The film of Passion is shown on PBS’ American Playhouse
Two divergent views of the production
News & Notes
The new text for Company includes added material; Sondheim shows have been released as concerts; more on Wise Guys
There was a new cast member in Woods in Pittsburgh
Young McGill University students present the Montreal premiere of Assassins
Remembering Follies: A Special Report
We celebrate Follies on its twenty-fifth anniversary
Sondheim takes us behind the scenes of the original production
Gene Nelson recalls a “helluva show”
Yvonne De Carlo is still here, thank you very much
John McMartin remembers the changes before the opening
For the young principals, Follies was a milestone
Photos of the original production
An appreciation of the score grows through the years
Reviews of Follies CDs
Lisa Aronson describes her husband’s set
The Sondheim Scrapbook
Paul Gemignani talks about conducting Sondheim shows
The Stavisky score evokes splendor amid decadence
For Your Amusement
Sondheim’s Murder Mystery is solved, plus another quiz and contest
London’s Night Music on CD, the new Forum, tributes to Hal Prince and Leonard Bernstein
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
Gene Nelson: Looking back through Buddy’s eyes
By Terri Roberts
Gene Nelson’s eyes are a clear, unclouded gray. His gaze is direct, his opinion strong. He’ll tell you in a wink what’s wrong with theater today (the current high-tech, super-spectacle trend). He’ll also tell you what–and who–is right with it. And why.
Nelson and I met for lunch in Burbank, Calif., to look back on his association with the milestone musical, Follies, his role as Buddy and his thoughts about Stephen Sondheim. It was to be one of his last interviews; on Sept. 16, at the age of 76, he died of cancer in Sherman Oaks, Calif. But in July he was happy, he was in good spirits and his eyes sparkled as he spoke about the show he loved and the man who helped create it.
“Stephen Sondheim’s greatest contribution (to theater), besides his interesting and difficult melodies, is his way with words,” Nelson said at a lunch interview to look back on his association with the milestone musical Follies, his role as Buddy and Follies‘ composer/lyricist.
“Follies had a very complicated subplot. I was absolutely amazed during rehearsals that whenever I felt lost with my character, I could just go back and read the lyrics. He’s the only (song)writer I’ve ever known who defines a character so completely, more so than the writer or the director ever could. Whenever I got into trouble, I’d just read Buddy’s lyrics, and say, ‘Oh, there he is!’
“It’s amazing how Steve gets inside the guts of the characters and exposes their weaknesses and foibles . He’s incredible, one of the greatest lyricists ever. I think his lyrics are the strongest part of his talent and that there are other, better tune writers, but having said that, the thing is that he makes the tunes fit the lyrics. It’s not, ‘Oh, here’s a tune, I think I’ll put some lyrics to it.’ No, no. First he gets into the character, then he writes the words, then–and this is my opinion, but I’m sure this is how he works–he might have a melody in his mind at the same time, but basically, I think the melodies accommodate the lyrics. It’s really lovely stuff.”
Nelson emphasized those lyrics when he directed a production of Follies at Los Angeles’ Melrose Theatre in 1984. The stage and cast were smaller, but Nelson replicated the original choreography and direction.
Nelson admitted that he was a hard taskmaster. “I would not let them bend one word,” he declared. “I told them: This is the way we did it; this is the way you’re going to do it. Don’t talk to me about motivation or I’ll hit you right between the eyes. And don’t come to me with your problems about character. Read your lyrics!’ It worked for them, too.”
According to Nelson, Sondheim’s “get-to-the-guts” ability is what eventually made the critical difference in the character of Buddy. During rehearsals, the actor felt Buddy was underwritten and ill-defined. He complained to writer James Goldman, who conceded Nelson’s points. What kind of life does Buddy have away from his wife, Sally? Nelson demanded of Goldman. Though he loves her madly, he needs some relief from dealing with her. Does he have a girl in every port?
Goldman listened and went to work.
At the same time, director Hal Prince was staging a complicated scene that required the show’s other couple, Ben and Phyllis, to be on stage at the same time as Buddy and Sally, though ostensibly in different parts of the theater. Each couple was to be arguing among themselves with the action alternating–and the fights escalating–between couples. “Steve would come in almost every day and watch rehearsals, getting ideas,” Nelson remembered.
“And he kind of followed this scene along. Then one day they handed us new pages. James had rewritten the scene and introduced Margie (Buddy’s mistress). So now Buddy confesses to Sally, ‘Yes, I love her! Yes, she sews my buttons on!’ and so on. And he needed that moment. Ben had his moment, Phyllis had hers, Sally had lots of moments. But this was Buddy’s.
“Well, the thing came together, just like that, and Steve cried. The next day he came in with the ‘Hey, Margie’ part of ‘The Right Girl.’ And it made the whole difference in the character.”
Besides the fear, and eventual joy, of returning to Broadway after more than twenty years, Nelson saw moments of great excitement (a Tony nomination), disappointment (losing the Tony), pain and despair. During previews, he pulled a tendon during a performance, thus making “The Right Girl” a song-without-a -dance routine for several weeks until he healed.
And just as the show was entering previews, a car accident in Los Angeles left his nine-year-old son in a coma. Convinced by his wife that he could do nothing in L.A., and faced with the imminent opening of Follies, Nelson remained in New York. He kept in contact by phone, and as soon as his son’s condition allowed, had him flown to New York University Hospital where specialists began his rehabilitation. His son is now 34 and doing well.
Yet despite all Follies‘ trials and tribulations, it was also all the actor ever dreamed it would be. “Follies was a helluva great show,” Gene Nelson proclaimed.
And his gray eyes smiled.
Terri Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles.