Though the former showgirls and stage-door Johnnies of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies reunited in the 1971 musical for “one last look at where it all began,” it’s been rather difficult for those under the musical’s spell to take one last look (or listen, as it were) at the original production of Follies. Those who saw it routinely recall it as the grandest of all musicals; those who didn’t have had to make do with still photographs, grainy YouTube footage, talk show appearances, copious volumes of reviews and recollections, and of course, its Original Broadway Cast Recording. But, to steal from a previous Sondheim musical, we’ve always been sorry/grateful for Capitol’s Follies.
While it preserved a flawless cast led by Alexis Smith (Phyllis Rogers Stone), John McMartin (Ben Stone), Gene Nelson (Buddy Plummer) and Dorothy Collins (Sally Durant Plummer), the record produced by Dick Jones was severely truncated. Some songs were subject to internal cuts; others were excised entirely. It was also marred by a less-than-ideal mix. Vocals were hard-panned to the left or right, sounding altogether distant. Even the full orchestra playing Jonathan Tunick’s rich and wildly varied arrangements sounded, well, uneven. After 41 years, though, it’s as if a layer of gauze has been removed from Follies thanks to a limited edition reissue on the Kritzerland label (KR 20023-3). No further material was available to add to the new CD; the songs were, alas, shortened or edited prior to the recording sessions. But producer Bruce Kimmel, remix engineer John Adams and mastering engineer James Nelson have given new life to an old favorite, continuing the story of this most singular of musicals.
Follies has always been the ultimate tribute to, and deconstruction of, the Broadway musical. It’s a celebration as well as a eulogy, if you will. Its songs unfold the lives of these two couples, surrounded by old friends, who reunite on the eve of demolition of the Weismann Theatre. They discover that the site is populated not only by old friends, but by specters of the past. In one uninterrupted evening, fractured relationships are matched only by fractured reality, and the literal setting yields to a dreamscape both nightmarish and thrilling in which the characters’ many follies are explored.
From the very first notes of Sondheim’s overture/prologue (one of the musical sequences sadly edited down for the recording session), it was clear that the composer and his collaborators (including co-directors Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, also the choreographer) had something unusual in mind. Follies is a ghost story, and the Prologue’s opening drum roll doesn’t lead to a brassy medley of the score’s songs, but rather to the melody of “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” a fragile, macabre and slow waltz. It’s grand, all right, but far from triumphant. Although the ghosts that populated the stage of Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre (standing in for the fictional Weismann house) can’t be seen on an audio recording, they can certainly be felt. Audiences might have been expecting a parade of glamorous personalities and lavish costumes in a show entitled Follies, and indeed, that parade came. But when it did, it exposed the flaws, shortcomings and regrets of the principal players, and in turn, of the audience. The title is loaded with multiple meanings, and even the characters’ troubled marriages carry metaphorical heft. The many colors of the fantasia that is Follies all have never sounded better, or more shattering, than they do on this revitalized recording. The remarkable upgrade from all previous editions is audible in the nuance and newfound clarity of the orchestra, from the prologue onward.
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The lengthy score to Follies (which has subsequently been preserved on “complete” recordings of the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse production and the 2011 Broadway revival as well as the landmark 1985 Avery Fisher Hall concert) contains both modern “book” songs dealing with the present-day characters and plot, and “pastiche” songs recreating the Follies era. For the former, Sondheim’s style shifts sometimes within the same song. The sympathetic orchestrations by Tunick bring out the subtext in “In Buddy’s Eyes,” in which Dorothy Collins’ deluded Sally lies to herself about her unfaithful husband’s virtues. Collins’ delivery indicates that the song’s lyrics shouldn’t be accepted at face value, and Tunick supports her orchestrally. When Sally sings of her husband, woodwinds contribute to a jittery sound in contrast to the lyrics’ adoration. Dramatic, too-good-to-be-true strings swell, though, when she’s singing of herself “in Buddy’s eyes.” For Gene Nelson’s “The Right Girl,” Buddy’s internal conflict about the women in his life comes to the fore. Sondheim and Tunick juxtapose a brassy, frenetic explosion of anger and frustration with contemporary, Bacharach-style horns and a backbeat, in the process revealing the character’s dueling impulses. (Much of the exciting dance music in “The Right Girl” is absent from the recording; the same fate befell other songs including Alexis Smith’s “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.”) “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” remains one of the most perfect musical theater songs ever, simply a spirited, flawless and moving evocation of character, plot and theme.
