ON THE RECORD: Hats Off! A Survey of Follies Recordings, Part Two London and Paper Mill and More

By Steven Suskin
06 Nov 2011

Cover art for the Paper Mill cast recording

Follies has continued to surface here and there over the years. The next major production — or at least the next major production with a cast album — opened on April 15, 1998, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ. (The window card billed it as "The Long Awaited Spectacular New Production of the Legendary Musical.") The folks at this long-established but financially troubled non-profit came up with an expensive production featuring some stellar names, the most startling of which was legendary M-G-M singing-and-dancing star Ann Miller as Carlotta.

The Paper Mill Follies [TVT Soundtrax TVT 1030-2] generated scads of comment, pro and con; most importantly, it gave a whole new generation the opportunity to see a full Follies for real. By 1998, there was indeed a new generation of Sondheim fans; Follies was never exactly a show for ten-year-olds, meaning that few people born later than 1959 had the chance to see it at the Winter Garden. The Paper Mill opening was followed by extensive discussions as to whether it could, and should, transfer to Broadway. The answer, ultimately, was no.

The 1998 production lives on in an admirably produced two-disc cast album. Here is the full score, and by full I mean full: the second disc concludes with eight songs cut from the show. ("Ah, But Underneath" was performed at Paper Mill, so "Lucy and Jessie" is included with the cuts along with "Uptown/Downtown" — the first song Sondheim wrote for this never-exactly-conquered spot.) The songs are sung by the actors playing the corresponding roles in the Paper Mill production; the cuts that were heard in Boston use the original orchestrations.

This is icing on the cake for Follies fans. My favorites of the added tracks are "Bring on the Girls," a number for Roscoe and his ghost that was replaced by "Beautiful Girls"; "All Things Bright and Beautiful," a glorious duet for Ben and Sally which has survived — musically — as the haunting theme used in the Prologue; and "Can That Boy Fox-Trot!" This last was replaced during the tryout by "I'm Still Here," a superior song which encapsulates one of the major themes of the show. Still, "Can That Boy Fox-Trot!" is plenty of fun; what's more, Ann Miller — who of course did not perform it onstage at Paper Mill — does a better job with it than she does with its replacement. (Miller seems unable to comprehend the rhythm leading into the bridge of "I'm Still Here." One can only imagine the composer, the conductor and the chorus boys rolling their eyes every time she got it wrong over the course of the six-week run.)

Which brings us to the performances. The music, on the CD, sounds markedly better than on the earlier cast albums; Tunick himself conducts, carefully bringing out every color of his orchestration. (Sondheim was executive producer of the album.) So why does this album rank a couple of rungs below the troubled 1971 recording? The singers, alas.

Poster art for Paper Mill's Follies

Laurence Guittard — the original Count Carl-Magnus in A Little Night Music — gives one of the better Ben performances we've heard. (Guittard is especially enjoyable on the bonus tracks.) But Sally, here, can't quite sing the role. Donna McKechnie was never known as a singer, exactly, and she has nevertheless provided memorable evenings in at least three major Broadway musicals (including Sondheim's Company). But Dorothy Collins and Barbara Cook point up the fact that Sally needs to be able to hit and sustain her notes. Dee Hoty sings Phyllis, and is all right. Tony Roberts is the Buddy of the occasion, and certainly does not conquer the material.

Follies — without a standout Phyllis or Sally (pick one) — is unlikely to soar. No matter how good the band plays. The three major supporting ladies in this case can't quite turn things around. Ann Miller makes a distinctive Carlotta, needless to say; certainly this is one performance you are unlikely to forget. Kaye Ballard sings "Broadway Baby" like an old pro, which she is, though not with the emotional intensity of am Ethel Shutta or Elaine Stritch. Phyllis Newman, meanwhile, repeats her 1985 performance as Stella and gives us a different but equally compelling rendition of "Who's That Woman."

At least a few readers of this column by now might be complaining, why does he always leave out Solange and Heidi and this one and the other? Yes, they are significant pieces of the puzzle, because Sondheim and Goldman wrote the show that way. But the contributions of all the others, aside from the seven characters discussed, always seem like side excursions to me. Solange remembers nights in Paris; in terms of Ben, Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and the metaphorical meanings of the Weismann Follies, so what? Heidi sings her operatic aria, aching for one more kiss (or perhaps one last moment in the spotlight of life). These moments are simply not as pertinent to me as Hattie demonstrating the grit that she had in her 20s and her 70s; Stella searching for the ghost of who she, and by extension all of us, was; or Carlotta holding on through a roller coaster of vicissitudes. To me, these other characters are subsidiary; a phenomenal or poor Solange Lafitte or Emily Whitman will not make or break the show. Follies rises or falls on the seven performances stated, which — by the way — pretty much explains the 2001 Roundabout production.

I also overlook the younger selves of the four protagonists, who are not given flashy material but play important roles throughout the piece. This includes "Waiting Around for the Girls Upstairs," an octet for the leads and their ghosts, which I consider the most important and exciting song in the score. Let it be pointed out that some of these younger ghosts are of considerable interest, like Harvey Evans as the original Young Buddy. (A Young Buddy over 30, but Evans has always appeared considerably younger than he is.) Most intriguing is the group assembled for Avery Fisher Hall. Daisy Prince, daughter of Hal, is Young Sally to the Young Ben of Jim Walton (the original Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along). The other couple is Howard McGillin and Liz Callaway, whose strong young voices enhance every line they sing.