ON THE RECORD: Hats Off! A Survey of Follies Recordings, Part One Original Cast and '80s Concert

By Steven Suskin
30 Oct 2011

Dorothy Collins and Gene Nelson in the original Broadway production
Follies is, of course, built around four characters: Phyllis & Ben Stone and Sally & Buddy Plummer. Married couples, yes, but emotionally intermingled. (The show began life as a murder-mystery musical called The Girls Upstairs, which centered on these four.) Any production of Follies, necessarily, rests upon the shoulders and vocal chords of the actors playing these roles.

As The Girls Upstairs grew into Follies, layers of additional characters were added. Sondheim and librettist James Goldman's 1971 cast of about 40 contained 12 former showgirls and their ghostly younger selves, along with a few husbands, dance partners and waiters. Seven of the old girls (not including Sally and Phyllis) have featured spots, but the excitement level of any production of Follies — for me — usually rests on the shoulders of just three. This by virtue of both the show's structure and the songs that Sondheim provided: Hattie Walker, the feisty "Broadway Baby"; Stella Deems, the washed up broad who leads the rest in the so-called "mirror" number ("Who's That Woman"); and Carlotta Campion, the rueful survivor who has "careered from career to career" but is "still here."

"How was Follies?" you ask a friend who has just seen a performance somewhere. I contend that the answer usually depends on the collective strengths of not only the central quartet but these three ladies.

Now, I have never seen a wholly compelling central quartet — and mind you, I've seen plenty of productions of Follies. To paraphrase the Master, "when you've been through Vivian Blaine and Bob Aw-aw-awl-da, everything else is a laugh." (That's Robert Alda, the one-time Sky Masterson; Tappan Zee Playhouse, July 1973, with the only intriguing spot being Lillian Roth's "Broadway Baby.") The original 1971 cast — and the original cast album — includes the finest Sally imaginable, in the person of Dorothy Collins. Her two big numbers, "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind," have never been equaled. Alexis Smith, who like Collins was making her Broadway debut, is a fine Phyllis and does especially well with "Could I Leave You?" (One of the imbalances of Follies is that while all four leads get two showy solos, Sally and Ben also have two major duets. Phyllis and odd-man-out Buddy don't.)

Danny Burstein in the current revival
photo by Joan Marcus

Gene Nelson, the original Buddy, was effective in his role. I always got the impression, though — both watching him on stage and listening to him on the recording — that he was outclassed by the others, battling to keep up with his material. Mind you, his material is problematic; after 40 years of Follies watching, I concluded that no actor would ever make a compelling case for Buddy. Until I saw Danny Burstein in September, that is. The fourth of the original principals, John McMartin, was the finest actor of the group and pretty much carried the show. But he stuck out as inauthentic; while only eight years younger than Alexis, they seemed to be from different generations. Smith had attained stardom in 1941 — 30 years before Follies opened — when she embarked on a series of Hollywood roles as leading lady to Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and more. McMartin had come to notice just five years before Follies, as Gwen Verdon's leading man in Sweet Charity. He was the only real actor of the group — perhaps in the entire show — and the only one of the main "adults" (with one exception) who had even been in a Broadway musical since 1951. So McMartin stuck out in excellence, professionalism and because everybody else seemed to have emerged from retirement.

The actresses in the three critical supporting roles were unforgettable. Yvonne De Carlo — who, like Nelson, seemed slightly over her head — gave a compelling performance of the tour de force, "I'm Still Here." (Sondheim wrote this song — a replacement, during the Boston tryout — specifically to suit De Carlo's capabilities.) The other two ladies were even better. Ethel Shutta had been on Broadway in 1922, actually starring for Ziegfeld opposite Eddie Cantor in the 1929 hit Whoopee!; she was also a popular singer with the band of her husband, George Olsen. Many people have sung "Broadway Baby" over the years, but I don't think anyone has ever been out there "walking off her tired feet" like the 74-year-old Shutta. (I type Shutta, but it's not pronounced "shut-ta"; it's more like "shuh-tay.") Ethel was matched by Mary McCarty as the lady who glances in the mirror and wonders "Who's That Woman." If you happen to have access to a copy of "Theatre World 1948-1949," turn to page 141. Compare that bright and sprightly comedienne from Sleepy Hollow — what, you don't remember Sleepy Hollow, the Ichabod Crane musical? — with the Mary McCarty of Follies and Chicago (where she created the role of the Matron). That page 141 photo is presumably what she glimpsed in the mirror when she slayed the house with "Who's That Woman."