Just a little bagatelle, as a diversion…

A few weeks ago, I saw the Kennedy Center’s production of Follies, the great but difficult Stephen Sondheim show, a cult item among musicals if ever there was one. Not the world’s most successful effort, the Kennedy Center show (though it’s coming to Broadway). But it sent me back to the recording of the truly great live New York Philharmonic concert production of Follies, which happened in 1985. 

And which had as someone in the biz just observed on Facebook, had the most electric audience he’d ever seen. (The occasion was the birthday of the album’s producer, Thomas Z. Shepard.) 

I agree. Most electric audience I, too, may ever have been in. So here’s a taste of that. It comes in the middle of the show’s first song, “Beautiful Girls,” which to my mind is one of the most sweepingly evocative show songs of all time, walking a knife-edge line between glamour and decay.

Which of course all echoes what the show is about. Follies takes us to a reunion of Ziegfeld Follies showgirls, held in the remains of the theater they once sang and danced in. (Well, presumably Ziegfeld, though it’s called something else.) The cast of the show has come on stage before the song, guests, all of them, at the party. The Ziegfeld figure greets them all, and offers his long-ago MC, singing the song that used to introduce the girls back in their glory days. Of course the song is “Beautiful Girls,” and while he sings it in the show, ghosts of the showgirls come onstage, straight from the past, the old showgirls make a dramatic reentrance into the party, along with ghostly images of the young showgirls they used to be, wearing the show-stopping costumes they wore long ago. [Which shows the silly mistakes people — in this case me — can make. I’m even reading a book about the show. I knew perfectly well who enters during the song…]

At the Philharmonic, though, it worked (if I remember right) differently. The song starts. At first the only accompaniment is the piano. Very contemporary, very black and white. But then there’s a leap up a half step, and the full orchestra comes in. At this point (again, if my memory serves) the cast of the performance came on stage, to an ovation that — as you’ll hear if you listen — ends all ovations. The audience doesn’t just clap. It shouts and screams. For more than a minute. And only stops because what we’ve been hearing is an instrumental interlude, and now the singer comes in again. 

So do listen to this! It makes me shiver. 

And why the ovation? Well, start with this. Follies was a cult show, produced on Broadway in 1971, and never, then or since, very successful, despite a fabulous premise (glamour fades edgily into decaying reality) and a beyond fabulous score. New York, meanwhile, is full of people who love Broadway shows, and surely know all these songs by heart. 

And those people filled Avery Fisher Hall for the performance. Add the prestige of the Philharmonic, and, of course, the way-beyond-Broadway splendor of their sound. And then, finally, consider the cast, assembled by Tom Shepherd, full of great names you’d never dream you’d see on a single stage: Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin, Comden and Green, George Hearn, Elaine Stritch, Carol Burnett, Lee Remick (better known in the movies, but she started on Broadway), Liliane Montevecchi (who eats “Ah, Paree” alive, doing things with it you wouldn’t believe, if you knew the song only from Regine’s wan version at the Kennedy Center). 

Plus Licia Albanese, the long-retired Met diva, but a cult figure in the New York opera world, not least because, each year at the Met opening, she’d sit in a center box and belt out a high B flat in the next to last phrase of the national anthem.) 

So take an expectant audience, people who know and love the show (and maybe wondered if they’d ever see it live), add the New York Philharmonic, and then, all at once, with a change of key and a sunburst of full-orchestra sound, bring the cast I’ve listed on stage. People just lost it, and who could blame them?

Though it would never have happened, I think, without Sondheim’s music, which could spark ovations all by itself, and somehow carries, deep in its theatrical DNA (because Sondheim worked the show’s subject into the notes), the sound of ovations long past. It’s an incredible moment. An audience screaming. 

The singer on the recording is Arthur Rubin. Paul Gemignani conducts. 

And — a footnote to the above — it used to happen in classical music, back in the days when an adoring Vienna crowd lined the railroad tracks when Toscanini left town. And when (as I’ve blogged) Geraldine Farrar gave her farewell Met performance, and her fans strung banners from one side of the balcony to the other. 

Can we bring those days back? (We’ll need stars who get us excited enough.) 

Sondheim’s lyrics (to quote him, earlier in the song, “no rose can compare”):

Here’s the home of
Beautiful girls.
Where your
Reason is undone.
Can’t be hindered
From taking its toll.
You may lose control.
Faced with such Loreleis
What man can moralize?
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  1. Bob Y says

    I was fortunate enough to be there that night and just wanted to add that Barbara Cook’s “Losing My Mind” got the same ecstatic reception. To this day, she owns that incredible song.