Last spring, as I left a Chicago theater where a new musical had just previewed, I saw Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the score, walk jauntily down the street with John Weidman, who wrote the book. The musical was called Bounce, but it might as well have been called The New Sondheim Show. Harold Prince, the director, had just ducked into a car after huddling in a hallway with members of the production staff. Everyone looked revved up, ready to spend an hour—or all night—working on the problems the performance had brought out. In show business, this process is synonymous with hell. "If Hitler's alive," the playwright Larry Gelbart is often quoted as saying, "I hope he's out of town with a musical." But Sondheim and Prince, who are both in their seventies, looked positively rejuvenated.
This was, of course, akin to spotting Picasso and Braque on their way to a Montmartre studio to rethink Cubism—though given the relatively modest ambitions of the show, which the collaborators repeatedly said wants to do nothing more than entertain, it was doubtful that Sondheim and Weidman were off to alter the face of an art form. Still, as I watched them disappear into a nondescript hotel, I felt sure they would be making some sort of history.
Thirty years ago, before Sondheim and Prince were faces on Mount Rushmore (as a cast member of Bounce kept calling them in interviews), they were restless men just entering their forties who had achieved an extraordinary amount in less than two decades. They knew every square inch of musical comedy, and they wanted to change it. In Company and Follies, two collaborations that, amazingly, reached Broadway less than a year apart, Sondheim, Prince, and the late choreographer-director Michael Bennett treated subjects that musical theater had never dealt with before—fear of emotional commitment and the rough and tumble of marriage in Company, fear of aging and facing up to the mistakes of youth in Follies—in ways that brought new depth and resilience to a form widely thought to be in its death throes. In Everything Was Possible, Ted Chapin shows what it was like to be around them when they did it.
Sondheim and Prince, the pathbreakers who would bring about a revolution, turned out to be sui generis. However exciting their innovations, they would spark no new golden age of the kind that formed them, perhaps because they were innovating almost alone. Yet seeing Company and Follies did change many lives. Sondheim has received every cultural award this country bestows, and is the subject of several worshipful Web sites; his brilliance is by now a given. At the time it still had the force of a slap.
Sondheim's lyrics mixed jaded sophistication with global yearning, cocksure confidence with raw vulnerability and hope almost too painful to express. He spoke directly to adolescents, that is, and with an urgency and fiendish cleverness several steps ahead of all those who aspired to be a part of New York life. Sondheim had been an especially brilliant adolescent himself—one who had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who became both tutor and surrogate father to him. His lyrics for his first produced shows, West Side Story and Gypsy, made poetry of the anger and lonely longing of youth, and he was always unusually supportive of young people. In the late 1970s he conceived of the Young Playwrights Festival, and he helped advance the careers of many fledgling composers, including Jonathan Larson, who sent him the first draft of Rent. In the recent Camp, a movie about gifted, mostly misfit teenagers at a musical-theater camp, Sondheim is the reigning god, an icon whose handsome photograph appears on one camper's nightstand and who actually appears at a finale benefit performance. He does this sort of thing often in real life—though presumably not trailed by the screaming young people who in the film dog his every step and are subdued only by his disappearance through glass doors.
Sondheim is a famously responsive and acute correspondent. I was one of many beneficiaries of this generosity, when I was starting high school and the Broadway productions of Company and Follies imprinted themselves indelibly on my consciousness. Ted Chapin, whose parents were members of Sondheim's social circle, was also deeply imprinted by Company ("Suddenly there seemed to be an interesting future for the musical theater"), and he, too, received gently acerbic letters from Sondheim. But he actually experienced what the many young people who had already formed a pre-Web Sondheim cult could only dream of: becoming general factotum to Sondheim, Prince, and all the other creators of Follies during its rehearsals and through its opening. Chapin was then a Connecticut College junior uncertain about his future, though he knew he wanted somehow to be in the theater. He came up with the idea of turning rehearsal observations into a thesis, and largely because of his family connections he secured Prince's consent. Three decades later Chapin, who is now the director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, a bland-sounding group that is central to the production of musical theater all over the country, went back to his notes, re-interviewed Sondheim, and wrote his account.
In Everything Was Possible, Chapin manages to be at once the starry-eyed, insecure, yet remarkably precise observer he was then and the seasoned theater professional he is now. The book is a behind-the-scenes chronicle of a landmark artistic collaboration, and also an education in the business of Broadway. Reading it will be a pleasure for anyone interested in the theater, and thrilling to anyone who has ever heard himself in a Sondheim song—thrilling enough to make it impossible to resent the connections that got the author his catbird seat.
ollies was meant to be lethally seductive. The original plan, as conceived by Sondheim and James Goldman, the author of The Lion in Winter and other historical plays and films, was a mystery set at a theatrical reunion in which all the main characters have motives to kill another—not a whodunit but a who'll-do-it, Sondheim explained. An actual murder might have been pleasanter than what remained after five years and nearly a dozen drafts by Goldman: two middle-aged couples attending a last reunion of surviving cast members of between-the-wars follies, who hate their lives, their mates, and themselves. The trappings were splendid: ghostly show girls in beaded, jeweled, and plumed costumes; a vast, multilevel set representing a half-wrecked theater that in the final sequence—a dark-night-of-the-soul follies in which the four main characters confront their past and present selves in various stages of breakdown—becomes magnificently gaudy. But for all the splendor, and the fantastically accomplished pastiche songs Sondheim composed, the dominant themes were disillusion and decay, with barely a gesture toward redemption or rebirth. It's hard to imagine how anyone thought the show could make any money; it closed after running a bit over a year, at a loss of its entire investment.
Yet of all Sondheim's musicals, with their parade of legendary collaborators, Follies in its original staging is the one most fans would choose to see if offered time travel. It is often called the most overwhelming—even the greatest —production ever of a Broadway musical. This is because of the sheer talent of its creators, all at the height of their powers, and the huge orchestra and cast and the lavish costumes, all of which would be economically unfeasible today. But mostly it is because of Bennett's choreography, which surpassed his work on A Chorus Line, the musical he created four years later. (Bennett died at forty-four; Chapin reports his saying that he so feared aging—he was then twenty-eight—that he hoped he would die before he turned forty-five.) Although A Chorus Line is thought to be his masterpiece, his work in Follies was wedded to ideas that had shading and ambivalence, Sondheim's favorite emotion, rather than the straightforward, heart-on-leotard emotions of A Chorus Line.