ON THE RECORD: Three by Dorothy Fields and Ted Chapin's Follies

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Three by Dorothy Fields and Ted Chapin's Follies
This week's column examines three recording featuring the lyrics of Dorothy Fields as well as Ted Chapin's new tome, "Everything Was Possible."
Ted Chapin, author of
Ted Chapin, author of "Everything Was Possible." Photo by Aubrey Reuben

UP IN CENTRAL PARK / ARMS AND THE GIRL [Decca Broadway B0000554]
Dorothy Fields (1905-1974) is generally acclaimed as Broadway's first woman lyricist, or at least Broadway's first important woman lyricist. She was neither, as it happens, although one might safely name her among the best.

When Fields came along in her early twenties in the late twenties, two of Broadway's most successful lyricist-librettists were women. Anne Caldwell (1876-1936) wrote book and lyrics for two dozen musicals, including seven by Jerome Kern (preceded by a collaboration with Ivan Caryll). Dorothy Donnelly (1880-1928) had even more success, although her career was truncated. After 20 years on Broadway as an actor and playwright, she had her first lyricist-librettist job in 1923. The show was the W.C. Fields vehicle Poppy, which Donnelly also directed. She is credited with the song hit "Alibi Baby," although Howard Dietz claimed that he wrote the lyric and Fields's dialogue (without credit or payment). Donnelly quickly followed this in 1924 with two of the biggest operetta hits of the century, Blossom Time and The Student Prince.

So Dorothy Fields, who arrived on Broadway with the revue Blackbirds of 1928, was not the first woman to achieve prominence in the musical theatre. She was one of the most durable writers, however, female or male; her Broadway career spanned more than four decades. She wrote lyrics for a dozen musicals, all told; two of them are especially impressive, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Sweet Charity. (Only three of her shows as lyricist turned profits, of the moderate sort; this compares to six hits — including one blockbuster — as librettist.) Fields's best work, arguably, came during a brief Hollywood collaboration with Jerome Kern. This started in 1934 with the Oscar-winner "Lovely to Look At," and continued with the sterling songs for the 1936 film "Swing Time." (This score is expected later this season in Never Gonna Dance, and might well prove to be the most flavorful songs Broadway's heard in ages.) Fields wrote a handful of other fine songs along the way, for Broadway revues ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love") and Hollywood films ("I'm in the Mood for Love").

Decca Broadway has continued its series of reissues with lyricist Fields's two musicals of the forties. Neither Up in Central Park nor Arms and the Girl — written in 1949, although it opened one month into 1950 — are particularly memorable. Even so, don't let that stop you from getting the disc (which we are told is available only from www.iclassics.com). Arms and the Girl, especially, offers a couple of compelling reasons to listen, namely Nanette Fabray (with ineffective material) and Pearl Bailey (who makes the most of her two somewhat better songs).

Up in Central Park was a fair-sized hit. This 1945 operetta kept wartime audiences happy for 504 performances, thanks to producer Mike Todd's lavish production with its nostalgic, Currier and Ives-inspired designs. The plot told of the development of Central Park, under the thumb of corruption king William Marcy Tweed; the satire, though, was relatively toothless. Fields worked with old-time composer Romberg, Donnelly's collaborator on Blossom Time and The Student Prince. The songs are likely to appeal to people who like Romberg style operetta, a group that doesn't include me. "We'll be close as pages in a book, my love and I," he sings, "our dreams won't come tumbling to the ground, we'll hold them fast." The score is marked by the sort of writing where the hero bursts out singing "I want to sing about Central Park." And he does, he does. The one touch of life comes in a comedy number, "The Fireman's Bride." Celeste Holm, who had recorded Oklahoma! and Bloomer Girl for Decca, made a guest appearance for this track. Concert singer Eileen Farrell came in to do the heavy singing, on four of the eight songs. Wilbur Evans and Betty Bruce of the original cast are heard, accompanied by what seems to be the Broadway chorus. Max Meth, the Lehman Engel of his time, conducts. (The liner notes confess that Decca is unsure whether these are Don Walker's original orchestrations. I would guess that they are, indeed.)

Arms and the Girl is livelier and makes for more interesting listening, although it is ultimately disappointing. Composer Morton Gould came to Broadway, specifically, to fill Leonard Bernstein's shoes. The lyricist-librettist, director, choreographer and producers of On the Town (1943) drafted Gould to compose their follow-up, Billion Dollar Baby (1945). The latter proved to be one of those almost-but not-quite efforts, with Gould, Comden and Green turning in a fascinatingly modernistic score by Broadway standards. (This can be heard on the recording of BT McNicholl's 1998 revival at the York Theatre [Original Cast OC-4304]). Arms and the Girl, Gould's only other Broadway musical, is closer in style — alas — to Up in Central Park. "You kissed me, you kissed me," the hero sings; elsewhere he pines away for "a cow and a plough and a frau." This song demonstrates that it is inadvisable to repeat one triple rhyme four times within one refrain, especially if you are determined to use a triple rhyme like "cow and plough and frau."

