Engrossing day-by-day chronicle of the paradigm-smashing musical’s creation.
Now president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Chapin was a 20-year-old college student working as a production assistant (and keeping a journal) when rehearsals for Follies began in January 1971. Director/producer Harold Prince and composer Stephen Sondheim were hot off the innovative, Tony-winning Company; choreographer Michael Bennett’s work on that production was so good he was promoted to co-director of Follies. The script by James Goldman told the story of former showgirls attending a party in the Ziegfeld Follies theater the night before it is to be torn down. With its mordant portrait of mistaken marriages and failed careers, its complex shifts between present and past, Follies was challenging musical theater. The cast of middle-aged, second-tier stars—among them Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson, and Dorothy Collins—were thrilled to be featured in such provocative material, but Chapin’s candid narrative shows old-timers like Yvonne DeCarlo and Fifi D’Orsay panicked by Boris Aronson’s steeply raked set, nervous about Bennett’s tricky choreography, and forgetful of Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics. The author was not privy to executive meetings, nor do leading actors pal around with the gofer (though DeCarlo took rather a fancy to Chapin), so we don’t get a strong sense of the personalities involved or the precise nature of the conflicts that clearly arose within the creative team. This is basically a straightforward, intelligent account of the rehearsals, Boston tryout, and New York premiere, with nicely detailed descriptions of such show-stopping numbers as “Broadway Baby” and “I’m Here,” plus fascinating glimpses of the complex, emotionally charged interplay among performers, director, choreographer, and composer. Follies received mixed reviews, including two bad ones from the make-it-or-break-it New York Times, and lost $792,000. Recent revivals, however, have cemented its status as a groundbreaking classic, and Chapin’s thorough delineation of the process that shaped it is most welcome.
A little dry for casual readers, but theater buffs will be riveted. (8-page color insert, 63 b&w photos in text)