When the groundbreaking Broadway musical, “Follies,” opened in 1971, I was in the early part of a New York City teaching career that was to last nearly three decades. Teacher salaries of the day did not afford me too many Broadway shows, but I managed to get a ticket for “Follies” at the Winter Garden. It was a dazzling production for this young theatergoer. I only wish I had the maturity at the time to more fully appreciate the many creative dimensions of the show that were recently touched on at length by Ted Chapin, during the delightful Shepherd’s Luncheon held June 20th in the Lambs Club ballroom.
Weather wise, it was the most perfect last day of spring imaginable. The wine flowed, and an abundant and sumptuous buffet put the crowd in an even better mood. Then our Shepherd, Bruce Brown, and event collie, Randy Phillips, introduced the accomplished Mr. Chapin, president and executive director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization in New York. The focus of Chapin’s talk was the background tale of the “Birth of the Musical Follies.” That, in fact, is the subtitle of his popular book on the subject, “Everything Was Possible.” And Chapin had a peculiar qualification for writing such a memoir: As a young college student he was given the unique opportunity to serve as production assistant during development of the show. More importantly, he kept detailed journals recording the project’s progress. It would be years later that his carefully preserved notes would come to the attention of editors and inspire the book that Stephen Sondheim has called, “…the best book about the musical theater I’ve ever read…”
In addition to sharing many interesting anecdotes regarding the show, Chapin presented a color slide show of rare cast photographs he was able to track down during his research. The dramatic and Tony Award-winning Florence Klotz costumes were a highlight of that presentation, and there were even rare backstage photos of a visiting Grace Kelly. There were great stories about theatre luminaries, Michael Bennett, Hal Prince, James Goldman, and Sondheim. And there were more tidbits about the stars, including Gene Nelson, Alexis Smith, Yvonne De Carlo, John McMartin, and Dorothy Collins.
Among the luncheon guests were a number of those connected with the original production of “Follies.” Sheila Smith originated the role of Meredith Lane and nicely supplemented Chapin’s remarks with many recollections of her own. Other original cast members present included Mary Jane Houdina (“Young Hattie” & Assistant to Michael Bennett) and Victor Griffin (“Vincent” of the Bolero Dance team known as “Vincent & Vanessa”).
Following Chapin’s talk, the author autographed copies of the book for those of us wanting to purchase the volume. When I asked him if the topic might not work nicely in a PBS special documentary, he hinted that such a project might be under consideration. With incorporation of the show’s lovely music, and whatever film clips and cast interviews could be assembled, it would be something to look forward to.