News & Notes
Bernadette Peters stars in a revival of Gypsy on Broadway
Gold! becomes Bounce; Frogs may surface in N.Y.
For David Burtka, it’s a return to dance
Kate Reinders: from Milky-White to Dainty June
Jerry Mitchell pays homage to Robbins’ choreography
A Little Night Music
Juliet Stevenson stars as Desiree at NYCO
Danny Gurwin plays Henrik’s cello again
Marc Kudisch repeats his Ravinia role
Michele Pawk finds a very “smart” Charlotte
Faith Prince will take on a Sondheim role
And who were those legendary Mizner brothers?
The four “younger” selves talk about the original production
John McMartin remembers playing Ben
Director Michael Michetti adds Whistle to his list
A revised Whistle is produced in Los Angeles
Whistle changes are also seen in London
Sondheim reveals his process in a new book
Excerpts from Sondheim on Music
Schermerhorn leads a new WSS; Patinkin in concert
A Sweeney Journal
Behind the scenes of the Lyric Opera’s Sweeney Todd
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Recalling a Follies that’s in their bones
It wasn’t quite like a college reunion, but Kurt Peterson, Harvey Evans, Virginia Sandifur and Marti Rolph shared plenty of memories when they gathered in Ann Arbor, Mich., in January for a concert version of Follies. They had played the younger selves in the original production and remembered their older counterparts: John McMartin as Ben, Gene Nelson as Buddy, Alexis Smith as Phyllis and Dorothy Collins as Sally, along with Yvonne De Carlo as Carlotta. They were joined by Donna McKechnie, who was Carlotta in the concert. On the Sunday morning after the first of three concert performances, they gathered at the Michigan Theater to reminisce with The Sondheim Review.
TSR: You were all relatively young performers in 1971. How did you feel about working with those established stars?
Harvey Evans: I had patterned myself after Gene Nelson when I was still in Cincinnati. I loved Gene Kelly and I loved Fred Astaire, but Gene Nelson was the most athletic. I worshipped him as a movie dancer, so when I met him, it was a big deal. And to be the younger self was a privilege.
Virginia Sandifur: I had seen some of Alexis’s films, but she was more beautiful in person. Remember how she would come to rehearsals with no makeup on. And she was an amazing dancer, which I never knew.
I had been Donna’s understudy in Company, and they said I could take her part or I could take this in Follies, and I said I really want to be a part of this. But Hal said Alexis is so tall, and I said, “Well, there’s an operation you can have where you can add a section to your thigh.” I wanted this so bad.
Marti Rolph: I had known Dorothy from TV, The Hit Parade, and she was wonderful, the most warm and giving person. We struck up a really wonderful friendship over the years.
Kurt Peterson: I was familiar with John McMartin’s work, but to be perfectly honest, I think I was busier counting the lines I had in the script that first day than being awed by the presence of these people.
TSR: Did you develop relationships with them?
Peterson: Dorothy and I became very good friends. Dorothy was more outgoing and the warm one.
Evans: She had her door open constantly. She was Mom. With all her own problems, she would take on everyone else’s.
Peterson: We became very close. I would spend Thanksgiving with her family.
Rolph: I still keep in touch with her kids. I sang at her funeral.
Evans: That’s where we saw each other last, at Dorothy’s funeral.
Sandifur: Yvonne and I ended up staying at the same hotel in Boston, and she was wonderful, very open.
TSR: Can you talk about how the show was put together?
Evans: Remember how we had to be there every time the big people were there? And it got tiresome? It kept changing constantly, rotating, adding onto, and you never knew how important you were because it hadn’t been put together.
Rolph: And our parts were very fragmented. You would run in and say four lines and disappear. I didn’t have any sense of the whole show.
Evans: We didn’t see it come together until late in the process. I read the script, and I said, “Ohhhh, what is this?”
Rolph: You got to a certain point in the first script and it said, “To be written.” We didn’t even know if we were going to be singing anything.
Sandifur: How many drafts were there? Twenty-four?
Peterson: You just came in and had your little thing. Until I saw the show after I left it, I didn’t really know what was going on.
Rolph: I don’t think I realized the enormity of the show until I saw it done in Nyack or somewhere.
Sandifur: Remember how we went through this whole process of wondering when we were a ghost and when we were our present selves. Hal (Prince) was working on that film technique, and we couldn’t remember if we were supposed to come on with the white ghost makeup or when we had the regular makeup. We put one layer over the other. We must have had nine layers of makeup.
