Ted Chapin Tells Secrets Behind the Making of Stephen Sondheim's Follies in New Book

News   Ted Chapin Tells Secrets Behind the Making of Stephen Sondheim's Follies in New Book
Don't you wish you were a fly on the wall during the creation of the groundbreaking and endlessly intriguing musical, Follies?
Author Ted Chapin
Author Ted Chapin Photo by Henry Grossman

Alas, you weren't buzzing around composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, director Harold Prince, choreographer Michael Bennett, librettist James Goldman and others in 1971, when the musical played a Boston tryout and then opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre.

You weren't there, but Ted Chapin was.

As a 20-year-old college kid, Chapin – who would in middle-age become president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization — served as a gopher to the creative team and kept a diary of the experience, for college credit. He earned an "A" on the 120-page paper, never knowing that 30 years later he would draw on it to write "Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies."

Frank Rich, who pens the newly-published Knopf title's foreward, calls the book the most "complete, candid and apocrypha-free" account of the making of a major Broadway production he has ever read.

The book is an expansion on his original diary, Chapin told Playbill On-Line, but remains a view from the production assistant's perspective, unclouded by the legend the show would become (Rich suggests Follies is somewhere between a great musical and the greatest cult musical of all time.) "The smart thing I did, which I've never done since and I don't think I ever will do again, was make notes during the day but then go home every night and sit down at a typewriter and just type out the day again," Chapin told Playbill On-Line. "That's where I added a lot more than I was able to write down during the day."

In putting the book together, Chapin kept a list of questions he had for the participants, but when he would meet with Prince, Sondheim, costume design Florence Klotz, performers Graciela Daniele, Dick Latessa or others, they were fascinated to learn things from Chapin. "They wanted to know what was in my diary," he said. "They wanted to know what I could tell them."

Chapin was aware in 1971 that he was in extraordinary company, working on something rare. But who knew the show would flop, financially, only to become one of the most debated, loved, questioned and criticized musicals ever?

"What I tried to do was not write the book from the perspective today of things that I've learned since then," Chapin said. "One example is, when I was typing out the lyrics of 'Losing My Mind,' I realized that it goes through the day — the lyric starts in the morning and goes through the evening, and I thought, wow! But I didn't think of that at the time, so it wouldn't have been honest to pretend that I thought that at the time. Sometimes I can put in the narrative parts perspective on things from today, but I tried to keep it separate so that it didn't seem like I was some genius at the time."

And Chapin freely admits he was a kid when he was working on the show. Chapin said, "There's one page where I got home one night and just wrote my thoughts about the show and when I got to that I thought, I'm gonna leave that intact: I'll stand by its naivete and what it has to say. For the most part, I thought this was pretty good stuff for somebody wrapped up in the middle of a show, who keeps swinging back and forth:'It's gonna be great, it's gonna be awful, it's not gonna work, this is gonna work...'"

Did Follies seem experimental to him at the time?

"Oh, yeah," Chapin said. "What it seemed and what was so clear is that they were following their instinct. The reality is that it went into rehearsal without the 'Loveland' sequence conceived. There were bits and pieces of songs and also the genius of the set, but it was all designed without knowing what was going to go on."

How does he approach the show today?

"I have such a youthful connection to the show that I love it," Chapin observed. "I have kind of stopped having any interest in any production that's around because it can be difficult. I have such fond feelings for the original. I was so steeped in it. I don't think it's the greatest musical ever written, but it sure is one of the most intriguing and it just never goes away from you."

Here are the details of upcoming events related to the book:

  • Nov. 4, Chapin will appear at Barnes & Noble/Lincoln Square (1972 Broadway at 66th Street), joined by original Follies cast members Harvey Evans, Kurt Peterson and Marti Rolph. The event, from 7-9 PM, will include a reading by Chapin, and musical performances by the cast members, plus Q&A and book signings.
  • Nov. 7, Chapin will appear on "Theatre Talk" with Michael Riedel and Susan Haskins, broadcast on WNET TV, Channel 13, at midnight. The episode will air on Boston's WGBH-TV, Channel 2, the following Sunday afternoon.
  • Nov. 10, Chapin will appear at Applause Theater & Cinema Books, 211 West 71 Street, lower level, from 6-9 PM for a book signing and reception, open to the public. For information, call (212) 496-7511.
  • Nov. 18, the Players Club will host a talk with Chapin about Follies and the book, conducted by Foster Hirsch. The evening,which includes dinner plus the talk, is $50; the Club requests non-members to purchase tickets in advance by calling the Club at (212)475 6116.
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