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'Allegro': Revisiting An Experimental Score
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Rodgers and Hammerstein are the song writing team responsible for some of Broadway's most popular musicals - "Oklahoma," "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The Sound of Music," but not all their shows were blockbuster hits.
One of their least known shows, "Allegro," has been brought to life in a new double CD. It's the first complete recording of "Allegro's" songs and score.
In a few minutes, we'll meet the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin, who is one of the producers of the CD and is also the author of a book about the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's show, "Follies."
First, we have a review of the new recording of "Allegro" from our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz.
(Soundbite of song "You Are Never Away")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) You are never away from your home in my heart.
There is never a day when you don't play a part.
In a word that I say or a sight that I see.
You are never away and I'll never be free.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: That was a love song that deserves to be better known. It's from an almost forgotten Rodgers and Hammerstein musical called "Allegro," which opened on Broadway in 1947. It was the most ambitious experiment they'd ever attempt - a kind of musical everyman with a touch of "Our Town," a life history of a country doctor named Joe Taylor.
A few critics liked it a lot, and it had several songs that have become standards, especially the touching "A Fellow Needs a Girl," which is actually sung by Joe's parents. And "The Gentleman is a Dope," a song for Joe's nurse who is hopelessly in love with him.
"Allegro" ran only one season and didn't break even, but both composers believed in it and hoped it would get another chance. Musically, it was pretty daring for Broadway. Besides the individual songs, thematic fragments keep reappearing like Vagnerian light motifs. And the chorus, like a Greek chorus, both comments on the action and sings the characters inner thoughts.
The original cast album released in 1947 is still in print but has only half an hour of music. Now Sony has released a two-CD set that's nearly three times as long and includes just about all the music written for the show, most of it never recorded before, like this number depicting cocktail party chatter.
(Soundbite of song "Yatata, Yatata, Yatata")
Unidentified Group: (Singing)
Yatata, yatata, yatata, yatata
Yatata, yatata, yatata, yatata
Broccoli, Hogwash, Balderdash.
Phoney, Baloney, Tripe and Trash.
Yatata, yatata, yatata, yatata
Yatata, yatata, yatata, yatata,
I'm busy as a bee!
I start the day at half-past one.
When I am finished phoning
It's time to dress for tea.
Nothing we have to do gets done!
I keep thinking gentlemen and ladies
who keep a metropolis alive
drink cocktails and knock tails
every afternoon at five...
SCHWARTZ: Hearing the whole score to "Allegro," I also get a clearer picture of why it wasn't a major hit. Audiences usually want gripping stories with strong individualized characters rather than allegorical stereotypes. And both its sentimental Americana and anti-urban satire ring a little false.
Rodgers wrote great satirical songs with his previous partner, Lorenz Hart, but Hammerstein's poetic earnestness lacked Hart's razor-sharp wit. "The Gentleman is a Dope," for example, is Rodgers and Hammerstein's post-war counterpart to Rodgers and Harts' "The Lady is a Tramp." There's no lyric in all of "Allegro" as memorable as Harts, "she goes to opera and stays wide awake, that's why the Lady is a tramp."
Still, it's a good torch song. It was introduced by the great Lisa Kirk. It's sung here by the more generic Liz Callaway.
(Soundbite of song "The Gentleman is a Dope")
Ms. LIZ CALLAWAY: (Singing) The gentleman is a dope a man of many faults.
A clumsy Joe who wouldn't know
a rhumba from a waltz.
The gentleman is a dope and
not my cup of tea
Why do I get in a dither?
He doesn't belong to me!
The gentleman isn't bright...
SCHWARTZ: The more times I hear the score, the more of it I like. Stephen Sondheim, who was a 17-year-old, $25-a-week gopher for the original 1947 production and who actually has a short speaking part on the new recording, considers "Allegro" the first really good experimental musical. It clearly influenced his own compositional technique.
The excellent cast on the recording includes Audra McDonald and metropolitan opera baritone Nathan Gunn as Joe's parents, and Hollywood dubbing queen Marni Nixon as Joe's grandma. Patrick Wilson makes a good Joe. But what I liked best about the album is that conductor Larry Blank uses the original orchestrations and gets both the singers and the orchestra to recreate the airy style and brash pace of a 1940s Broadway show. This may not be a historic recording, but it has the feel of one.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He reviewed the new complete recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Allegro."