Evans: And no skin left.
TSR: A lot of people didn’t like the show.
Rolph: People were polarized. Some people loved it and came fifty times. Some hated it. There was no middle ground.
Evans: It was the year of No, No, Nanette, the year of nostalgia.
Rolph: The title was Follies, and I think people not involved in the theater were expecting a “Follies” kind of show.
Sandifur: The Rockettes.
Evans: Also, Hal did some staging that was pretty avant garde, very filmmatic. One couple would be in a room on one side of the stage and another couple would be in a room on the other side, and there was cross-cutting. We weren’t used to Pinter then.
Sandifur: Somebody said it’s supposed to be a musical Virginia Woolf. I guess people weren’t ready for it.
TSR: Follies won seven Tonys but not for best musical.
Rolph: That was ridiculous.
Peterson: But even more shocking were some of the reviews. They completely missed it.
Donna McKechnie: What do you think turned people away? It was such an emotional thing.
Peterson: Do you want to watch a show about people in their mid-fifties who are unsettled? Well, how many people in their mid-fifties have it together? It pushed buttons.
McKechnie: I had helped Michael (Bennett) a little with the tap dance, and I was there opening night. That first vision, that image of that showgirl–that was the most beautiful opening I had ever seen in a musical. It was gorgeous.
TSR: Speaking of Michael, can you talk about the “Who’s That Woman?” number?
Rolph: What happened was, the stage was raked. It was actually on three different angles, and it was very hard to dance with tap shoes and you could slip. There were a lot of injuries. And those mirror costumes were about twenty-five pounds apiece.
Sandifur: They had real mirrors, and they were cut so that every time the tutus went up, they would slice our arms, and we’d say, “We’re bleeeding!”
Rolph: It’s hard to dance when you’re bleeding.
Sandifur: They covered them with plastic, and then they gave us gloves.
Rolph: So in the middle of rehearsals, they decided they had to take the taps off some of the shoes because it was too dangerous, but they needed the tap sound so they had Steve Boockvor, Mary Jane Houdina, Roy Barry, all these dancers, in the basement with microphones. And there was also an additional tape of the singing because everyone was out of breath on stage. So they had singing and dancing coming from the basement.
McKechnie: I had no idea it would come together like that. It was so brilliant.
Rolph: I should tell a story about Michael. I was new to New York, I was new to everything, and I had a hard time learning the tap number. I was in a cast of wonderful dancers, and I was struggling to get there. And one dancer said, “No matter what, don’t get upset in front of Michael Bennett.” I forget why. So I was working on the tap for this number and totally lost it one day. I ran into the bathroom and I was in the stall going (cries), and in the stall next to me someone was going (cries). And we both came out, and it was Dorothy. So there we were in the bathroom, working on the tap between the stalls. And then Yvonne De Carlo came in. She was laughing at the two of us. I don’t think she ever did really learn the number. She said, “Ah, hell, I’ll get it later.”
Sandifur: Michael was wonderful. I had never tapped, so he set up a special class so we could learn this number.
Peterson: I think what you’re getting from us is how strongly we feel that so much of Follies was because of Michael Bennett. Because as the years go on, and because of the concert at Avery Fisher Hall, there’s sort of a revisionist thinking that that concert was the definitive Follies. Follies is not Follies without Michael Bennett’s creativity. So whenever they say it’s Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, I always say, yes, but it’s also Michael’s and Hal’s and James Goldman’s. That is Follies.
Sandifur: It was a real collaboration. Boris Aronson’s set was amazing.
Rolph: And Florence Klotz’s costumes were unbelievably beautiful.
Evans: Having done some regional productions of it, I think if one element is not right, it can sink it. The reason it electrified originally was that every creative department was up to every other creative department, and they were all at their best.
Sandifur: And Hal made sure that everyone was on the same page.
Peterson: Like telling Steve to go home and write!
Evans: And he also said, “That’s not a good enough ending. Let’s have a better ending.”
Sandifur: He would say the ending wasn’t correct, and you’d see James go off into a corner and take out his pen, and you could see by his body language who he was writing for. He would get into the character, and then he would start writing.
TSR: And Sondheim during all this?
