Everything Was Possible:
The Birth of the Musical Follies
A Review by Alan Gomberg
How did all of this come about for Chapin? In 1970, he persuaded Connecticut College, where he was a junior, that a semester observing the creation of what promised to be an important new musical would be a worthwhile independent study course. Follies, with its extraordinary creative team - producer and co-director Hal Prince, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, choreographer and co-director Michael Bennett, and librettist James Goldman - was almost certain to be an important show. For more credit, Chapin would write a report on the experience.
Chapin's original intention was just to observe; he had been a production assistant twice and had no desire to do it again. But the Prince office insisted that he work as production assistant if he wanted to watch rehearsals. As it turned out, Chapin's position gave him intimate access to what was really going on, and he was better able to get acquainted - in some cases, well-acquainted - with members of the creative team and cast than would have been the case under his original plan. Chapin took notes every day in preparation for his report.
There have been a number of books on the creation of individual musicals; most were written long after the fact by writers who were not actually present. Even though Chapin's book was written more than 30 years after the events, his notes help give this book an immediacy and, presumably, a reliability in regard to day-by-day events that many of those other books lack.
As production assistant, Chapin was given some important tasks. He had to provide the cast with up-to-date copies of the constantly changing script. This included typing out the lyrics for new songs from Sondheim's manuscripts. He sometimes took notes for Prince during rehearsals and was present at some otherwise private (and occasionally contentious) meetings of the creative team. When things were tense, he was even a go-between. A bizarre moment occurs when Prince sends Chapin to find out from Sondheim, who's merely in another room at the rehearsal hall, whether a certain song is being cut. We can only guess that neither Prince nor Bennett wanted to risk provoking Sondheim at that moment, so they sent Chapin.
It is a fascinating process that Chapin recounts. We see Prince's frustration early in rehearsals, when he has little to do because so much of the show will be staged by Bennett. We see some tension as the actors get to know one another. Most get along well enough, but Fifi D'Orsay gets on everyone's nerves from day one as she walks around saying, 'Zere is no place for me to sit," causing Ethel Shutta to point to a seat and say, "Hey, squattez-vous."
On the other hand, we immediately warm to Yvonne De Carlo as she arrives at the rehearsal space and announces, "Hey, this is some classy joint."
We see the fear in the company as first one player and then a second gets fired. Will D'Orsay go next? Or will it be Edwin Steffe, hired to play Dmitri Weissman? Crazy rumors occur; for instance, when Jack Cassidy comes to see the show one night during the Boston tryout, a rumor goes around that Prince is unhappy with John McMartin and Cassidy might replace him.
We live through Alexis Smith losing her voice in Boston, leading to the cutting of "Could I Leave You?" for several performances. We see the early perception that Dorothy Collins will walk away with the show gradually change until it's clear that Smith's glamour, confidence, and sophistication will lead her to overshadow everyone else.
And, for anyone who thinks that Goldman doesn't deserve any credit for what's good about Follies, we learn that when no one knew what kind of song Sondheim should write to replace De Carlo's solo, "Can That Boy Foxtrot!", it was Goldman who suggested that "it should be about survival, how Carlotta had been through a lot in her life and yet was still around."
There are hilarious stories, as well as unexpected, quietly touching moments. Near the end, there is an especially moving story, occurring long after the show's closing, that gives the book a rather bittersweet emotional climax. Since only two people were present, and neither of them was Chapin, you can only hope that the story is true. It's too good not to be.
On the negative side, there is a good deal of sloppiness here. There are several fairly minor factual errors, some of which could have been prevented by a few quick Internet searches.
Examples of some of the other problems: a description of the tap-break section of "Side by Side by Side" in the original production of Company is not quite accurate. A passage refers to "Gene" when it's about John McMartin. Two songs written for the show but not used, "The World's Full of Girls" and "The World's Full of Boys," are mentioned at different times, but the similarity in titles is never explained or acknowledged, so the reader may just wonder if a mistake was made with one of them.
Chapin states several times that there were 27 players in the pit. But Jonathan Tunick, the show's orchestrator, complains in Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co. that he had only 24 players in the pit, and this is borne out by Stephen Banfield's Sondheim's Broadway Musicals. Given the details Chapin provides on the orchestra's makeup in Boston, there probably were 27 players in the Boston pit, though not on Broadway. Since the number of musicians employed in Broadway pits has become such a volatile issue, it's unfortunate that the book is a bit misleading (if unintentionally so) on this matter.
There are a couple of other confusions regarding musicians and instruments: Chapin refers to the show's onstage quartet of musicians as a trio, and he first lists a piano as being part of the orchestra but later writes, "There wasn't a keyboard in the Follies pit." According to Banfield, there was a piano in the pit as well as one in the onstage quartet (which Chapin does say the first time he discusses it).
Discussing Bennett's feelings about the show near the end of his life, Chapin dates a quote from him as having been said in 1987, but the quote appeared in the first edition of Sondheim & Co., published in 1974. It's possible, if unlikely, that Bennett said the exact same thing in 1987, but there's no way to know since no source is given for the quote.
Although Chapin generally does a fine job of explaining things for the reader who isn't an expert on Follies, Sondheim or theatre in general, there are times when his explanations are more cryptic than helpful. And occasionally he doesn't even attempt to explain things that the average reader is unlikely to know.
There are also some rather questionable statements. For example, "The Road You Didn't Take" is described as "an honest statement of regret" for Ben, the character who sings it. This is a matter of opinion, of course, but Sondheim has described it as a song in which Ben "con[s] himself [and] the lady he's with."
Near the end there is a confusing discussion of the show's history at the box office and how the Tony Awards affected that. The show had opened too late in 1971 to be eligible for that season's Tonys. In late 1971 and early 1972, it went through a period of weekly grosses that were often under the breakeven figure of $80,000, sometimes far under. Then in the spring of 1972, it won seven Tonys.
Chapin first writes that the Tonys the show won "gave it a boost in the spring." After discussing the Tonys in more detail, he writes, "The grosses never got back to a decent level." The first statement is true. After the Tonys, the grosses went up to $91,000 for several weeks. My memory is that the show did well from after the Tonys till it closed on July 1, 1972 (a post-Broadway Los Angeles run had been scheduled before the Tonys, so the show had no choice but to close), but I wasn't able to confirm this.
There are also a few problems with tenses, subject-verb agreement, and other grammatical niceties. Of course, such lapses are becoming the norm nowadays, so it's probably pointless to complain.
Despite these flaws mentioned and some others, this is a terrific book. For the most part, Chapin tells his compelling story well. And even a Follies fanatic like me realized some new things about the show by reading this book, just from the new perspectives it provides. For instance, I had never really noticed that the Loveland sequence starts with the important phrase, "Time stops." Most of all, Chapin vividly conveys the exciting and terrifying process of putting together an immensely complicated musical, a big chunk of which wasn't even written when rehearsals started.
This book is an essential part of the history of Follies. Chapin had an exceptional degree of access to what went on, and he has arranged what he saw into an often thrilling read. If you are a fan of Follies, this book is a must. If you hardly know the show, you may be inspired to get to know it better. And, even those who don't like the show may find this book a fascinating backstage story.
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