Music Capitol's 'Follies'
"Follies," original Broadway Cast, Capital Records
OLLIES, Harold Prince's latest contribution to the musical comedy revolution, made many friends and enemies during its five-week tryout run in Boston. Upon moving to Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre, it became the most controversial musical to reach the great white way in years. Now, a month after its opening, the New York Times is still running an article each Sunday in their drama section covering some aspect of the show or its critics. Follies was also the cover story of Time a couple of weeks ago and Variety reports that it is doing just fine financially.
In the midst of all the furor, Capitol Records has issued the Original Cast Album, and it is, frankly, a disappointment. The score itself is not disappointing, in fact quite the opposite is true-it is Stephen Sondheim's finest to date and one of the richest theatre scores ever written for a musical play. Nor are the voices in any way deficient. It is purely the production of the album which has taken the fire out of Follies, and needlessly so.
Capitol and producer Dick Jones were presented with two major obstacles in making the Follies album successful: the unusual quality of the music and the length of the score.
The music that Sondheim writes is uniquely theatre music. It is music that evokes and depends upon the mood and textural qualities which are operating on stage at the time it is being performed. In this way it differs totally from the music of a composer such as Burt Bacharach ( Promises, Promises ), who wrote pop songs that sometimes end up getting sung on Broadway instead of in night clubs. It is a problem to record theatre music successfully, because the music and lyrics are only part of what comprises the stage moment; whatever the other parts are, they are absent from a recording. Because Follies concerns past musicals, and therefore has a lot of numbers which sound like they are from a past cra, the problem is not as severe as it was with Sondheim's scores for Company or, Anyone Can Whistle, both of which were entirely modern and difficult pieces of music. They were very successful recordings (Columbia OS 3550 and KOS 6080 respectively) because care was taken by the producers to make each song a coherent entity and a working part of the whole. Sondheim's scores work that way and to chop his songs up one must sacrifice the carefully constructed effect which each piece of music has on the total score and the produced work.
But Follies is a terribly long score. It contains 22 songs, rather than the twelve or fourteen that a normal musical has, and most musical lose a song or two anyway in being recorded. There is no way to put that much music on a record, without using the double album idea which is so popular among rock albums. Why this was not done with Follies is unclear. Either Capitol felt that financial burden was too great to risk, or Dick Jones didn't want to bother doing all the work necessary for a double album. Or perhaps there is some reason I am missing. In any event Follies is available on a single record (Capitol SO 761) and of the eighteen songs which were recorded (four have been cut) Capital admits in fine print to having "abridged" seven of them. I guess this means that all of the lyrics are not sung, because the album has musically abridged at least twelve of the numbers. Some have survived rather well, others are completely gutted and totally fragmentary. The effect is like a buckshot spray of genius-very tantalizing, but equally unsatisfying.
The cutting seems to have been done in two ways, either by eliminating the middles of numbers or by cutting out the first verses and beginning in the middle. With some composers this might be a reasonably unnoticeable technique, but Sondheim's middles are usually entirely different from his beginnings, and they're in the middle for a reason. The songs build toward a climax and the middle section is part of that building structure. To begin midway is to throw the entire song out of balance; to eliminate sections is equally unsatisfactory.
There are three "show-stoppers" in Follies, On the album one of them has been left more or less intact (only the dance music has been cut), and the other two have been butchered. "Who's That Woman?" sounds like it was written to stop the show-even without the spectacular dance that accompanies it on stage. But the first "show-stopper" is a medley of three "follies" routines, each performed with geriatric gusto by old time performers Marcie Stringer, Charles Welch, Fifi d'Orsay and Ethel Shutta, who do their numbers separately (the first two as a duet) and then sing them simultaneously as a kind of old timers freak show. On the album the duet ("Rain on the Roof") has been cut entirely. Miss d'Orsay gets about one minute of recording time and Ethel Shutta is left to wail her magnificent "Broadway Baby" all alone and with about half of the lyric missing. It all goes by too fast to be appreciated; and the quartet, which really begins to demonstrate what the scope of the show will be for the first time, is missing completely.
The third "show-stopper" is Alexis Smith's spectacular "Story Of Lucy And Jessie" which is a honky-tonk dance number written in the style of Cole Porter. The lyric (the cleverest in the show if not the best) is all there, but that is all that is there. As soon as Miss Smith is finished with her tongue twisting the orchestra pulls up to an abrupt halt, leaving the listener panting for more.
THE RECORD is far from all bad, however. At its best, as a matter of fact, it is as good as theatre music gets. "Waiting For the Girls Upstairs," which was recorded in its entirety, is a magnificent scene-completely encased in music. There are two separate songs which weave throughout this piece, each evoking its own moods and dreams. It is at once nostalgic, disappointed and good natured. It is also perhaps the best orchestrated song in the history of musicals. Jonathan Tunick has done a spectacular job of orchestration throughout, but "The Girlds Upstairs" tops everything. This song and "Too Many Mornings," a love duct sung by John McMartin and Dorothy Collins, are the best things on the record. Sondheim's lyrics are really magnificent, tender and clever at the same time, and the songs always belong to the characters who sing them. Time called him "Broadway's supreme lyricist" and it is beginning to seem like an obvious statement. But Sondheim is also Broadway's master composer, which fewer critics seem to realize, perhaps because he refuses to write formula AABA melodies unless they are parodies (although all of his parodies are infused with great love for and understanding of the material).
There's not much point in dissecting the individual songs-with the exception of Gene Nelson's "The Right Girl," which has its weak moments. They are all great theatre songs with enough satirical passages to keep musical comedy mavins guessing and researching for the rest of the decade. Dorothy Collins stands out on the album as the finest voice in the company, but there are no really bad voices except that of Yvonne De Carlo, who has one tremendous song called "I'm Still Here" which Elaine Stritch should get a crack at sometime.
But despite the great songs, fine voices and truly ingenious orchestrations, the recorded version of Follies is an unsettling and unsatisfying experience. No care has been taken by producer Jones to allow the richness, which Sondheim reveals at his own speed, to surface. Too much time was spent attempting to cut corners and none was allocated to producing a coherent artwork, which onstage the score obviously is. The album is a commercial venture in the worst sense of the phrase and to use Sondheim's own words it is
A sorrowful precis
It's very messy.