You cannot celebrate a special work of Andrew Lloyd Webber in honor of his birthday without giving equal time to the masterful Stephen Sondheim. The two most influential composers of the musical theatre in the last 40 years share that March 22 date of birth. Maybe it is just coincidence, or maybe it is something defined by the horoscope, but their talents have shaped and molded contemporary musical theatre in a multitude of ways. Each has their own distinct style, and each is attracted to certain themes. Where they come closest to being on the same page thematically is with Sondheim's Follies and Webber's Sunset Boulevard. Both pieces are about entertainers who are long past their prime, and both musicals explore regret, the performer's ego and a need to reclaim glories from the past.
PHOTO ARCHIVE: Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies
Many consider one of Sondheim's greatest achievements to be Follies, and certainly those who were alive to revel in the original 1971 Hal Prince-directed production recount a life-changing, lavish musical that was arguably underappreciated by the average theatregoer. Follies was (at the time) a musical that may have been hard for some to digest. The story takes place at a reunion of performers who once populated the popular Weismann Follies (think Ziegfeld Follies). Once youthful, optimistic, and talented, these performers come together and are haunted by the ghosts of their past, revealing the cruel turns their lives have taken. Weaving back and forth between past and present, and often bringing the two together simultaneously, the musical was perhaps too complex for some audiences, or not the usual "happily-ever-after" they wanted from a Broadway musical.
Follies managed a run of 522 performances, but it lost almost its entire investment. Over the years, the piece has grown to receive the respect it deserves, and its brutally honest lyrics and emotionally-charged music are some of the best in the Sondheim canon. The musical has received productions around the world, and it has also been recorded on several occasions. This article will attempt to compare and contrast the best of these recordings, sticking strictly to cast albums of fully realized productions of Follies (sorry Follies in Concert, though you are special in your own right). The original Broadway cast recording of Follies is often disparaged for how short it is (16 tracks). Economic reasons required a one-disc treatment, and Follies simply has too much music for that. True, this recording is more like a sampler of songs from Follies, and nowhere near a complete cast recording. However, what there is to listen to is all spectacular, and many of the songs on the recording are so completely defined by the performers who introduced them. John McMartin's poignant rendition of "The Road You Didn't Take" is especially moving, the shaky conflict in his voice as he muses over life choices and possible regrets making it all the more meaningful. For many, Yvonne De Carlo's smoky rasp defines the anthem of survival "I'm Still Here," her purring growl conveying a woman who has been around the block several times and who wears her life scars as a badge of honor. Dorothy Collins embodies fragility with the sublime "In Buddy's Eyes" and the subtly revealing "Losing My Mind." Of course, the late, great Alexis Smith won a Tony Award for her performance in Follies, deservedly so as evidenced here by her fire-breathing, emotionally turbulent rendition of "Could I Leave You?" In this one song, she and Sondheim together perfectly sum up the thoughts and emotions tied to a marriage at its breaking point. It's theatrical perfection.
The Broadway cast recording was re-released in 1990 under the Capitol label, adding the previously excised "One More Kiss" to the recording, a dreamy trip into nostalgia performed her by Justine Johnson and Victoria Mallory. This brought the recording up to 17 tracks. In 2012, Bruce Kimmel of Kritzerland remixed the original recording, cleaning up the sound and establishing a clarity for this version that heightened its listenability. A total of 2,500 copies of this recording were made available, and it should be in the collection of any musical theatre enthusiast.