Peterson: He was hands-on. He would come and put his arm around you and say, “Now on this word here, ‘If you LOVE tomorrow.'” And he spoke to us on a level that I wasn’t intimidated by him. I’d be more intimidated now than I was at 22.
McKechnie: Because he’s so wonderful, you want to get it right. I don’t feel that way about everyone.
Rolph: He chooses every word so carefully. You hear something as a throwaway line, and then when you really get into the script, you think, “Oh, my gosh. He chose “I should have worn green” instead of “I meant to wear green.”
Sandifur: Every “and” or “but,” every “to” or “in.”
TSR: How about when “I’m Still Here” replaced “Boy, Can That Boy Fox Trot” in Boston?
Evans: Yvonne kept putting it off. Hal would say, “Are you ready yet, Yvonne?” “No, not yet.” “Are you ready yet, Yvonne?” “No, not yet.” I think one day he sort of ordered her to sing it in front of us, and we all sat down in the seats of the Colonial, and she was on stage and sang it. And of course, it was a moment never to happen again.
TSR: And the legendary closing performance?
Evans: It must have been what Judy Garland felt like. Ovation after ovation. The prologue was set to music, and the applause was so sustained that we had no idea where the music was. We just guessed that we would make an entrance right. There was a constant roar.
Rolph: After every number.
Evans: Everyone was crying on stage.
TSR: Now, about this concert. How did you feel when this was proposed?
Rolph: When Kurt called, I said sure because I’m a schoolteacher now and I thought there’s no way this will work out at the right time.
Sandifur: My mother is 89 and is in a nursing home and had pneumonia, and I didn’t think things would work out.
Evans: I said yes right away. I wanted to do it immediately. It’s ballsy.
Rolph: It’s odd that no one thought of this before.
Peterson: Totally odd. There have been these major revivals but no effort was made to contact any of us. I would think that would be the first thing a casting agent would think of. In fact, they went in the opposite direction.
TSR: Your voices are so strong.
Peterson: We’ve all kept ourselves in shape.
Rolph: The funny thing is I probably didn’t sing for ten years. Last spring I lost a lot of weight because I was feeling like a slug, and I joined a chorus where I live in Fairfield, and then I started working with Diana Canova who lives near me.
Peterson: The last thing I did before I went into semiretirement for six or seven years was a tour of Side by Side, and Virginia was a major part of that. Harvey, of course, has been working nonstop. How many shows have you done?
Evans: Twenty-one, but you have to count the national companies.
TSR: Do you feel the ghosts of that original Follies here?
Sandifur: They’re in our bones. They’re in our being.
Evans: It’s not about the parts, though. It’s about the show. The other night, the first time with the orchestra, with the young people behind us, that feeling was remarkable. I think the show haunts you.
TSR: Was there a temptation to imitate the people whose roles you’re now filling?
Peterson: I remember some of John’s line readings, and there’s a part of me that throws in the dry and droll take the way he said it.
Rolph: You can’t help it. But I think we’ve found things. You have to find things in yourself.
McKechnie: I can be more objective. I think they were privy to the original direction and sensibility of each character. They saw the inner workings of it. So they brought that with them.
Peterson: Conscious or unconscious. There’s not a note that doesn’t resonate somewhere.
Evans: And this concert version is very different. Lines are rearranged, new lines added. We didn’t have many lines with the old people, er, grown-up people. Here there are many more confrontations.
Peterson: I’m thrilled that we’re doing the text, and I’m thrilled that we’re off book. I don’t think you can act and look at the book at the same time.
Rolph: When we came Monday, we were going to do this on book, but we couldn’t find a place to put them.
Evans: I wouldn’t have been able to see it.
Peterson: The type would have to be big.
Evans: Senior printing.
TSR: Harvey, you’ve played the older Buddy in four regional productions.
Evans: I should be better, having done it four times.
Evans: It’s hard. I don’t think there’s such a thing as conquering Sondheim. If you live forever, you’ll never find all the richness of it. He’s just brighter than everyone else. He should get a Pulitzer for his lyrics.
Peterson: In great drama, there’s always a tension in the scenes. In singing Sondheim, I don’t want to say anxiety, but there’s a dramatic tension in every number. You never completely relax, which is so important for a performer.
I wouldn’t trade being in the original Follies for anything. It was the most important show in my career, and then I had the association with Steve and the people I would never have met. It changed my life. It changed my life.