Their Show of Shows

Backstage with a troubled, now legendary Sondheim musical

By Corby Kummer

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.

The Bennett sequence that those who experienced it would do anything to see again is "Who's That Woman?," a rueful, 1940s Hollywood-style song in which a blowsy dame sings of not wanting to recognize the woman she sees in the mirror. As the former follies girls gamely go into their original tap dance, laughing off forgotten steps and enjoying themselves for the first time since the party began, their young selves enter mysteriously from far upstage and rat-tat the steps the older women cannot hope to perform—first dancing with and then relentlessly engulfing them. It is a tumultuous, terrifying, unforgettable number.

Everyone knew it would stop the show, and Bennett knew, Chapin reports, that teaching such difficult steps to the dancers, young and old, would require him to start rehearsing them on the very first day. But when it came to matters beyond the decrepitude of age confronted by the unstoppable, unreflective power of youth, Bennett—who was a generation younger than Sondheim, Goldman, and Prince—disagreed with his co-creators. This was a potentially fatal sign. Chief among those out-of-town problems Gelbart wished on Hitler is when collaborators aren't working on the same show—meaning their conceptions of it diverge.

Chapin saw the problem too. Even with three decades' worth of hindsight and Follies legend to draw on, he admirably doesn't second-guess his younger self. But he does quote at length from a summary of his feelings about the show that he wrote as the first preview drew near. He feared that the show would be attacked for coldness at its heart—and it was. The received opinion was that Goldman's book sank Follies, and every other part was brilliant. Since no other part would have existed without the book, which—unusually for a musical—was not based on source material, Sondheim and Prince always defended it. Its themes of rue and misplaced nostalgia, they said, were exactly what interested them. But those themes didn't interest Bennett, who feared that the inert contemporary story would lose audiences. Even if he was right, his solution—to call in Neil Simon, then the secret-weapon show doctor of choice, to throw in some jokes—was crude. Fifteen years later Goldman rewrote the book for a London revival that turned near-nihilism into defanged and not very funny drawing-room comedy. Sondheim barred the London version from ever being presented in America.

Follies was courageous for being disagreeable—a stance Sondheim never shied from, and one that continues to alienate many theatergoers from his work. In that diary entry Chapin laid out many of the problems to come.

I fear the show will be brilliant, funny, witty, full of adroit observant things, and yet cold. Will it appeal to those who adore Steve's work? Is that too small a group? Is the show, and the theater in general, a place for a small group of elitists to go to be amused or entertained? Can you try to teach things, even unpleasant things, to audiences who only want to be entertained?

The Sondheim cult would achieve critical mass. But three decades later the rest of the young diarist's questions are still unanswered.

Two years before Follies went into rehearsal, another observer left Broadway for dead. In The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, the playwright and novelist William Goldman wrote what still stands as the definitive explanation of how Broadway works and what goes wrong with most shows. As it happens, Goldman was the brother of James, and surely knew of the progress of what became Follies as he was writing, though he didn't mention it. I reread his book recently, and was amazed at how many phrases I remembered verbatim. Goldman is pitiless, leveling, to take just two examples, Clive Barnes ("who is nothing without the Times," for which he was then the chief drama critic) and Mike Nichols (virtuosic but hopelessly "trivial"). His New Journalism-influenced style is still the punchy, wised-up voice of Esquire and New York magazine. Like Chapin, he began with a lifelong love of theater and a desire to understand it. But when he finished his chronicle, he declared defeat: the audience and the talent had gone to movies, and that's where he was going too. Goldman became very successful and wrote a similarly invaluable dissection of the movie business, Adventures in the Screen Trade. Yet The Season is a better and far more passionate book.

Chapin's ambitions were more modest than Goldman's, but Everything Was Possible offers instruction that will endure just as long: how sets and orchestras are placed in theaters, how productions are packed up and transported, how rehearsals are paced, how the duties of different production-staff members break down. His largest contribution is in describing how creative collaborations come to both greatness and grief. Though he knew just how narrow the field of the Broadway musical had become, Chapin stayed with it. Today, as custodian of a trove of the most popular musicals from Broadway's golden age, he tries to encourage new talent to reinterpret shows and attract new theatergoers.

"Teaching, I have said innumerable times, is the noblest profession on earth," Sondheim told Mark Eden Horowitz, an interviewer from the Library of Congress, in 1997. The interview transcripts, assembled in Sondheim on Music, are the best primary source material on Sondheim, along with Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co., which was based on many interviews with Sondheim and his collaborators. (Zadan was another young man whose life was changed by Company and Follies; he went on to produce a series of fresh reconceptions of musicals such as Cinderella and Annie for television, and his role as a prime force behind the recent film Chicago has prompted hopeful predictions of the return of the movie musical.) Sondheim's deep pleasure in explaining the creative process informs all these books. He speaks with extreme, even astonishing, clarity. Rather than the impenetrable academic studies that are becoming a dreary specialty, we could use an omnibus collection of Sondheim's interviews—especially the ones with Frank Rich, whose undergraduate review of Follies was the Boston notice the creative team took most closely to heart, and who has remained a devoted and perceptive Sondheim observer.

Everything Was Possible is a fast-paced account from someone whose head was bursting with all the new things he had learned, and he makes us just as excited to be learning what he did. In the book's most breathless passage Chapin—who is otherwise affectionate but comparatively cool—recalls every minute of the few hours in which he held the only copy of the lyrics of "I'm Still Here," the anthem of a battered veteran of not just show biz but life. The song, a last-minute replacement, was written out of town for Yvonne De Carlo (who conducted a Mob-tinged flirtation with the author, who was less than half her age—but for that you'll have to buy the book). No one else besides Sondheim had ever seen the lyrics! Chapin types line after line, marveling at the cleverness, the emotion, the greatness. His wonder at being present at the creation is exactly the wonder of the boy in Pacific Overtures who, in "Someone in a Tree," a trio with his older self and a warrior who claims to have been there too, sings of watching the negotiations for the Japanese treaty with Commodore Perry. "I'm a fragment of the day," one of them sings. "If I weren't, who's to say / Things would happen here the way / That they're happening?" Of course Sondheim had a song for it.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/11/their-show-of-shows/302822/