So. You’ve just seen the revival of Follies at the Kennedy Center and you say “I must have this score on my theatre shelf.” Or you are planning to see it and you say “I must get a recording to familiarize myself with the score before I see the show.” Which of the many recordings of this forty-year old score do you get? Here’s a minority report on the question.
Some, of course, will tell you that there is no substitute for the original Broadway cast album. This is the version on sale at the Kennedy Center’s book shop. It documents some performances that are still thought to be unmatched. I mean Dorothy Collins, Alexis Smith, Yvonne De Carlo, John McMartin, Gene Nelson, Ethel Shutta, et. al. Who could ask for anything more?
Well, I could. I could ask for the complete score. But The creative team of Hal Prince, Michael Bennett, James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim lost the battle with Capitol Records and ended up with a single “highlights” disc rather than a two-disc complete score recording.
Given that, some say you should go for the Papermill Playhouse revival recording which bills itself as the first “complete recording.” They would point out that the cast at Papermill was awfully good as well and that the performances, captured in whole rather than in part, are invaluable. Donna McKechnie, Dee Hoty, Laurence Guittard,Tony Roberts, Kaye Ballard, Phyllis Newman, Ann Miller, Liliane Montevecchi — That is quite a list.
There are even those who say, “Sondheim wrote new material for the London production so you need to buy that recording to get it.” That would give you “Country House,” “Social Dancing,” “Ah, But Underneath,” and “Make the Most of Your Music” but you loose the material these songs replaced. Still, there are some fine performances.
But, for me, there is simply nothing quite as exciting as the recording that Thomas Z. Shepard did for RCA of the 1985 New York Philharmonic concert presentation of the score. The electricity in the air that night at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City in 1985 somehow came through the microphones and flows into my speakers. Every single time I play it I feel shivers down my spine.
The rumble of the timpani, the blast of the brass and the delicate ruminations of the reeds at the opening of the overture begins a musical journey not just to “The Weismann Theatre” where the show is set or even to the Wintergarden where the show premiered, but to the hall where an incredible collection of stars backed by the full New York Philharmonic under the direction of Paul Gemignani playing Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations gave a string of dazzling “top-this-if-you-can” performances which, amazingly, the next star did top.
The audience reaction as the cast take the stage is overwhelming.
I know that the lists of stars in the other recordings mentioned above are impressive, but at the risk of making this column seem like major name dropping, check out this line up:
- Barbara Cook (“In Buddy’s Eyes” “Losing My Mind”)
Lee Remick (“Could I Leave You?” “The Story of Lucy and Jesse”)
George Hearn (“The Road You Didn’t Take” “Live, Laugh, Love”)
Mandy Patinkin (“The Right Girl” “Buddy’s Blues”)
Then there are their younger counterparts – Liz Callaway, Daisy Prince, Howard McGillin and Jim Walton.
The deliverers of individual show-stoppers have all stopped shows before:
- Elaine Stritch (“Broadway Baby”)
Phillis Newman (“Who’s That Woman?”)
Liliane Montevecchi (“Ah, Paree!”)
Betty Comden and Adolph Green (“Rain on the Roof”)
and, topping it all for me,
- Carol Burnett doing an absolutely astonishing “I’m Still Here.”
The recording has long been on my “desert island” list – meaning it isn’t just my favorite recording of Follies, it is one of my favorite recordings – period!