What a find! There are many books on the development of individual musicals but few, if any, provide half the pleasure of this chronicle of Follies from the preparation for rehearsals through to the opening night party. It was written by a man who, as a youth infatuated with the world of musical comedy, had the opportunity to be a “fly on the wall” as a “go-fer” who went for coffee, drove cast and crew to appointments, took notes for the co-director, escorted a star thrice his age and typed the changed script pages including the lyrics fresh from the pen of Stephen Sondheim.
If you know and love Follies, you won’t need me to urge you to buy this book. Just telling you it exists should be enough.
If you love musical theater, but aren’t that familiar with Follies, I urge you to buy and devour this book. You will get more out of it if you take one step before you read it. Go to Wikipedia and read the introduction, the background section and the fairly comprehensive plot summary before opening the book.
Or, if you are within traveling distance of that big multi-hall building on the banks of the Potomac, The Kennedy Center, an evening sitting in its Eisenhower Theater sometime before June 19 should be even better. The latest important revival of Follies will be on that stage and the likes of Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines, Elaine Page and a host of other notables will give you a proper introduction to the story the author tells.
That author is Ted Chapin, the president of the Rogers & Hammerstein organization which handles a major portion of the standard catalogue of musical theater: all the shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart and some of the shows of other composers like Irving Berlin and Andrew Lloyd Webber. He’s also the Chairman of the Board of the American Theatre Wing (the Tony Awards people) and of Great American Musicals in Concert series, Encores!.
Forty years ago, at the age of twenty, he was a junior at Connecticut College. He talked the powers-that-be at the college into letting him take a semester for a self-constructed work-study program in New York to watch and then write about the birth of a new musical. He then had to convince the powers-that-be at the musical to let him actually do it. Hal Prince was producing and co-directing Follies (with Michael Bennett) so Chapin wrote to Prince asking to be allowed to “observe the rehearsal period of Follies.” Prince wrote back telling him to contact his assistant who arranged for him to be an unpaid go-fer. Chapin managed to build on that opening to place himself in a position to observe practically every major event in the development of Follies from first reading through previews, the out of town tryout and on to opening night ending with the recording session for the original Broadway cast album that now graces so many theatre shelves.
Chapin kept a journal throughout his time on Follies. He took notes during the work day – or work night … a portion of the rehearsal period was spent on the set at the workshop where it was being constructed in the Bronx, so the rehearsals began when the workers went home and continued past midnight. When Chapin finally got back to his room each night/morning he would type up a two or three page summary of the day expanding on what he’d scribbled during the work hours. After the show was up and running, he returned to school and converted the material into what just might win a heaviest term paper contest. It ran to 120 pages.
This book, which is based on those pages, blends his current maturity and expanded knowledge of the field of musical theater with the enthusiasm and wide-eyed wonder of his youth.
The discipline Chapin brought to his recording of events allows the book to follow the evolution of individual scenes and songs and even give a view of how individual performances differed as the cast worked through additions, deletions and changes in approach. There is a fascinating thread throughout the preview period as the creative team try to figure out if the show should have an intermission and, if so, where it should come. The night that New York Times’ chief critic, Clive Barnes, attended to review the show, Chapin sat in the balcony taking notes of which numbers Barnes seemed to like and where he seemed bored, where he seemed attentive and even where he yawned.
Chapin is fortunate to have the permission of multiple photographers to use the photos they took documenting both the show on stage and the events backstage. Over 60 well-chosen black and white photos are sprinkled throughout the volume, helping the reader envision the world the words are describing and an eight page insert of color shots adds to the feel.
This is a book about Follies but it is much more than that. It is about the collaboration that produces a work of what has been described as the most collaborative of art forms. In his introduction, Chapin puts that plainly and it is a section worth quoting in full:
“…having observed what it was like to be a collaborative artist, I have nothing but admiration for the artists who created Follies in 1971. I discovered they were all people with foibles – which shouldn’t have been a surprise, though to a wide-eyed potential groupie, it was. Watching them work hard to create something a little different from anything that had come before was seductive. At every stage there was someone on the creative staff who was miserable. Hal Prince hated the early rehearsals before everybody knew their lines. (Book writer) James Goldman hated going out of town. Steve Sondheim had so much to do that he seemed to be in a perpetual state of distress. And there was tension built into the team: Michael Bennett and Harold Prince were billed as codirectors, something neither of them relished but which both realized was the right thing for this particular show. Each man knew that he needed the other, although I think they were reluctant to admit it. In addition, everybody hated opening nights.”
I have never hated opening nights until now. The opening night of Follies marked the end of this book and I hated to see it end.