My last entry, detailing songs cut from The Christmas Bride, ran so long I doubt many got to the end of it. But those who did saw my point that the road to fashioning a great score involves cutting many songs along the way. There exists no better example of this than Sondheim’s Follies: As a set of songs, I enjoy the discards a bit more than what was kept in.
But another post on Follies? Among musical theatre mavens, Follies is the meat we enjoy picking over most. Some believe the show’s a masterpiece, as is. Others see it as a near-miss, loving it for its ambition and potential. I’m one who doesn’t love it all: middle-aged rich people downing alcohol as they regret life-choices from their fabulous pasts is not my idea of fun. But, the many numbers that Sondheim fashioned in the style of 1930’s numbers are among his best, as if the parameters of that form forced him to be more melodious, structurally simpler, and appropriately witty with wordplay and rhyme.
One of the challenges in writing for older characters (as I learned in composing Such Good Friends) is that they move about the stage with a certain energy, one which the music must match. Gypsy’s Mamma Rose is, of course, a dynamo, and Jule Styne’s tunes convey this power. But the quartet in Follies is in a wistful reflective mood most of the time. What they’re doing, the actions they take, is a far cry from Rose’s drive. Sondheim, during his most brilliant decade (the 1970s), had a taste for the frenetic. His accompaniment figures are often like machine-gun fire, a barrage of eighth notes: think Another Hundred People or Getting Married Today. I’ve always found this style ill-suited to Ben, Sally and Buddy. More settled than Company‘s sirens, what have they got to sound all angsty about?
The cut song, Pleasant Little Kingdom, for Sally and Ben to catch up with, is an example of this sort of perpetual motion. I get that the stakes are high for Sally; by this point Don’t Look At Me has already depicted her fluttering. If, at a reunion, someone yaps your ear off excitedly filling you in on insignificant details about their life, your first reaction is to flee. Ben and Sally don’t, somehow, and their sort-of love story progresses better without this duet.
It Wasn’t Meant to Happen, though, gets the tone of boozy half-regret exactly right. Its speed and harmonic structure seem the product of too many martinis. In Follies‘ development, at some point the decision was made to suspend the plot so a series of entertaining numbers could be presented, with no dialogue in-between. This might be one of the reasons a low-energy ballad landed on the scrap heap. (Confession: I stole the title motif, upped the tempo and altered it a bit for the first measure of my song, Who’s Your Little Girlfriend: hardly one of my best, either.)
Think stealing is criminal? Then don’t listen to Gershwin’s I Don’t Think I’ll Fall In Love Today and Sondheim’s Can That Boy Fox Trot back to back. The first phrase of the former’s chorus is the first phrase of the latter’s verse. While I’ve never seen this tour-de-force get the laughs it should, I find a lot to admire in Fox Trot, appropriately peppered, as it is, with Harburgian wordplay. “He may be full of hokum, but I’ve no complaint” makes me shiver with glee, as well as “Who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights are low?” – just the sort of cleverness you find in the period’s funniest songs.
Speaking of internal rhymes, did you know Sondheim threw one in on Bring On the Girls just to razz his old friend, the infinitely superior lyricist, Sheldon Harnick? Many years earlier, Harnick had rhymed “feminine” with “You’re a cup of tea with honey or lemon in.” Now what makes that great is the way it mimics they way people (well, New Yorkers) actually talk, especially when ordering a beverage. Sondheim had told Harnick it was slightly off, since the middle syllables – the “mon” of “lemon” and the “min” of “feminine” don’t quite match. What a wonky nitpick! So Sondheim wrote
Painters have tried, with all of their skill
To catch the grace
Of the feminine
Form and face.
Poets have tried, but try as they will
They waste their time
Painting them in in-
That’s not cleverness. That’s the awful din of a lyricist straining for cleverness, like the Larry Hart-on-a-bad-day turns-of-phrase Sondheim delights in deriding. And precisely the opposite of Harnick’s smile-producing colloquialism.
Perhaps The World’s Full of Girls was expunged for insufficient cleverness, but it’s a tune I find myself humming often. So simple and bright, you’d never guess it was Sondheim.
For his score for a French film, Stavisky, Sondheim reused three melodies cut from Follies: thse last two numbers and Who Could Be Blue. To my ears, Who Could Be Blue is the most beautiful melody Sondheim has ever come up with. It’s touching, soft, and its 1920s-esque simplicity seems positively eloquent. The lyric’s conclusion “the only thing blue is the sky” is cadged from a period number, but, furthering its appeal to me, it’s half a quodlibet with Little White House. As I suggested earlier, the second half of Follies could only contain a low quantity of quiet moments, and it was replaced with a wonderful high-energy quodlibet that, for my money, is the best song in the score that made it to Broadway.
Two other cut melodies are very familiar to Follies fans since, sans lyrics, they’re still part of the opening music. All Things Bright and Beautiful is a wistful romantic waltz, at times rapturous, and its arpeggios float upward like ignited amaretti wrappers. It’s the sort of emotional color the creators must have thought, at an earlier stage of development, the show would surely need.
Then, the admirably energetic That Old Piano Roll is better heard without words, since the lyrics have so little to say and spend so much time saying it. Its bridge sets long notes over a charmingly rhythmic and busy accompaniment, a technique I employed on Notes, a duet that recently brought down the house in a London concert.
Of the Follies numbers that were kept in Follies, I can’t abide The Story of Lucy and Jessie, the “very messy” patter that confuses audiences on first hearing. (Later, when people replay the recording countless times, it begins to make some sense and they like it.) For the London production, Sondheim penned a sexy replacement. But originally, in this spot, he had a near-perfect expression of the same dramatic idea, a tale of a woman not quite at home in either of two opposite worlds. It’s called Uptown Downtown, and its ideas unfurl slowly enough for a first-time listener to appreciate. I leave you with my all-time favorite Sondheim stanza, the song’s bridge…