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

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30 Oct 2011

Cover art for the 1971 Original Broadway Cast recording
Cover art for the 1971 Original Broadway Cast recording

In preparation for the cast album of the new Broadway production of Follies, here's part one of an overview of the four cast recordings that already exist. This week, the original 1971 cast and the 1985 concert cast.

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With yet another cast album of Stephen Sondheim's Follies coming along in November, this seems like high time to look back at the existing choices. How do they compare? In terms of cast? Material? Listening pleasure? I can, and shall, set forth to discuss this — knowing full well that each and every true Follies fan has his or her own set of opinions, answers, enthusiasms and peeves.

I eagerly obtained each Follies album when it first appeared, be it on LP or CD; in each case, I started listening almost before I tore through the cellophane. Four have thus far come along, beginning with the original 1971 Broadway cast album [Broadway Angel ZDM 7 64666] and followed by "Follies in Concert," a live recording drawn from two performances at Avery Fisher Hall in 1985; the original London cast album from 1987; and the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse production. There have been numerous additional recordings of the songs, needless to say, but as non-cast recordings they do not enter into the discussion.

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The original 1971 cast album of Follies [Broadway Angel ZDM 7 64666] has been maligned, again and again, for various sins; most harmful was the budgetary decision to restrict the show to one LP rather than two. Thus, room for only 56 minutes of song. (A complete recording of the score, as heard at the Winter Garden, would run roughly 90 minutes.) Follies opened to problematic notices in Boston and relatively weak advance interest in New York. The hot new shows at the time were Two by Two, a dismal musical boosted by the presence of old-time star Danny Kaye singing new songs by Richard Rodgers; and a revival of No, No, Nanette — which, like Follies, featured faded stars, most prominent among them Ruby Keeler and Patsy Kelly. Follies was, obviously, more artful than either and infinitely more important. That doesn't necessarily translate into ticket sales, and didn't.

Capitol Records seems to have initially planned a double album for Follies, allowing room for the entire score. By the time the tryout began in Boston, economic prospects for the show — and thus the LP — were unfavorable, apparently convincing Capitol to cut their financial exposure. Capitol had always been a distant third in the cast album game. Columbia had its pick of shows, with sometimes stiff competition coming from RCA Victor. (Decca, the early leader in the field, had all but withdrawn in the mid-'50s.) Capitol, nevertheless, had two blockbusters on its list: The Music Man and that Streisandsical, Funny Girl. The label also had an existing relationship with the Follies producer, Hal Prince, having issued fine LPs of three successive Prince musicals: Fiorello!, Tenderloin and Sondheim's own A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

But the cast album game had become treacherous for Capitol following Funny Girl in 1964. With Columbia and RCA capable of offering better terms (including in some cases large investments), Capitol was relegated to lesser choices. The label's last big push came in the 1968-69 season, when it made poor-selling recordings of three failures: Celebration, Canterbury Tales, and Prince's own Zorba. That was the end for Capitol on Broadway, or it seems to have been intended as such; they were to ultimately make one last attempt, with Follies.

Alexis Smith and John McMartin in Follies.

Prince's contract did not stipulate that Follies be issued as a double album, which would have been an unusual demand at the time. (Only one of Prince's shows to that point had pushed onto a second LP, the ever-glorious She Loves Me.) If Follies had met great reviews and hefty sales when it opened in New York on April 4, 1971, Capitol might well have reconsidered; the all-important and misguided New York Times review — "Follies is the kind of musical that should have its original cast album out on '78s," said Clive Barnes — seemed to explicitly validate Capitol's decision to cut their losses. A two-LP album would have been more expensive, of course — the more minutes on the recording, the more time in the studio. But it also would have increased manufacturing costs, and necessitated a higher list price than a single LP.

Thus, the original Broadway cast album was recorded — on April 11 — with a stopwatch running furiously. Most of the songs were represented, with four wholly excised: "Rain on the Roof," the instrumental "Bolero d'Amour," "Loveland" and "One More Kiss." (The latter was recorded that Sunday, though not included on the LP.) There were also any number of trims and interior cuts, which only exacerbated the situation. What's more, the recording is marred by technical flaws; Capitol did not have the high tech facilities of Columbia or RCA, and it is apparent. (For more information on this — and more information on all things Follies — see Ted Chapin's "Everything Was Possible," which is no doubt already on your bookshelf. (Or should be.)

Discussions of the cast albums of Follies inevitably start with complaints about Capitol and disparagement of the 1971 album. But as every new Follies recording comes along, I listen to it for a while and then file it away in the back row. The 1971 Follies, be it truncated and flawed, remains the Follies of choice for me. These might not be the best individual performances among the several albums, and it certainly does not demonstrate the best fidelity — aurally and textually — of the four. But the first original cast album is, for me, Follies.

This brings to mind, in a way, Sondheim's revered Porgy and Bess. The Gershwins' folk opera — more properly "the George Gershwin/DuBose Heyward folk opera" — opened in October 1935 and closed three months later. The composer died in the summer of 1937. In 1940, Decca took a group of original cast members including Todd (Porgy) Duncan and Anne (Bess) Brown into the studio — along with original conductor Alexander Smallens — to record eight songs. When Porgy was successfully revived on Broadway in 1942, six additional numbers were recorded; all this before the so-called "original cast era" began with Oklahoma! in 1943.

These 14 Decca tracks were primitively recorded, trimmed to fit on 78 RPM discs, and represent only 46 minutes of the full-length opera. Porgy has been subsequently produced and recorded again and again and again, usually spearheaded by conductors who insist that their version — finally — realizes Gershwin's true intentions. Some of these recordings are very good, sure; but I contend that the Decca set — not an original cast album, technically — is the closest we'll ever get to what Porgy sounded like when George was standing at the back of the theatre. And the closest to what he, and DuBose and Ira, intended.

I have a somewhat similar view of Follies, albeit for different reasons. I am not wedded to the original cast performances because they are perfect, or because the 1971 album represents the finest production of Follies that e'er I've seen. Because they aren't, and it ain't necessarily so. Those first performances, though, are authentic. Follies, it can be said, is a reunion of ghosts — living ghosts. Most of the older players in 1971 were, so far as Broadway was concerned, ghosts; with one main exception, none had been in the spotlight — any spotlight — for a decade or two (or more). And most of the veterans had lived through the same "good times and bum times" as the characters; they didn't have to search Wikipedia to look up Windsor & Wally, William Beebe's bathysphere and Brenda Frazier.

If ever a Follies with a perfect cast comes along, I might well switch to the resulting recording. (As long as the original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick are present, that is, in full strength.) But that hasn't yet happened, and for various reasons seems unlikely.

Continued...

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