Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Follies on Disc

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Follies on Disc Few musicals that have had as little financial success in both their Broadway and London productions have achieved the legendary status of Follies. But in its original Hal Prince-Michael Bennett staging, it was a hallucinatory, scary, and thrilling piece of musical theatre that challenged audiences to face up to some unpleasantries about illusion vs. reality. It also boasts what is perhaps Stephen Sondheim's most bountiful score, a mixture of pastiche material recapitulating the sounds of earlier American musicals with pure, neurosis-tinged Sondheim that must be rated as one of his two or three finest achievements.

Few musicals that have had as little financial success in both their Broadway and London productions have achieved the legendary status of Follies. But in its original Hal Prince-Michael Bennett staging, it was a hallucinatory, scary, and thrilling piece of musical theatre that challenged audiences to face up to some unpleasantries about illusion vs. reality. It also boasts what is perhaps Stephen Sondheim's most bountiful score, a mixture of pastiche material recapitulating the sounds of earlier American musicals with pure, neurosis-tinged Sondheim that must be rated as one of his two or three finest achievements.

In honor of the commencement of performances next week of the first major, full-scale East Coast revival of Follies at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, I am devoting this column to a rundown on recordings of the score.

Not including live tapes (of which there are probably hundreds), recordings of Follies boil down to just three, plus one radio broadcast. The original 1971 Capitol/Angel album still ranks as the most famous botch job in the history of cast albums (with the Dreamgirls cast recording not far behind). The Follies score, which in an era before compact discs demanded a double-LP set, was eviscerated so that it could fit on a single LP, with just 56 minutes of an almost 90-minute score preserved. Some numbers ("Rain on the Roof," "Bolero d'Amour," "Loveland") were cut altogether, while "One More Kiss" was recorded but not released until the 1992 CD reissue. Most of the songs lucky enough to be included at all were trimmed, some to the point of incoherence.

It would be convenient to be able to say that one can therefore avoid the first recording in favor of later ones, but that's impossible, as, cut up as it is, the original features leads that remain absolutely definitive. Alexis Smith's cool hauteur; Gene Nelson's wistful good-time-Charley; John McMartin's acerbic disillusionment; Yvonne De Carlo's party girl; and above all Dorothy Collins' desperate, overgrown chorine have never been bettered. And there's stellar work in the supporting cameos of Ethel Shutta, Mary McCarty, Fifi D'Orsay, and Justine Johnston. No serious musical theatre fan can miss the chance to hear Follies as it was orginally performed, but the first recording is one of the best-ever arguments for seeking out in-performance tapes; at least two theatre sound-system recordings of the original production fill in the blanks.

The 1985 Avery Fisher Hall concert version was produced with the express purpose of making a comprehensive recording to compensate for the '71 mishap. An all-star cast was assembled, and the event (also captured in a TV documentary that includes performance highlights) was one of those New York occasions that those in attendance still boast about having witnessed. But RCA Victor's double-CD recording, the most complete available documentation of the original version, fails to offer the complete score as heard in '71. All of the songs are there and complete, but the dance music has been abbreviated and altered, with the "Bolero," not by Sondheim but by dance arranger John Berkman, omitted. A couple of numbers were given false endings to smooth over gaps in the continuity. And while the cast is generally fine, there are problems: Lee Remick and George Hearn are good choices for the Smith and McMartin roles. But Barbara Cook has in Sally the only role she ever took for which she wasn't ideally suited; singing beautifully as always, she projects too much strength to convey the pathetic child-woman that Collins so movingly depicted. And from Mandy Patinkin's solo version of the "Buddy's Blues" trio one can trace the beginnings of the self-indulgence that was to mar his performances in the decade following his terrific work in Evita and Sunday in the Park With George. Carol Burnett's "I'm Still Here" is straightforward and respectable, although she doesn't sound like she's seen it all or been through the mill. Elaine Stritch brought down the house with "Broadway Baby," but her sardonic delivery is at odds with the amusingly corny sentiment of the number, and it's hard to know what she's attempting to convey by spitting out the phrases in a rather nasty fashion. Liliane Montevecchi's "Ah, Paree!" is less appealing than D'Orsay's, and Phyllis Newman is unable to fill McCarty's shoes in "Who's That Woman?" (both will be doing these numbers again at Paper Mill). But former Met diva Licia Albanese and Erie Mills are lovely on "One More Kiss."

