EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE: The Birth of the Musical Follies

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EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE: The Birth of the Musical Follies. By Ted Chapin. Knopf. 331 pp. $30

A show on the scale of the original 1971 production of Follies—with a cast of 50, plus 27 musicians (and no computers) in the orchestra pit, a monumental set, and 140 costumes—would have little chance of making it to Broadway today. The financial risk would be too great. Of course, Follies was too grand for 1971 as well: It closed after 522 performances (not a bad run under ordinary circumstances) without recouping a penny for investors. The show did win seven Tony awards—for its score (Stephen Sondheim), direction (Harold Prince and Michael Bennett), choreography (Bennett again), set (Boris Aronson), costumes (Florence Klotz), and lighting (Tharon Musser) and for one of its female stars (Alexis Smith)—though not the Tony for best musical, which went to Two Gentlemen of Verona. Hum anything from that lately? Once Follies was gone, it became the stuff of legend.

Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, has written a wonderfully detailed book about the progress of Follies from its prelegendary beginnings to opening night. During the three months of rehearsals and previews, he was the company’s unpaid gofer (elevated to "production assistant" in the Playbill credits), and he took notes. A Connecticut College undergraduate at the time, he got course credit for his Follies experience.

What’s Follies about? Mortality, unhappiness, delusion, resentment, the doomed, irresistible promises we make to one another ("Love will see us through till something better comes along"), and, oh yes, the dazzling distractions of the American musical theater. The time is the present (1971), the setting a Broadway theater that’s being torn down to make way for a parking lot. Between the two world wars, the theater was home to extravagant follies shows, and a group of individuals who once appeared in them, and who haven’t seen one another since, gather on the stage of the partially demolished theater for a farewell party. The characters’ younger selves walk among them, like ghosts, and sing and dance far more nimbly than the older folk. Two unhappily married couples who are the focus of the show suffer a kind of collective nervous breakdown in a concluding production number of Ziegfeld-like splendor. At the end, the whole cast faces the dawn through the shattered back wall of the theater.

What a lot of mopey, rainy-day stuff, and thanks largely to Sondheim’s virtuoso score, how exhilarating.

In telling the story of this one show so precisely, Chapin writes a shadow history of every Broadway show that ever had a difficult birth and pulled itself together. What seems now all of a piece was once just a lot of pieces, and he lets you watch as they’re put together, first one way and then another— songs added and dropped, lyrics altered, dances adjusted, dialogue introduced one day and excised the next, costumes sewn, fitted, and shredded. He records the actors’ daily bouts of generosity, jealousy, insecurity, and fear. He notices when they blow a line, flub a lyric, or miss a dance step, all of which happen surprisingly often. As the matter-of-fact details accumulate, you’re reminded just how live live theater is, and how subject to human frailty: a crapshoot behind a velvet curtain.

Follies may be the smartest Broadway musical ever—not the fleetest or wittiest or funniest, surely, or the most moving, if only because there’s Carousel, but the one in which the layers of emotional resonance are built with so much intelligence. If the show had an epigraph, it would be from A. E. Housman: "With rue my heart is laden." But Follies is shrewd enough to wear its rue with a difference: sequins.

—James M. Morris


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