First Rehearsal, Opening Night-And Everything In Between

Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical “Follies ,” by Ted Chapin. Alfred A. Knopf, 331 pages, $30.

More than 30 years ago, Ted Chapin was a theater-mad undergraduate at Connecticut College who managed to land a tyro’s dream job as a production assistant with Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical Follies. If the dice came up double sixes for young Ted, a cynical observer might say it was because they were loaded: Mr. Chapin’s father, Schuyler, was (and is) a veteran supremo in the New York arts world, and the suppertime guests in the Chapin household during Ted’s childhood might have included the likes of Alexander H. Cohen or Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard); one Christmas dinner, Stephen Sondheim himself was at the table.

Coming on the heels of Company, which won seven Tony Awards, Follies continued the composer’s collaboration with producer-director Hal Prince and was another step in Mr. Sondheim’s successful campaign to be recognized as a composer as well as a writer of lyrics. Inspired by a photograph of an aged Gloria Swanson standing amidst the rubble of the Roxy, Follies features four aging Broadway veterans, two of them former Ziegfeld showgirls, who reminisce about their careers. Four other figures also appear onstage, representing the youthful selves the older four look back upon.

Mr. Chapin himself, in his account of the development of the show from its first rehearsal to its Broadway opening, moves between his grown-up self (he’s the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization) and the fresh-faced student whose enthusiasm for his plum assignment is so catching that it seems churlish to resent the connections that got him there. Obviously likable and good at making friends, the young Ted Chapin soon grew to know the entire company and felt very much part of the Follies family. Because he was just a “gofer,” he wasn’t privy to the decision-making that affected the development of the show-and his inside story isn’t necessarily the whole story. At times, he’s reduced to peddling stray gossip-though even here, he’s usually decent (or naïve) enough to refer to the existence of the gossip without telling us what it was about.

That we’re interested at all in 30-year-old tittle-tattle shows how quickly Mr. Chapin engages us in the life of the Follies company. He has a novelist’s gift for vivid and compressed characterization. The unusual principals of the cast are especially well-rendered; two of them came from Hollywood and had no Broadway experience, which compounded the strain of a tight schedule. Minor characters are equally vivid, including the wonderfully named Yvonne De Carlo (née Middleton) who clearly but unavailingly fancied the young Chapin. Generous in most of his mini-portraits, Mr. Chapin shows himself capable of a certain bite: Alexis Smith, who rapidly emerged as the show’s star (and appeared solo on the cover of Time for its story on the show) had “often made a good impression in clearly secondary productions …. Her straightforward manner was very helpful, if at times a bit harsh.” Or about Gene Nelson, a veteran actor-dancer in 1950’s Hollywood musicals who “was quick and cheerful … like a really nice and honest salesman. His character, Buddy, was in fact a traveling salesman, so he and Buddy were a neat fit.”

Mr. Chapin captures the intensity of Hal Prince, whose frantic creative energy was sometimes made downright neurotic by the juggling occasioned by his twin roles as producer and co-director. Mr. Sondheim is presented, perhaps surprisingly, as comparatively calm, even low-key-yet for all his professionalism, he was also a self-confessed procrastinator when it came to composing songs (finishing the lyrics for one number during the cab ride across town to the rehearsal hall). Michael Bennett also stands out in Mr. Chapin’s account-only 28 years old, but ambitious (he was co-director as well as choreographer), manifestly gifted, and on a clear path to the success and acclaim that came later with A Chorus Line.

Unfortunately, Mr. Chapin’s writing talent does not extend to generating narrative tension. It’s unclear whether this is because there was so little conflict on the set, or whether Mr. Chapin missed what conflict there was. The veteran Fred Kelly (Gene’s brother) remarked that “nothing unusual has yet happened on this show.” There was no disaster (Follies opened on time with its principal players as originally selected) and no triumph, either: The show received very conflicting reviews, ran for 522 performances, then unceremoniously closed.

Yet if this book is not the musical theater’s Liar’s Poker, it does give a voluminously detailed account of the preparations involved in launching a major new Broadway musical, from the brutality of auditions to the last-minute insertion of a new number (“I’m Here,” perhaps the show’s most famous song, was composed and added during the Boston previews). Reading Mr. Chapin will teach unschooled enthusiasts what a raked stage is, the meaning of “sitzprobe,” as well as reveal how much technology has changed since 1971, when ozalid machines were still in use and Mr. Chapin spent much of his time typing carbon copies of changes to the script.

Even those already in the know will find much to enjoy, for though Mr. Chapin is not an elegant writer, he manages nonetheless to convey the company’s growing tense excitement as the night of the show’s opening approached. Occasionally, some of the detail seems unilluminating, even pointless, as if the grown-up Mr. Chapin was loath to jettison any of the notes penned so diligently by his youthful self. And he’s not altogether persuasive in arguing for the pioneering nature of Follies, since the show comes across in his account as both complicated and incredibly difficult to stage rather than intellectually subtle or demanding. Still, the occasional longueurs are more than compensated for by the countless interesting asides-everything from Mr. Chapin’s simple observation that after the dress rehearsal, the actors never get to see their own show, to the different ways the stage can be “miked,” to the fact that the most intelligent review of Follies came during its Boston previews from an unknown Harvard undergraduate named Frank Rich. Perhaps not everyone will appreciate such abundance, but for theater enthusiasts and Sondheim lovers in particular, it is just this kind of detail which will make them feel, while reading this book, that they’ve died and gone to Broadway.

Andrew Rosenheim’s novel, Stillriver, will be published in March by Hutchinson.