by Ted Chapin
The story of the 1973 musical Follies includes massive production values, technological innovations of startling power, and a whopping celebrity cast and crew consisting of Yvonne De Carlo, Fifi D'Orsay, Stephen Sondheim, and more. Set at a reunion of aging performers on the eve of their old theater's destruction, the musical dared to have embittered senior citizens as its principal characters, telling their story with a time-twisting gimmickry that alienated some viewers and entranced others. Nowadays, such a premise might make it to the fringes of off-off-Broadway, but the 1973 Broadway production of Follies was perhaps the most lavish in the history of American theater. Rarely have independent artistic ideals been financed on such a massive scale.
It's lamentable that an actual writer couldn't have told this tale, but then an actual writer might not have been as big a musical nerd as Ted Chapin--the current president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization--was and is. As a young Harvard student, Chapin received his internship on the Follies set and dove into his work with starry-eyed devotion. He got coffee, lugged equipment, drove important people around, and managed (through sheer ass-kissing I suspect) to befriend much of the cast. His 30-years-later resulting memoir, Everything Was Possible, is a meticulous document of a pivotal theatrical moment, before computer technology changed everything. In one thrilling scene (for musical buffs), Chapin is handed the very first, handwritten copy of Sondheim's "I'm Here" for transcribing. "Little did I or any of us know then that it would become one of Sondheim's most performed songs," writes an awed middle-aged Chapin, "and one whose sentiments, first typed that day by a 20-year-old gofer, would continue to have resonance for years to come."
Chapin's relentless enthusiasm transcends his glaring lack of writing skill, recalling a time when theater was a vital art form, and not a runner-up to the latest HBO series on DVD. I've teased Chapin for being a musical nerd, but as I read his recreation of 1973, and the Follies crew neared their opening night, I found myself rooting passionately for their success; found myself immersed in a time when being a musical nerd was cool.