The London cast recording of Sondheim's Follies by First Night Records (21 tracks) has always seemed a subtler, more nuanced recording of Follies. It is also a very different Follies, with songs traded out for others, in some cases to accommodate the production's star Diana Rigg. The exchange most apparent is the dropping of "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" for "Ah, But Underneath." The alteration was made for Rigg, who is not a dancer (the number is a physical one), to create a moment more suited to her vocal talents. Also replaced is "The Road You Didn't Take," an egregious omission since the number is one of Follies' best, establishing the character of Benjamin Stone as conflicted and indecisive (adding perspective when his wife sings "Could I Leave You?" One of London's great ladies of the musical theatre, the chameleon-like Julia McKenzie, herself a great interpreter of Sondheim, played Sally for this production and recording. The always terrific Dolores Gray shows up to sing "I'm Still Here." Gray aside (she's quite good here), the rest of the recording is fine, but nothing or no one else stands out as bringing an inspiring take on the music. There is something raw and basic in the emotions at the root of the eloquent music and lyrics in this show, and this recording is almost too reserved or stifled to be truly effective.
The Paper Mill Playhouse recording of Follies by TVT Soundtrax (31 tracks) is a must-have for collectors, not because it's definitive, complete or its performances are all that compelling. What makes it a treasure is the appendix of songs written for (and cut from) Follies that are included at the end of the second disc, allowing us to revel in additional Sondheim music and lyrics that we seldom get to hear. Sure, most of us have encountered "Can That Boy Fox Trot?" on occasion (or have heard Nathan Lane singing it in the background in the film "The Birdcage"), but other songs such as "Pleasant Little Kingdom," "All Things Bright and Beautiful" and "Little White House" are not exactly popping up regularly when we set our iPod on "shuffle." Many fine performers populate this recording, Broadway and Hollywood stalwarts such as Eddie Bracken, Kaye Ballard, Donna McKechnie, Ann Miller, Phyllis Newman, Tony Roberts, Dee Hoty, Liliane Montevecchi and Laurence Guittard. In the end, however, this is a lovely recording of Follies without being an overwhelmingly earth-shattering one. The emotions and situation just aren't as deeply mined as they could and should be for a musical with such infinite possibilities.
The recording of the 2011 revival of Follies produced by PS Classics is the closest case we have for a complete cast recording of the musical. It's a wonderful album, and if you are going to have only one Follies recording, this will most likely be the one that you will want. The production was chocked full of amazing performers. Many of them were/are longtime Broadway veterans, giving a certain cachet to the production and bringing a wealth of life-experience to animate these characters who are, like themselves, survivors of the wicked stage. Especially effective on this recording are Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Elaine Paige, Terri White and Danny Burstein.
Maxwell embodies the ache and anger of a life misspent on a man she's pretty sure she no longer loves, vomiting stinging barbs and painful insinuations in "Could I Leave You?" Though I personally feel that Donna Murphy owns this song, possession taken after her thrilling performance at Sondheim: the Birthday Concert, Maxwell gives it every bit the fire and brimstone it deserves. Danny Burstein, for anyone who saw him in the theatre, put an indelible stamp on Buddy Plummer, and his tour-de-force performance of "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" was the highlight of Act II. His boundless energy is palpable on this recording, radiating through your speakers, injected straight into your nervous system. Bernadette Peters was the unsung hero of this production, creating defined layers to the emotional instability of Sally Plummer. Her "I'm Losing My Mind" is a testament to the actress's restraint and judgment. It would be so easy to sink your teeth into this song with big, chomping bites. Instead, she finesses the song, extracting strands of subtle lunacy in quiet increments, then all of a sudden finds herself with a handful of crazy. Then, and only then, does she bring it home. Elaine Paige surprises and delights here, with a top-notch "I'm Still Here," and Terri White is no bench-sitter either, leading a rousing "Who's That Woman?" that will leave you with a smile on your face.
Stephen Sondheim gave us a wonderful gift in the musical Follies. Its many inceptions and the plethora of cast recordings surely attest to our fascination with the piece. Have we yet to find the definitive recording of Follies? I don't think we have yet, but within these recordings there are definitive moments. Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim, and thank you for giving us this tantalizing work about lives in the theatre and what that honor means and the sacrifices it requires. (Mark Robinson in a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: The Disney Song Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs and the two-volume The World of Musicals.)