Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical ‘Follies’

Dissed by the critics and avoided by the general public during its 1971-2 run -- it lost every dime of its $792,000 investment -- "Follies" has since achieved legendary status as a groundbreaking classic that yanked musical theater into the postmodern age.

Dissed by the critics and avoided by the general public during its 1971-2 run — it lost every dime of its $792,000 investment — “Follies” has since achieved legendary status as a groundbreaking classic that yanked musical theater into the postmodern age. Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization president Chapin was then a wide-eyed 20-year-old gofer, and the journal he kept while working on the show’s rehearsals, Boston tryout, and New York premiere forms the basis of an intelligent, informative book. It nonetheless might have benefited from a little more gossip for the fans or a little more retrospective analysis for the serious buffs.

Nonetheless, his virtually day-by-day narrative does capture the complex collaborative process by which musicals are created. The “Follies” script (by “Lion in Winter” author James Goldman) posed particular challenges for co-directors Hal Prince and Michael Bennett and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

It was cynical and dark, portraying bad marriages and lost dreams; it shifted impressionistically between the characters’ pasts during the heyday of the Ziegfeld Follies and a present-day party in a theater about to be torn down.

It was just the kind gauntlet these Young Turks, hot off the success of “Company,” wanted to fling down to stodgy old Broadway. But we get only a distanced view of the creative staff’s work on the material, since they met mostly in private and the company wasn’t always informed of the reasoning behind the restaging of numbers or the addition of a new song. Mind you, when the new song is “I’m Still Here,” whose lyrics Chapin describes typing with elation in Boston, who cares?

Most of our knowledge, like the author’s, comes from rehearsals and preview performances. He does a nice job of portraying the no-longer-young principals, among them Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson, Yvonne DeCarlo, and Fifi D’Orsay, gamely assaying Bennett’s tricky choreography, Boris Aronson’s steeply raked set, and Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics (subject to many a middle-aged memory lapse).

Personal relationships are referred to only glancingly, though it’s amusing to see Prince, Sondheim, and Goldman reacting like maiden aunts when DeCarlo takes a flirtatious interest in Chapin (who admits only to escorting her to dinner).

“Follies” fanatics, of whom there are many, will unquestionably enjoy “Everything Was Possible.” Less partial readers of this circumspect account may share the youthful Chapin’s opinion of the show during its shape-up period: “full of adroit, observant things, and yet cold.”

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