Monday, February 5, 2007

The books I'll never read wouldn't change a thing, would they?

Yes, I'm still on about Follies! My preparation for this coming weekend's Encores! trip has included much reading as well as listening. I've never seen any production of the show, so although I have done much reading about it, I realized that I still had only a sketchy idea of who the various characters were. So the first thing I did was read the script, in its TCG edition (which I guess is as definitive an edition as exists). Then I reread the pertinent chapter in Craig Zadan's excellent book Sondheim & Company, which seems to be out of print but is well worth trying to get your hands on. I can open this book to any page and become immediately engrossed. It is full of the kind of information I want to read about Sondheim's shows and about musical theatre in general: details of the actual creation and production of the work, and lots and lots of candid quotations from the artists involved. Zadan lets the creators do the talking and analyzing, and it's fascinating, at least if you're a geek like me.

I did find myself wishing he had been able to include more recollections from the actual performers in Follies, because his account is, to my mind, a bit dominated by the creators' not-very-fond memories, and especially "co-director" Michael Bennett's recollections. For example, if you watched the video I posted Saturday of Yvonne De Carlo's appearance on David Frost's TV program, you heard her account of how her character, Carlotta, ended up singing "I'm Still Here" instead of her original comedy number, "Can That Boy Foxtrot!":
"At first they thought I was campy, a 'campy' type person, so the role became very campy and very funny, and musty, I would say. Then they saw something different come through on the stage, so they changed her to a little bit more of a warm creature, and as a result, the song went out and another song came in, and I'm very thrilled because it was written specially for me."
Compare that to Zadan's account of the same switch:
One of the musical's first priorities was finding a way to get Yvonne De Carlo's large solo number, "Can That Boy Foxtrot!" to work. ("Yvonne couldn't do it," Bennett says. "It needed someone dry like Elaine Stritch.") After much wasted time, Sondheim retreated to his hotel room and wrote her a replacement song, "I'm Still Here."
It's no surprise that De Carlo's version of the story flatters herself, nor, for that matter, is it surprising that Bennett's version is bitchy. And I might tend to credit Bennett's as the more accurate, except that I've heard the two songs. "Can That Boy Foxtrot!" is very, very funny, and it is likely true that Yvonne wasn't selling it. But I don't think the show is weaker without it, whereas I can hardly imagine a Follies that didn't include "I'm Still Here," by far the superior song, and possibly the song that most captures the heart and soul of the show. So considering how monumental that substitution turned out to be, I find it odd that Zadan lets Bennett dismiss De Carlo and leaves it at that. (To be fair, in a later chapter on "Songwriting" he quotes Sondheim, who cites the story as an example of how "some of the best songs are written out of town." And, in the same paragraph, Sondheim also says that the problem was the song, not Yvonne, who "did it very well." Further evidence that Zadan shouldn't let Bennett have the last word.)

Of course, if you want to read about Follies, the go-to bible is Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, the recent semi-memoir by original production gofer Ted Chapin. I've had a copy on my shelf for months, but only just this week did I actually crack it, and so far I'm a bit underwhelmed. First of all, this book sports the most obnoxious "Praise for..." A-pages I've ever seen, full of blurbs from people who were clearly pressured into reading it because of their personal/professional relationship with the author. It sounds like all these theatre luminaries felt obliged to write a nice note to Ted about his book, and for some reason the publishers didn't bother to edit the blurbs to make them sound less coerced. I guess they thought that the "personal" nature of the praise would help establish Chapin's credentials as someone who was really there, but I think it comes off as amateurish and desperate. The very first blurb is from Hal Prince:
"Well, I thought I wouldn't get around to finishing the book until I returned from Vienna, but of course I should have realized I couldn't put it down!...It is handsome and exciting. So, Ted, well done! I guess you really were our Boswell."
I don't know about you, but to me that feels tepid, strained, and bizarrely edited (why not start with "I couldn't put it down"? Do we really need to know that you bugged Hal Prince when he was on vacation?)... and they led off with that! And all the rest say "you" and "your" where a professional (and convincing) blurb would say "Chapin," e.g., Michael Feinstein's comment: "I had no idea that you were connected with Follies, but how amazing that you were able to so vividly reconstitute its gestation." Or Gregory Mosher's: "Are you absolutely sure you were only in college at the time?" I'm sorry, but to me those sound like compliments you would pay to a friend's kid who had a story published in his middle-school newspaper.

Anyway, I haven't gotten too far past the foreword (by Frank Rich, who comes off as similarly coerced and uncomfortable) and introduction (in which our Boswell spends far too long introducing himself as a character in the proceedings). The writing is not good and often not all that clear; the author has an irritating tendency to summarize his sources (newspaper articles, etc.) instead of quoting them, which is precisely what Zadan is smart enough not to do. Most paragraphs are a bumpy sequence of inelegant sentences, many of which lead nowhere. I keep getting to the end and thinking, I read the whole sentence for that? Some examples: "When I saw Cabaret, I was floored. Among other things, it was really interestingly directed." Or this: "Any new show in rehearsal becomes a family, if a strained one, and the Follies family was pretty good." Pretty good? That's the best you could come up with? Interestingly directed? Gosh, that's vivid. Thanks for the eyewitness account.

But I have many pages to go, and I'm hoping things will improve, or at least the behind-the-scenes gossip will progress past reminiscences about who liked what in their coffee.

While we're on the subject: I think the cover design for this book is pretty terrific, given what they had to work with, but I have always secretly hated the Follies poster art. I know at the time everybody thought it was a masterpiece, but that was the seventies, and the whole nation was in the grips of an epidemic of bad taste, and so they were apparently unable to see that its psychedelic look is completely mismatched to the material. In my opinion, the Godspell look should be used sparingly, and for hippie rock musicals only.

For further reading about this particular production of Follies, I direct you to three articles: the announcement of the entire cast, and interviews (typically underedited but still rather interesting) with Victoria Clark and Victor Garber (speaking of Godspell!).

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