It was thirty-six years ago tonight that I (along with about 2,700 others) attended the first of two sold-out performances of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies in Concert at Lincoln Center. With no hard evidence to back it up, I would stake that an overwhelming majority had seen the original production sometime during the fifteen months it ran on Broadway between 1971 and 1972. And if this wasn’t our chance to see Follies again, it was a sacred opportunity to hear it sung the way it was supposed to when the original was recorded — this time backed by no less an orchestra than the New York Philharmonic.
You see, due to a pronounced failure of imagination, a purely economical decision was made to produce only a truncated version of the exhilarating Sondheim score when it was recorded for the original cast album. In what surely should have been two, it was made to fit on one disc, inflicted with a mix of tiny cuts (eliminating a couple of songs altogether) that didn’t allow for the full flavor of its two dozen songs to shine through. This was back in the day when, limited by technology, only up to an hour’s play time would fit on two sides of a standard LP. It is with ever-lasting gratitude that certain original cast two-record sets were preserved back in the day, with a prime example that of Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock and Joe Masteroff’s She Loves Me. What annoyed/saddened a lot of people at the time was that in the same Broadway season as Follies, two other shows produced two-record sets: Melvin Van Peebles’s Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and Galt MacDermot, John Guare and Mel Shapiro’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (which went on to beat Follies at the Tonys as Best Musical).
Follies being literally butchered has irked theatre fans for five decades. For a more detailed telling about all this, and for all things-Follies, please read Theodore S. Chapin joyous memoir, Everything Was Possible. It is the story of his time as a college student working behind-the-scenes on the original production, from early rehearsals to its out of town run in Boston, then onto Broadway and beyond. The book is required reading for anyone who has ever experienced (or had an interest in) a life in the theatre.
The cast gathered for Follies in Concert (as it was billed) was an impressive one. Of the four leads, three were age perfect and vocally adept: George Hearn as Ben, Lee Remick as Phyllis and Barbara Cook as Sally. The odd man out was Mandy Patinkin, twenty years junior to Hearn and Remick, and twenty-five years junior to Cook. That year, Patinkin was starring in Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, and the thinking was that since this was a recording, what did age matter? But there are still some that might have yearned for an older sounding actor to blend in, and who also find Patinkin’s histrionics a bit much (and he delivered that night on that score, for sure). Had I been its casting director, I would have pushed for Alan Alda or Jerry Orbach, either of whom might have been better suited for Buddy.
But no matter. The rest of the cast was near-to-perfect. In the roles of the Whitmans, it was the ingenious idea to have Betty Comden and Adolph Green perform “Rain on the Roof,” so we could finally hear this adorable song which was cut from the original cast recording. Tony Award winner, Phyllis Newman (and wife to Adolph Green) was given “Who’s that Woman?” and Carol Burnett, with a return to the New York stage for the first time in twenty years, sang “I’m Still Here.” Liliane Montevecchi, then a recent Tony Award winner for Nine, sang “Ah, Paris!” and most extraordinarily (in perhaps the evening’s biggest ovation) Licia Albanese and Erie Mills sang “One More Kiss.” This number, wherein an aging opera star sings in harmony with her younger self, was the most egregious cut of all when the original cast recording was being preserved. Justine Johnson and Victoria Mallory were brought in and did indeed record it, but with the one-hour time restriction, found themselves (as they say in the film business) on the cutting room floor.
So, it was with this concert's "One More Kiss," featuring Licia Albanese and Erie Mills, that was for many the evening's revelation. At seventy-six years of age, Albanese counterpointing with the thirty-two-year-old Mills, these two coloraturas nearly brought the house down — literally. I will never forget the foot stomping that occurred and the feeling that Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall) might be all but destroyed.
One of my favorite songs from Follies is the contrapuntal “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through,” badly cut down on the 1971 recording. This standout song for the actors playing the younger selves of the leading couples, was this time expertly sung by Jim Walton, Daisy Prince, Howard McGillin and Liz Callaway, a talented quartet who made the most of every moment they were on stage.
Since there was considerable tinkering made to the original for the concert, it left this version less than definitive. Some music was changed, new reprises were added, and in a total change of course, the character of Buddy as played by Mandy Patinkin sang “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” all by himself, portraying the two chorus girls who are usually included in the number. It was a very knowing nod to Patinkin’s very recent tour de force portraying George Seurat in conversation with two dogs in Sunday’s “The Day Off.”
In a concert filled with sublime moments, my own particular favorite was provided by Barbara Cook in her rendition of "In Buddy's Eyes." It was the song I was most excited to hear all night and she brought all of her beauty, style and richness of voice and emotion to it. This is just one-minute-and-forty-three seconds of it that will leave you aching for the whole thing (available on the double-record set).
I had an interesting vantage point that night, too. Though ideally not as close as I might have been, my orchestra seat put me across the aisle and about two rows behind Sondheim himself. So for an added bonus, I got to watch him watch the show. His reactions were, for the most part, highly enthusiastic. This was after all, opening night (of but two in total) and the charge in the air was electric. Sondheim is no passive observer either and wears his heart on his sleeve. He went mad for anything Lee Remick did. They were close friends and he simply adored her, raising his hands above his head to applaud her in number after number. Conversely, although the audience ate her up, from all appearances Sondheim did not appreciate Elaine Stritch's acid rendition of “Broadway Baby.” Although she would go on to perform this song for the next thirty years in concert and cabaret, her highly original take on it, from all I could see, did not please its composer. Give it a listen on the live recording made of this Follies in Concert, and you will hear that he was in a distinct minority to the audience’s response, though I agreed with him that it was over the top (if undeniably funny). Of course, I could write an entire column on the original “Broadway Baby,” Ethel Shutta, who during the run of Follies, was its oldest cast member and all she brought to the song. In fact, I DID recently write a whole column about her, which you can read by clicking on the link provided here.
Ironically, another justification for this concert (besides raising money for a worthy charity) was that a documentary video was shot. But when you consider the motivation was to get complete recordings of these songs, there is a certain frustration level at play while watching it, as practically none of the songs are done in their entirety.
But on this night thirty-six years ago, I feel confident in writing that practically no one who attended either of these two performances left disappointed. On the DVD, you can see after the concert, the camera finds the ever-caustic Elaine Stritch backstage where she speaks directly into the camera: "Never. Never has there been a night like this."
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.