"Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies" by Ted Chapin (Knopf)
Don’t you wish you could have sat next to Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett and Hal Prince as they were putting together their masterpiece 1971 musical Follies? Ted Chapin did exactly that, as a college-age gofer. Now head of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Chapin has written a beautiful new book about the experience, filled with lots of pictures, lots of dish, lots of fits, fights, feuds and egos, as Sondheim himself put it.
But oh, what a cast! In addition to the creators, the book details the backstage adventures of Alexis Smith, John McMartin, Yvonne DeCarlo, Dorothy Collins, Gene Nelson, Ziegfeld Follies alumna Ethel Shutta, Fifi D’Orsay, Ethel Barrymore Colt, and a host of others, most now gone.
For those who haven’t seen one of the many reincarnations since then, including a disappointing 2001 Broadway revival, Follies takes it name from the opulent early 20th-century revues that featured dancers, songs, comedians and a parade of beautiful girls. The 1971 musical of that name showed a reunion of the now-elderly alumni who gather the night before their theatre is to be torn down. They work out lifelong conflicts under the watchful eyes of the ghosts of their younger selves, played by glamorous younger actors.
The book is at its best when capturing Chapin's own delight at being a fly on the wall at this creative Olympus, as old songs are changed or cut, and new songs are discussed and then written. Though more than 30 years have passed, you still feel his excitement when Stephen Sondheim hands the 20-year-old the original manuscript of the classic "I'm Still Here" to type and copy, warning Chapin that it's the only copy in existence.
There's also the retrospective delight of hearing Bennett saying he someday wanted to do a show about dancers (an idea that led to A Chorus Line) but also the horror of Bennett's comment, upon watching the mostly older cast, that he doubts he'll live to be 45. He died at age 44 of AIDS. Chapin, who was sitting in on the production as a college project, was a meticulous chronicler, and kept many of co-directors Prince and Bennett's notes and tiny changes that have since become holy writ of the musical theatre.
The show had a lot of brilliance, but critics and even the creators knew Follies was flawed. This book is an intimate portrait of how they struggled to make it work.
Who Will Buy : Follies-fanatics, fans of the individual stars, fans of musical theatre in general, theatre historians, potential biographers of the many major names mentioned therein.
"Jerry Herman: The Lyrics" by Jerry Herman and Ken Bloom (Routledge Books)
With two 1960's shows, Hello, Dolly! and Mame, songwriter Jerry Herman established himself as the apotheosis and embodiment of the big brassy Broadway sound.
For those whose only knowledge of Herman's lyrics comes in the form of the words to those two title songs (Hello, Dolly, well, hello, Dolly/It's so nice to have you back where you belong…") ("You coax the blues right out the horn/ Mame/ You charm the husk right off of the corn,/Mame…"), this book may come as a surprise.
The emotions are usually simple and direct, but there's often a delicacy of phrasing that is worth noting. Take this one, from Dear World’s "Kiss Her Now": "Kiss her now/While she needs your arms around her/For if you let a moment come between you now/It soon becomes a day, a year, a lifetime./Blink your eye/Turn your head/And you’ve lost her/And you’ll spend half your life wond’ring how…"
The book contains complete lyrics from his megahits Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles; his flops like The Grand Tour Mack & Mabel and Dear World; marginalia like Madame Aphrodite, and his recent projects, like Miss Spectacular and Mrs. Santa Claus. Each lyric is accompanied by a one-paragraph anecdote or insight about the song. One wishes these had been longer.
The book also includes many interesting rarities, including many of the songs cut during tryouts, and custom jobs, like the numbers written for Ethel Merman when she took over the leading role in Dolly; or a tune written for Robert Preston in the film of Mame. Plus there’s the original version of "Jolly Theatrical Season," from Herman’s 1960 revue Parade. It would have been nice to have included some of the annual updates Herman composed for theatre insiders.
Herman, who is HIV-positive, has gotten a new lease on life from his medications and is planning a big Broadway comeback with revivals of his classics, and a new show, Miss Spectacular, which was done in Las Vegas. He has compared himself to Dolly Gallagher Levi who sings, "I’ve got a goal again/I’ve got a drive again/I’m gonna feel my heart coming alive again/Before the parade passes by."
This book is part of Jerry Herman’s real-life application of that sentiment.
Who Will Buy: Fans of Herman's brassy style of musical theatre, fans of the individual shows, theatre historians.