Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical "Follies"

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9780375413285: Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical

In 1971, college student Ted Chapin was in the right place at the right time.
As a production assistant, or gofer, he found himself front row center at the creation of one of the greatest of all Broadway musicals: Follies. And since (as part of a college assignment) he kept a journal of everything he saw and heard, he was able to document–in unprecedented detail–how a musical is actually made.

Now, thirty years later, he has fashioned that eyewitness account into an extraordinary chronicle that sheds new light on a still-evolving art form while vividly capturing an era long gone.
“If there has ever been an account of the creation of a major Broadway production as complete, candid, and apocrypha-free as this one,” writes Frank Rich in the foreword, “I have not found it.”
Everything Was Possible takes the reader on the roller-coaster ride that is the musical-making process, from the uncertainties of casting to drama-filled rehearsals, from the care and feeding of one-time movie stars like Alexis Smith and Yvonne De Carlo to the tension of that first performance, from the pressures of an out-of-town tryout to the exhilaration of opening night on Broadway.
But this was not just any rehearsal process, nor a typical opening night. This was the almost mythical Follies, the work Rich calls “the most elusive of landmark musicals.” Its creators were Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Michael Bennett, and James Goldman–giants in the evolution of the Broadway musical, geniuses at the top of their game.

“Lord knows at least I was there,” goes a Sondheim lyric from Follies. In Everything Was Possible, we all are there–at the birth of a musical that shimmers to this day.

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About the Author:

Ted Chapin is President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization in New York. A production assistant on the original production of Follies, he has worked on several other Broadway shows as well. He has been Chair of the Advisory Committee for the Encores! series at City Center since its inception and sits on several arts boards, including the American Theatre Wing and the Tony Award Administration Committee.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

". . . Walking Off My Tired Feet"

The week before rehearsals begin, January 3-8

Over the New Year's weekend (1971) I got a phone call from production stage manager Fritz Holt. He asked whether I could show up at the studio at ten a.m. on Sunday, January 3rd. I didn't think rehearsals were to begin for another week, but since I was just hanging around at home, I agreed. The show was rehearsing at the American Theater Lab, which filled the entire second floor of a two-story building on West Nineteenth Street, just off Seventh Avenue, above a tire shop. It had been created for Jerome Robbins, one of America's most talented choreographers and directors, who wanted to experiment with a European-style workshop. The experiment didn't work, but it left a workable space in which Harold Prince liked to rehearse his shows. The quarters were spare, but more than adequate: one large rehearsal room big enough to represent an entire Broadway stage; a second room half its size, large enough for dance rehearsals; and a third one even smaller, for music. Support facilities included a couple of offices in the front, changing rooms in the back, and a commons room with some slightly ratty sofas and chairs.

Few people were around when I arrived. As I came up the stairs I heard a piano and a number of feet thumping a steady rhythm. I reported to the first open door I came to-the production stage manager's office, where Fritz Holt greeted me as "our production assistant." First day, first defeat-or so I thought. "Production assistant" is the theater euphemism for "gofer," and that's not what this experience was supposed to be. Sure, I had done it twice before, and enjoyed it both times. But this was to be different; even though I had agreed to be a general assistant to Ruth Mitchell, this time I simply wanted to observe the process. That's also how I had sold it to Connecticut College, which was giving me credit for observing a show being assembled. I hadn't proposed an independent study of fetching coffee and sandwiches. The journal I agreed to keep would show an observer's objective eye, not the musings of an errand boy, so when I heard myself referred to as the "production assistant," my heart sank. But in short order I realized I was wrong. While I still had plenty of time to observe, being the gofer gave me a real position, albeit a minor one, within the company. It also, frankly, gave me things to do, and as the weeks went on, I ended up with some pretty responsible tasks, including maintaining up-to-date scripts with all the constantly changing dialogue and lyrics. I was made to feel a part of the experience, and felt accepted by the company in a way I might not have been had I just been watching. And being the gofer gave me license to wander into rehearsals without people feeling as if a stranger were in their midst. It provided a great position from which to observe the goings-on.

Fritz introduced me to the two other stage managers: first assistant and dance captain George Martin, a lithe and tidy, well-groomed gray-haired dancer who seemed a model of efficiency and discretion; and second assistant John Grigas, an ex-dancer, somewhat older, stern faced, and with a caustic quip for every situation. Clearly not a man to cross. His first words to me were: "We want you to go out and get us some coffee." So I pulled out my pad, took the orders, and out I went. If a job is worth doing, I figured, it's worth doing well-and I had learned during my first gofer experience that in New York, "regular" coffee means coffee with milk and sugar, not "regular" as in plain. There is no such thing as plain-black means black, regular means regular, and those who prefer regular are sorely disappointed to open a cardboard cup and find black liquid inside. I'd made that mistake.