For the pastiche songs, Sondheim skillfully aped the styles of operetta writers like Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml (“One More Kiss”), urbane songsmiths like Cole Porter (“The Story of Lucy and Jessie”) and even the all-American composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (“Beautiful Girls,” the Follies answer to “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” in all its splendor). But the fiendishly clever composer and lyricist proves how these tropes of the past can be utilized to offer psychological insight and illuminate character. Though these dazzling “throwback” songs appear at various points throughout the musical, they’re deployed most wondrously in the fabled Loveland sequence.
In his lengthy, personal and entertaining liner notes, Bruce Kimmel describes the moment in the original production when “past and present collide and suddenly the set is vomiting up everything we’ve seen during the evening in a horrifying cacophony, and [designer Boris] Aronson’s set begins to morph into Loveland.” Sally and her husband Buddy, and Phyllis and her husband Ben, each take the spotlight for a perfect pastiche, albeit one with deep implications. For Sally, it’s the torch song “Losing My Mind.” For Buddy, it’s a vaudeville turn in “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues.” For Phyllis, it’s the sexy “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” and for Ben, the climactic “Live, Laugh, Love.” Even their younger selves get into the act recalling the days when everything was possible, “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through.”
Though it was written in the experimental early seventies, Follies isn’t often considered to be a psychedelic musical. But the show and recording are both truly “mind-manifesting,” as one definition of psychedelia goes. What could have been more psychedelic than Loveland itself? Sondheim told biographer Meryle Secrest that “marijuana helped a lot” over the years in loosening him up to begin the writing process, though the drug was “useless” in the actual writing which required such lyrical precision. He also admitted to Secrest that he “loved mescaline and acid (LSD)…and never had a bad trip.” One wonders how much those drugs influenced Follies. The mind-blowing “Live, Laugh, Love” is the theatrical equivalent of a “bad trip,” with hallucinogenic fragments of the past confronting John McMartin’s insecure Ben. Despite the appearance of nostalgia, Follies was very much a product of its heady time. That battle of past and present, and a traditional sensibility with a retro one, vibrantly infuses the cast album. Yet for all of the psychedelic fantasy onstage, Sondheim and Goldman also brought reality to Broadway with no-holds-barred portrayals of all-too-human characters.
The placement of the vocals on the remixed cast recording is far more natural than before on the painfully affecting duet “Too Many Mornings” between Collins’ Sally and McMartin’s Ben. The result just might induce goosebumps. Likewise, a more present McMartin makes for the intense experience of listening to the always-resonant “The Road You Didn’t Take.” (“The road you didn’t take hardly comes to mind…does it? The door you didn’t try…where could it have led?”) One couldn’t imagine that the fiery Alexis Smith’s caustic, volcanic “Could I Leave You?” could become any more of a tour de force, but the newfound lucidity of the remixed recording makes that happen, too. In addition to the work of all four principals, there are ample showcases on stage and disc for the impressive supporting cast, as well.
“One More Kiss,” recorded but not released in 1971, was added to previous Capitol CDs and, of course, is here, as well. Justine Johnston and Victoria Mallory are touching on the song, the first one Sondheim wrote for the musical and a composition which nearly encapsulates it: “One more kiss before we part/One more kiss and farewell/Never shall we meet again/Just a kiss and then we break the spell….” Though Johnston and Mallory’s vocals soar above the haunting melody, we’re down to earth again with the all-too-true realization that “all things beautiful must die,” one of the truths of Follies.
Yvonne DeCarlo is unstoppable on “I’m Still Here” (“First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp/Then someone’s mother/Then you’re camp!”). It might be impossible to resist shouting “What were you thinking?” at the cuts made to the song, but her reading is still near-definitive. In the triptych of “Rain on the Roof,” “Broadway Baby” and “Ah, Paris!,” only the latter two songs survived to recording. Ethel Shutta is a feisty Hattie Walker on the former, and Fifi d’Orsay as Solange LaFitte shines on the tongue-twisting latter song.
Kritzerland’s love and respect for the musical is evident in the overall presentation. The full-color booklet to Follies boasts one of Kritzerland’s strongest designs. In addition to Kimmel’s notes (which include technical information on what went into the remix), it contains production photographs, full credits, the LP back cover art and, of course, David Edward Byrd’s iconic artwork. The art on the disc face itself is also striking.
It’s not without good reason that many listeners have chosen other, more complete recordings of Follies over the years (especially those listeners who did not see the original production). But no cast, en toto, has topped the original cast, and for that reason alone, the Capitol album remains indispensable. It's even more so in this new edition. Purists should relax in the knowledge that the original mix is still currently in print from Capitol, but the difference is so audible and so potent here that it would be hard to argue should this mix replace the standard one. Follies devastatingly illustrates the dangers of living in the past. But with Kritzerland’s reissue of this long-maligned yet still classic album, you’ll certainly want to pay the past a visit.
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