Fabray, who for a brief period was poised to be the next Mary Martin, offers an energetic performance despite the sub-par songs she is handed. This is a spirited, friendly musical comedy heroine, even so. One more flop — her third in a row — and Nanette was off to Hollywood (to "The Bandwagon"). Thankfully, there are two sturdy comedy numbers for Bailey, "Nothin' for Nothin'" and "There Must Be Somethin' Better than Love." These feature the sardonic writing of Fields, which was to happily resurface years later in Sweet Charity and Seesaw. The orchestrations help make the music sound far better than the melodies. Frederick Dvonch conducts.

Arms and the Girl was something of a vanity production. The Theatre Guild had immense success with its Americana musical, Oklahoma! The Guild's Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall (Langner) were clearly looking for a similar success when they asked Rouben Mamoulian — director of the Guild's Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma! and Carousel — to tackle this musicalization of The Pursuit of Happiness. This wholly unremarkable Revolutionary War comedy, from 1933, was written by Alan Child and Isabelle Loudon (A.K.A. Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall). But Arms and the Girl had no spark. It lasted a mere sixteen weeks, with the three stars — Fabray, Georges Guetary, and Bailey — decamping along the way.

SWEET CHARITY [Decca Broadway B0000864]
The age-old tradition of sending moderately successful Broadway hits to Hollywood ran aground with the transposition of Fields's penultimate musical, Sweet Charity. Not that anyone ever considered Charity a Dorothy Fields musical; this was a Bob Fosse musical, all the way. A Gwen Verdon musical might be more to the point.

It was Fosse who came up with the idea of transplanting Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria" to Times Square, turning the Italian streetwalker into a dance hall hostess. Fosse pulled his collaborators from earlier projects. Cy Coleman had provided the nifty score for Little Me, Fosse's prior musical (which he choreographed and co-directed). Little Me also had one of Broadway's more astounding sets of comedy lyrics, from a nimble rhymester who was perfect for the Charity project. But the inordinately talented Carolyn Leigh had been trouble; at one point during the Philadelphia tryout she literally pulled a street cop into the Erlanger, insisting that he arrest her collaborators for changing her lyrics.

If Coleman's collaborator Leigh was out of the question, Fosse had another suitable candidate. Fields had written the lyrics (and collaborated on the libretto) for Redhead, the 1959 Gwen Verdon musical with which Fosse made his directing bow. Redhead wasn't especially good, but the competition was weaker, enabling it to pull in nine Tony Awards (including medallions for Verdon, Fields and Fosse).

Librettist Fosse axed himself during rehearsals, reasoning that Neil Simon (of Little Me) would bring the material a needed lift and jokes, too. (Bert Lewis, the author whose name appears on the early ads, was Robert Louis Fosse.) Coleman and Fields gave Charity a pert, suitably abrasive score; Simon matched the tone, as did orchestrator Ralph Burns and set designer Robert Randolph. Sitting atop the heap, though, was Verdon. Charity, while termed a dance hall hostess, is drawn on the seamy side. Verdon's remarkable stage persona made the character believable but, at the same time, lovably innocent.

Charity, which came to Broadway as a surefire blockbuster, did not do as well as expected; she was immediately preceded by Don Quixote with his "Impossible Dream," and quickly followed by Mame Lansbury coaxing the blues right out of the horn. Hollywood prospects were negligible, until Shirley MacLaine decided she wanted to do it. (MacLaine swept to Hollywood in 1954 when, as a chorus girl understudy, she filled Carol Haney's shoes doing Fosse's "Steam Heat" in The Pajama Game.)

Sweet Charity without Gwen Verdon? Heresy, yes. But it was a practical choice; either MacLaine as Charity, or no movie. Since MacLaine and her producers were willing to give Fosse a shot at directing, he and his wife (Verdon) were in no position to turn it down. But the film proved to be a big headache and a big-budget fiasco. Decca Broadway has pulled the soundtrack album from the archives, which serves to illustrate some of the problems.

The original Broadway cast album of Sweet Charity — which was spiffed up and remastered in 1999 [Sony Classical SK 60960] — remains a favorite. If the soundtrack can't begin to compare, the first problem is not the star. It's the material. Hollywood saw fit to remove six of the thirteen songs, offering three inferior replacements. There goes the heart and spirit of the show.

Listening to the album again after all these years, I'm slightly surprised to find that MacLaine is, in fact, pretty good. No, she's not Gwen Verdon, and there's no reason that she should be. But she sings well, and plays the role (on the album) well. If the results don't begin to compare with Gwen, let's consider that Charity's two introductory numbers — which perfectly fit the character, thanks to Fields — were both omitted.

The film cast includes a few people that might well be of interest to Broadway fans. John McMartin re-creates his stage performance, but his first (of two) stage song was cut, while his big solo — the title song — was undercut. (Coleman wrote a new, and ineffective, tune to Fields's original lyric. I wouldn't blame Cy; I suppose someone forced him to do it.) Chita Rivera is on hand (in place of the invaluable Helen Gallagher), but her character's best spot — the ingratiating "Baby, Dream Your Dream" -- is similarly missing in action. Ricardo Montalban came in to play the movie star who picks up Charity, but his song is missing. Sammy Davis — billed here with the "Jr." he had officially dropped several years earlier — plays the one-song role of Big Daddy, but by 1969 he was a travesty of himself. That leaves little for us to hang on to, other than Stubby Kaye leading "I Love to Cry at Weddings."