A musical as large as Follies needed its three stage managers. Fritz Holt, as production stage manager, was ultimately the boss of the stage and everything behind the curtain. It was his responsibility to schedule the overall rehearsal period and to coordinate all technical aspects of the production. He was also the liaison with the shops-costume, props, scenery-and with all the other support personnel who were contributing to the show. During the rehearsals, he would stay with Hal in the large room whenever possible, marking down the blocking and scene shifts in his master script. It would become the map by which the show would be run once in the theater, and since he would be responsible for all understudy and brush-up rehearsals, his script needed to be up to date and accurate. George Martin, as dance captain, would stay with Michael, and he would notate the dances, both as a reminder of what had happened in prior rehearsals as well as to create a choreographic map for the whole show. John Grigas was stationed in the office, and so became the conduit for company problems and concerns. He was also assigned the small acting role of a chauffeur. Once the show got assembled onstage, Fritz would call the show from the stage managers' desk on stage right, George would man his desk on stage left, and John would float backstage and assist any performer who needed guidance or a helping hand.

During rehearsals, the stage managers were clearly in charge of logistics. Schedules were their responsibility, not only of who would be using which room, but who would be needed for what rehearsal. As I was shown around, each room's use was described to me. Today the midsized rehearsal room was Michael Bennett's domain, as evidenced by the sounds of dance rehearsals already in progress. The music room was empty, with only a piano and a couple of chairs placed about. When we got to the large rehearsal room, John said, ". . . and this is where Mr. Prince will be working, so always check first with Fritz before coming in here." I was shown where I should park myself in the common hallway while waiting for tasks, always making myself available, never in anyone's way, but near the bulletin board and the pay phone. "Get yourself a clipboard and always be poised for action," he said. The whole place looked organized, and the stage managers' office was most organized of all-desk, typewriter, phone, cups of pens and pencils, stacks of current scripts, neat piles of music, etc. There was also a two-drawer filing cabinet. "This is where Mr. Prince keeps his stuff," John said, and then, pointing to the lower drawer, ". . . and this is where he keeps his Courvoisier." (It wasn't Courvoisier; it was Fernet-Branca, a digest if that had been recommended to Hal as a cure for his anxiety-prone gut, or what he referred to as "JBS-Jewish Boy Stomach." Once he found out it contained alcohol, he stopped having it around.)

Through the wall I heard a piano playing one particular section of one song over and over while several voices sang, repeatedly: "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the saddest gal in town?" The dancers were working with Michael Bennett and his long-time assistant Bob Avian. John Berkman, the dance-music arranger, was at the keyboard. Paul Gemignani, the show's percussionist, was at the trap set. "Who's That Woman?" was being created. More on that later.

Harold Prince arrived at noon. He greeted me warmly and said that the day before, he had turned to his ever-present associate Ruth Mitchell-called Ruthie by one and all-and said: "Where's Ted? Get him down here now, for God's sake. We can always keep him busy!" The place seemed far too empty for Hal; he was anxious to get rehearsals going. He wandered around, trying to find things to do. Walking into the empty large rehearsal room, the one I had been told would be his, he said, "I just want to start! Give me some actors, please!" Outlines of the intricately tiered set had been taped out on the floor; it passed his inspection. By week's end there would be movable platforms approximating the levels of the set, but for now the traditional masking tape would have to do. Back in the stage managers' office, he pulled out a transparency of the poster for the show and proudly taped it to the window, declaring it to be "the best poster I have ever had." Colorful and striking, it had been created by David Byrd, a longhaired young artist whose distinctive style was first noticed in his psychedelic poster for the Fillmore East-sometimes called nouveau art nouveau. He had walked into Hal's office one day and said, "I want to do posters for you." Hal said, "Sure," and luckily his initial take on Follies led to this artwork, which both Hal and the advertising agency felt was the best idea presented. It bore a superficial resemblance to his poster for Godspell, with one central face as the focal point. But the figure in Follies was bolder and more striking, an austere face with droopy and prominent eyelids-presumably a woman-looking up and out, wearing the rest of the poster, including the bold lettering proclaiming the title of the show, as if it were a headdress. (A stark black-and-white photograph of Marlene Dietrich was said to be an inspiration.) Running from her lower right cheek, across her stone face and continuing up her left cheek through the "E" of "FOLLIES," was a long, widening crack. Something was clearly amiss in the image of this American icon. The colors were very strong, with shades of orange in the space below where all the credits would ultimately go, and dark blues at the top with nighttime stars shining through. The long hair was drawn with pop-art detail, similar to the Godspell poster but in vivid colors, and around the outside was a border of orange and blue. It seemed appropriate, yet very strong.

With only one dance number actually in rehearsal, Hal didn't know what to do. He tried to get in touch with anyone he could find via phone. First was Florence Klotz, the costume designer. "Where is she? She could be designing a costume now and could bring a sketch down at the ...

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