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

By Steven Suskin
30 Oct 2011

Cover art for Follies in Concert
The original production of Follies was a commercial bust; Hal Prince, in his invaluable book "Contradictions," reports that the show — capitalized at $700,000 — lost $685,000. A steep price for the investors, but well worth it for the theatre community, don't you think? This effectively prevented a strong afterlife, at least while memories of the financial failure were strong. The lack of a complete cast recording was strongly felt, though, and the increasing prominence of Sondheim's position in the musical theatre firmament resulted in a star-studded, fully-realized cast album. Follies in Concert [which has been rereleased this week by Masterworks Broadway in a new 2-CD softpack] was recorded live at two concerts under the auspices of the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, over the Labor Day weekend of 1985. Musical director Paul Gemignani had conducted the disappointing post-Broadway engagement of the show in Los Angeles; he ultimately took over the podium for Prince's shows following the death of musical director Hal Hastings in 1973, shortly after the opening of A Little Night Music. Herb Ross staged the concert performance, congregating the sort of company you can only pull together for a high-profile, limited time-commitment gala.

The resulting recording offers a suitable and musically fine playing of the score, coming from members of the New York Philharmonic. As for the cast? Well, let's call them mixed. One must remember that these actors are singing songs, not performing roles they have rehearsed for a month with someone like Hal Prince in the room. The exception is Barbara Cook, who clearly knows the show and the role and every motivation and every musical beat. Cook makes the finest Sally imaginable, which is precisely the same thing I said about Dorothy Collins. Yes, we've had two equally brilliant Sallys, and are privileged to be able to hear both performances at the push of a replay button.

Barbara Cook
photo by Mike Martin

Cook's companions, though, are not overwhelming. Lee Remick, who 20 years earlier had starred for Sondheim and Herb Ross in Anyone Can Whistle, makes a suitable Phyllis but without the spark that made Cook stand out (and made Alexis stand out). George Hearn sings Ben, and he is a fine singer. But Ben, among the characters of Follies, is pure non-showbiz; as written, he is supremely uncomfortable being anywhere near a theatre. When Hearn starts to sing those ballads, you can't help but think that this guy couldn't have spent his twenties struggling through law school; he must have been off in some road company of The Student Prince. (With proper rehearsal and preparation for a full production, this might well have been adjusted.) And then there's Mandy Patinkin as Buddy. Or, rather, Mandy Patinkin as Mandy Patinkin. Let us say that he uses his best instincts; but Patinkin's instincts, as a cutting-edge musical theatre talent of the 1980s, are not instincts that easily mold to the shape of small-time, small-town salesman Buddy Plummer.

The three featured ladies at the Philharmonic help save the day. Those of you who have never heard this recording can surely imagine what Elaine Stritch does with "Broadway Baby." (She still sings the song today, just about every time she comes before an audience, but her 1985 rendition seems more genuine and is worth seeking out.) I would certainly not compare her to Shutta, who sings the song like it's her autobiography, but Stritch is tasty and gives this Follies a boost. So does Phyllis Newman, with a crisp "Who's That Woman." Due to the stellar nature of the Philharmonic cast, Newman has what might be one of the more interesting groups of backup singers in show biz history — including Cook, Remick, Stritch and Betty Comden (who teamed with Adolph Green to play the Whitmans, singers of "Rain on the Roof"). The third of the subsidiary roles was played by the biggest star on the stage that night, by far: Carol Burnett. Audiences today don't quite realize how popular she was in those days, courtesy of her long-running TV show. Burnett — in 1985 — was arguably bigger than Liz, bigger than Liza. Here she sings "I'm Still Here" and brings down the house.

Listening to the Philharmonic Follies once again, for the purpose of this column, I am struck by how remarkably good Cook is. Hearing her, augmented by Stritch and Newman, I couldn't help wondering why I hid this recording in such deep storage that I don't suppose I'd have ever listened to it again if I weren't writing this column. Then came Mandy's two songs, and I remembered precisely why I deep-sixed "Follies in Concert." I found these two tracks unlistenable then, and unlistenable now; not the actor's fault, exactly, as I'm sure that he would have come up with something suitable and special if he were actually playing the role.

This 2-CD set includes a bonus that is required listening for true Sondheim fans: the soundtrack recording of "Stavisky," the score for the 1974 Alain Resnais film. This is 45 delectable minutes falling mid-way, musically, between Follies and A Little Night Music, with a distinct flavor of Ravel. (This was surely Sondheim's intent, the effect magnified by Tunick's luscious orchestration.) Fans of cut Follies songs will immediately identify "Bring on the Girls" and "Who Could Be Blue?"

Next week: Recordings of the Cameron Mackintosh London production of Follies and Paper Mill Playhouse's revival, which features studio recordings of songs cut from the score.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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