Oh, yes. "Big Spender" is presented in more or less unaltered form, and remains equally effective. And let me add in defense of Ms. Fields that I would wager to guess that she's not the one who inserted "sock it to me" into "The Rhythm of Life."

I don't suppose you need me to tell you that a book about the creation of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman-Harold Prince-Michael Bennett musical Follies sounds interesting. And I expect that many readers of this column are eagerly looking forward to "Everything Was Possible" [Knopf], if you don't already have it in your hands. Ted Chapin's expanded journal of his 13 weeks as a production assistant on Follies has arrived, and it is every bit as flavorful as you might hope.

Chapin's goal was to give us an in-depth look at the creation of a big, Broadway musical. As it happened, the show was one of the most important ever; but Chapin underplays this. "Follies is the greatest musical of our lifetime," it, specifically, doesn't say — and therein lies its great value. Chapin is too wise for that. Too many Broadway history books are brimful of anecdotes and claims and remembrances after-the-fact, when the people in question are either awash in royalties or licking their wounds. Chapin conscientiously avoids this. What we see is what happened, when it happened, and — when possible — why it happened.

Follies has had its vehement fans from the beginning, as well as its detractors. And they are all right. The title "Everything Was Possible" is borrowed from Sondheim's "everything was possible and nothing made sense," and there you have a pretty good description of what went on. The story related herein is nothing new; this is what happens as a musical makes its way from the page to the rehearsal hall to opening night. Sometimes things are easier, sometimes more difficult; but this is the way things go, in great detail. That alone should fascinate and intrigue theatre fans who have always wondered how they get from the page to the stage.

For example, Chapin tells us which songs were performed, or not, on a nightly basis. This included a spell in Boston when the pivotal "Could I Leave You" was omitted. Not because the producer didn't like it, or the director wanted to cut it, but because Alexis Smith — forced to perform through an illness because there was no understudy — simply couldn't croak her way through it. And I suppose there's somebody out there who insists, despite the facts, that he saw two men in drag doing "Buddy's Blues." And he's right. Chapin even gives us a photo of Dick Latessa as the dream Margie, backing up Gene Nelson in his toy car with checked pants. (The book is packed with photos; Follies attracted lots of press, and Chapin has been able to include rehearsal and production shots from a half-dozen photographers. These include full-color cover shots from Time, Newsweek and Forbes.)

Chapin also allows us to observe Prince and Bennett as they add an intermission, change its placement from performance to performance, and then at the last moment return to one (over-length) act. A minor point, perhaps, but it goes to demonstrate how the creators of a show in trouble will clutch at just about anything that might, they think, possibly make a difference.

The cast of characters includes Sondheim, Prince, Bennett, Tunick and Aronson on one side of the footlights; Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Yvonne de Carlo, Ethel Shutta and Fifi D'Orsay on the other; and even college boy Ted Chapin, typing out script changes and Sondheim's punctiliously punctuated lyrics on an old red Selectric in a fifth-floor dressing room. (The 20-year-old Chapin is almost devoured by Ms. De Carlo, with her white mink.) My favorite quote, from an embattled Hal Prince: "Even if people don't realize it, this is the most important thing going on in the world." Anyone who has filed out of the Colonial or the Forrest or the National at ten minutes past midnight, bleary-eyed by a daze of endless dress tech rehearsals gone wrong, will recognize that sentiment.

I have, elsewhere, expressed my theories about Follies. I am somewhat surprised to find co-director/choreographer Michael Bennett voicing my opinion, at a production meeting before the show even left for Boston. ("He hated the book of the show," Chapin tells us, quoting Bennett as saying "what the show needed was George Furth or Neil Simon to come in and write 20 good jokes.") The changes that the show underwent over the next six weeks were innumerable. Not innumerable, actually; Chapin meticulously enumerates them for us. Despite all that fixing, this central flaw that Bennett yelled and screamed about was never effectively addressed.

What does this tell us about the process of fixing a show on the road? When all is said and done, how much can you do? A lot of important and beneficial work was done on Follies, to be sure. But Chapin mentions, in several places, that the authors seemed to prefer The Girls Upstairs — the pre-Prince version of the show, without all those ghosts and the Gloria-Swanson-at-the-Roxy concept. Could it be that the concept and the stage wizardry, which brought us one of the more fascinating and memorable theatrical evenings of our time, set the show on the wrong path? The road you did take, if you will. . . .

Everything Was Possible simply presents the facts as Chapin remembers them, with the aid of his voluminous journals. And he understands full well that, especially along Broadway, (a) facts are indisputable and (b) facts lie. But isn't that part of the heart of Follies?

—Steven Suskin, author of the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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