Follies did not receive its West End premiere until 1987, and when it did, producer Cameron Mackintosh asked the authors to take another look at the piece, with particular attention to James Goldman's stylized libretto, which proved off-putting to many in '71. You will read everywhere that the result was a more upbeat Follies, but that was only partly true, and not the chief difference between the two versions: The original was completely surreal, seemingly taking place on some psychological landscape where the protagonists have arrived in an attempt to rid themselves of the ghosts of the past so that they may be able to go on with their lives. Past and present mingled throughout, and the performance numbers were not being "performed" at the reunion -- they simply happened, interrupting scenes and returning to life on the same stage where they first happened. The London production was far more literal; while still featuring ghosts of the principal's younger selves, it depicted a realistic reunion, with the cameo numbers clearly performances at the event.

To accommodate the book rewrites, Sondheim dropped four songs and added five others: "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" was replaced by the equally strong "Ah, But Underneath" (Paper Mill is using the latter); "Live, Laugh, Love" was replaced by "Make The Most of Your Music"; the original "Loveland" was dropped in favor of a haunting, more beautiful new one; and Ben's solo "The Road You Didn't Take" was (unforgivably) omitted, with a brittle Ben-Phyllis duet that sounds like post-'71 Sondheim, "Country House," added. And a new sequence called "Social Dancing," embracing dialogue, underscoring, and movement, opened the second act.

Because of these new numbers, the First Night Records cast recording of the London production is a must, particularly as the '87 version will never be performed again. The company is an exciting one, although several of the leads sounded better live than they do on the rather rushed-sounding album. Diana Rigg, Julia McKenzie, Daniel Massey, and David Healey (both leading men are now deceased) do well in the leading roles, veteran belter Dolores Gray is a major plus in "I'm Still Here," but some of the cameos are disappointing. Originally a double-CD set, First Night reissued the recording on a single CD, dropping "Social Dancing."

More than a year ago in this space I discussed the December, 1996 Drury Lane, London concert version that was aired on BBC 2 the following February. At that time, the performance was to have been issued on disc by Virgin Records, but plans were dropped, probably because the result was disappointing. Donna McKechnie, who is playing Sally at Paper Mill, was Phyllis; Julia McKenzie repeated her West End Sally; Denis Quilley was a fine Ben; and Ron Moody was Buddy. Other leads: Angela Richards, Joan Savage, Libby Morris, Elizabeth Seal, the team of Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson from London '87, Shona Lindsay, and Michael Cahill. Like the '85 concert, liberties were taken with the original score, but it's mostly there, with the "Bolero" played as an entr'acte.

As stated above, tapes exist of the show's numerous revivals, and no Follies freak would want to miss the opportunity to hear at least some of the various assumptions of the show's many juicy parts. The 1973 summer stock tour featured Vivian Blaine (Phyllis), Jane Kean (a superb Sally), Robert Alda, and the incomparable Hildegarde in "Ah, Paree!" Julie Wilson later came into the production, moving from Carlotta's "I'm Still Here" to Phyllis. The 1988 Michigan Opera production had Juliet Prowse, Nancy Dussault, Ron Raines, and Edie Adams (as Carlotta). The 1990 Long Beach Civic Light Opera production was notable for returning the great Susan Johnson to the musical stage; her "Who's That Woman?" was wonderful. That production also had Prowse, Shani Wallis, Karen Morrow, Dorothy Lamour, Denise Darcel, and Yma Sumac in an indescribable, indecipherable "One More Kiss." With Prowse too ill to repeat Phyllis, the 1995 Houston/Seattle production had Constance Towers in her place, opposite the fine Sally of Judy Kaye. Also present: Darcel, Edie Adams (this time in "One More Kiss"), Maxene Andrews (in one of her last appearances, doing "Broadway Baby"), Walter Charles, Virginia Mayo, and Brian d'Arcy James as Young Buddy.

And the show has had several full stagings and concerts abroad. The European professional premiere in Manchester, England in 1985 had Kevin Colson, Josephine Blake, Mary Millar (London's original Mme. Giry and Mrs. Potts) and Meg Johnson (Mama Morton in the West End Chicago). The 1991 German production at Berlin's Theater Des Westens saw Eartha Kitt repeating the Carlotta she had done as Gray's successor in London, along with the Phyllis of Daniela Ziegler (the second German Norma Desmond), and the Kessler Twins offering a double-take on the mirror number. A 1993 Brighton, England benefit concert had Rosemary Ashe (original Phantom Carlotta), Millar, Blake, Glyn Kerslake, and Caroline O'Connor. And February, 1998 brought Australia its second starry concert version, featuring such down-under divas as Judi Connelli, Toni Lamond, Jill Perryman, Nancye Hayes, and Sheila Bradley.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com