Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Follies-original cast 2011 recording





Well, after waiting impatiently for some time, watching snippets and bits on YouTube and hearing from friends in the know that THIS FOLLIES is THE Follies...I have some thoughts...

Follies-the problematic, Broadway "masterpiece" started back in the late 60's and early 70's...following a road laid partly by shows like COMPANY...Stephen Sondheim writing with James Goldman toward a production directed by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, designed by Boris Aronson starring Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson, Dorothy Collins, John McMartin, Yvonne De Carlo...the names went on and on...staggering, spectacular, new...

It won a lot of Tony Awards, lost a lot of money, produced at least three Musical Theatre "Standards": Losing My Mind, Broadway Baby and I'm Still Here and spawned a fanatical cult of FOLLIES fans including me.

That original production pretty much intact TOURED and played the Shubert all gaudy, huge and sparkly new in Century City and I was there.

Over the years getting a chance to actually perform a staged version of Follies was very difficult so the music like much of Sondheim's song book ended up in reviews and Broadway based concerts.

Movie versions of the show were planned and abandoned and the show became legendary.

Inspired by a vague idea of a musical show about a reunion and a picture of Gloria Swanson doing Haute Couture amidst the rubble of the old ROXY the show winds the tale of a group of performers who get together when the theatre where they all performed is about to be turned into a parking lot.

Two couples particularly; Ben and Phyllis the upscale and wealthy and Sally and Buddy friends of a bygone time, co-stage door johnnies and their chorus girls turned wives are the anchor around which a cast of characters parade through what Sondheim calls "PASTICHE" numbers...songs which in some ways advance the story and or mood of the piece in a way that also evokes another time or a specific compositional style from Operetta to Harold Arlen, Burlesque, Vaudeville... Ziegfeld.

Those interested in the Nexus of the original show can read a fascinating account in TED CHAPIN'S meticulous EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE, The Birth of the Musical FOLLIES.

Since he was on the scene and took copious notes he can share myriad obscure details about the sets, costumes, musical numbers and performers in a narrative that starts with the beginning of rehearsals and follows the show through the out of town tryout in Boston and then back to the opening at the Winter Garden in New York...a must read for any FOLLIES fan.

But back to this newest Follies...

Bernadette Peters, Elaine Paige and others sign on for a production at the Kennedy Center which becomes a huge hit and moves to Broadway and maybe as the liner notes for the cast recording say perhaps the audience has caught up with the show at last---40 years later.

It's not as if there haven't been other attempts along the way each one from here to the Westend attempting to solve the problems and produce a definitive Follies (and a definitive cast recording).

The original cast recording back in 1971 was cheated of a full reading by producing a single disc album-interestingly the show which DID win the Tony for best musical that year, TWO GENTLEMEN FROM VERONNA (a surprise BTW) DID have a 2 record cast recording.

Follies in Concert an event showcasing star names and a semi staged concert version did manage a fairly definitive cast recording as did the cast of the PEPPERMILL PLAYHOUSE version.

There is also the LONDON cast recording which I believe claims to be the only COMPLETE recording and features alternate numbers and even music from the film STAVISKY which Sondheim used as a clearing house for some of his unused material from Follies.

I keep digressing and I guess it's because I have a hard time forcing myself to say how disappointed I am by this current version.

I am a huge fan of Ms. Peters; hers is a lengthy and rich career and she is a legendary performer of stage, screen and recordings...at one point I felt she might own Losing My Mind and In Buddy's Eyes two of Sally's big numbers from Follies.

I hear she was wonderful if a bit tight in Washington and has blossomed in the Broadway run...she is 64...she is playing a character who SAYS, "I am 49...".

Well, the stage...suspended disbelief...ageless...but her voice on the recording is tight, reedy and doesn't always soar.

She has two voices...her Broadway one and the "Other" one and for many years she was able to maximize one and utilize the other...here she is forced to go exposed and vulnerable into a range which has never been attractive to her...pity.

Again, perhaps one needs to see this production to judge this cast album---shows do change AFTER viewing rather than just hearing them.

JAN MAXWELL has been represented to me as the consummate PHYLLIS-in the album photos she looks like Charles Busch in drag and her voice is a little sweet for the acidic Phyllis queen on the "quip with a sting".

Both Danny Burstein (Buddy)and RON RAINES (Ben) have good strong voices but they are almost interchangeable and lack the division of class and culture that the original cast had...With the exception of Jan Maxwell THIS IS A VERY BLUE COLLAR READING of the material, adding in some of the crucial dialog was a great idea but it also points up just how new york centric the whole endeavour is-far more fitted to 7th Ave than PARK.

Some don't find Elaine Paige as superb as I do-she is one of the only performances that has originality and characterization-the first lady of the British Musical Theatre is far better as an American Movie Star than some of the Americans (maybe its her time in Sunset Blvd-the musical).

The 28 piece orchestra is just what Mr Sondheim and his orchestrator Jonathan Tunick had in mind combined with a 4 piece onstage band but somehow the juxtaposition of the two sounds don't always blow one away on this recording as they do on others...in the prologue there is a place well know to Follies fans where the onstage band gives way to a huge MGM like sound wave as the pit orchestra picks up ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL the music which introduces the ghosts of the theatre and segues into BEAUTIFUL GIRLS...it happens here but tentatively...disappointingly.

Broadway Baby is somewhat thrown away, some numbers fair better than others but in the end this is just another Follies recording with dialog thrown in.

Bernadette does this material better elsewhere...and I suppose that's the thing about this show-hard to please everyone...Take Alexis Smith and Ethel Shutta (or even Elaine Strich) add in one from column A, one from column B...

As an aside I give both Losing My Mind and In Buddy's Eyes to the marvelous Barbara Cook (long may she wave) until someone dethrones her.

My score a barely passing C minus...overall I like the New Jersey cast from 1998 Peppermill, better.

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