela Lansbury’s, not Hal Prince’s, and his butchering of “A Little Night Music” might have soured that show’s legacy, too, had Sondheim’s reputation not been so well cemented by then. Even he thought Follies was flawed, as you know (too many pastiche songs, he thought, although I disagree on that count). I myself did not grow familiar with this show by Capitol, but by the live concert at Avery Fisher Hall in 1985. When I first heard the Capitol sham, which was after that, I put it away, refusing to listen to it much. Even in my mid-teens I knew the worth of Goddard Lieberson.

  3. John Ellis says:

    Oh, I think one of the virtues of great theater is to bring a past era to life. I’ve written plays recreating Shakespeare in what was then middle age dealing with his young gay patron and Marc Blitzstein who was completely reformed as a composer by the Great Depression. These would be hopeless (and in fact haven’t had commercial airings, though very very close several times) if it was not possible through the art of acting, directing and designing to draw today’s audience into that recreated time. But key is the acting, which is rarer and rarer. “Follies” has to be acted and very well, or it’s just the Broadway equivalent of an English pantomime, which they do for a lark at Christmas. It would help if they not only went back to the original book but also restored some of the preview cut lines, it was streamlined a bit too much I think even in it’s original production. Weisman had a great line, (sarcastically) “As you can see I’ve spared no expense!”, which revealed that the big orchestra was in fact ghosts too, imaginary, like the spectre chorus girls. I think they gave up trying to get that across though is hovers in the production anyway. He’s busted, the last squib of a Roman candle, now they play him like he’s retiring to the Riviera.
    “Something”, like a lot of Prince’s work as a director, you have to credit him with guts – who else would make a film about Michael York screwing his way up all branches of a family tree – and brilliant casting, he just needed to hire someone to actually put the camera in the right place, direct the actual scenes and edit it well. I still wish I or someone could get hold of the rough footage of “Something” and fix the edit, that’s most of the problem. Seriously Ed Wood understood matching shots better. “Night Music” should have starred Diana Rigg and not cut so much of the score, although if you hear the soundtrack from the master tapes Liz Taylor actually sang well – well-ish. Unfortunately Viennese pastry did in her image. Falling out of that window box cut dress, the audience I saw it with at the Public Theater were literally on the floor when she sang “Are we a pair”, but of course Prince framed her so the cleavage was the focal point. Maybe his little joke.
    Enjoyed the blog, I hope Steve – now 80 – tries to get this thing out in some way. Unions, legal costs, etc., just throw a month’s income from “Send in the Clowns”, Steve – it will be worth it. I’ll cut 10% off my fee.
    John Ellis

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