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Ted Chapin: Reviving R&H's Ambitious 'Allegro'
TERRY GROSS, host:
One of the people who made the recording possible is my guest Ted Chapin. He's a producer of the CD and the president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. He wrote the introduction to a recent collection of Oscar Hammerstein's complete lyrics.
Chapin got his start in theater as a production assistant on the original 1971 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's musical, "Follies." In 2003, Chapin wrote a book about the birth of the show called "Everything Was Possible."
Ted Chapin, welcome to Fresh Air. Why did you decide to do this recording production of "Allegro?"
Mr. TED CHAPIN (President, Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization): Well, "Allegro" really is the missing piece of the puzzle of the American musical theater. And that's not necessarily my own opinion, it's an opinion a lot of people have had because Rodgers & Hammerstein had written "Oklahoma," which, of course, had hit very big when it opened. Followed it with "Carousel," which is arguably their most operatic show. And then they wrote this experimental show, "Allegro," and it wasn't a success. And then shortly afterward they wrote "South Pacific" and "The King and I."
So part of the curiosity about it is what show could these guys, with these pairs of hit musicals on either side, what would they have written? What was this thing, and how curious and fascinating and/or successful was it?
So, it's sort of armed with that. I've always been fascinated to document it in some form, and the idea of a complete recording seemed to be the appropriate thing to do, especially if we could do it in a relaxed fashion where no one was pushing us to do it quickly and therefore we would make too many mistakes.
GROSS: Now, one of the first things that you did along the way to get "Allegro" recorded in its complete form - because the cast recording was just like 30 minutes and this is about 90.
Mr. CHAPIN: Right.
GROSS: You had an orchestra in Eastern Europe record the score, and I find that so amusing in a way because, after all, this is like a missing piece of Americana, and to get it recorded...
Mr. CHAPIN: Why did you go to Bratislava?
GROSS: Yeah. Why did you go to Bratislava, Slovakia to record it?
Mr. CHAPIN: Well, the gentle answer is that since nobody was telling us we had to do this recording and since as the head of the Rodgers and Hammerstein office, I'm responsible for the finances of the place, Larry Blank, who conducted the album, said, you know, there are these wonderful orchestras in Eastern Europe, and they have a lot of time on their hands, and the costs are very reasonable.
And I also felt that since we were getting a lot of time for a reasonable amount of money, if we had failed miserably, it wouldn't be that big a deal. But we didn't fail. We came back with some very good orchestral tracts, and then we connected with David Lye from Sony here and said, now we have to people it. Now we need to put characters on here and chorus and children's chorus and stuff like that. So it was a puzzle. Again, it was a great fun puzzle to do.
GROSS: So the singers recorded over the tracks that the orchestra in Slovakia laid down.
Mr. CHAPIN: Yes. And part of the challenge there is if you want an album to sound like a show, obviously, you want rubato, you want some dynamics, you want it a little quieter or you know, a little shmaltzierhere and there. And doing it backwards this way, we had to kind of make that up in the studio in Bratislava, like, now, let's pause a little bit here.
So when we cast our singers, their challenge was to meld vocal performances to choices that had already been made by the orchestra. And I mean, one of my favorite moments - Bruce Pomehac was the other co-producer of the album, had Audra McDonald doing this - the song, "Come Home," which is the penultimate, "You'll Never Walk Alone" song from this show. And she had listened to the recording of the orchestra. She did a beautiful take. But then she said, you know, I just feel like I'm being a good girl. Can't I just loosen up? And we said, sure. Bruce said, absolutely. And then she did a take that's on this recording where she just owned it.
GROSS: I'm so glad you mentioned that track because that's the track I most wanted to play.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Because Audra McDonald sounds so great on this, and it's a beautiful song. And I'll be honest with you, I find the lyric a little corny - like the lyric doesn't really speak to me, but the song itself does.
Mr. CHAPIN: Well, you bring up a very interesting point because writing an everyman's story, one of the concerns that I think we now looking back at this piece can see is how do you construct everyman characters and not make them generic? So in "Allegro," the lyric in "come home, come home where the brown birds fly," I, like you, when I first heard that, I thought, brown birds? Couldn't he have found - done better than that? I mean, he even got to larks in "The Sound of Music." He could have said something.
But somehow, the way Audra sings it with such unbelievable conviction, I suddenly thought, he meant brown birds. You know, he meant to do it in a way that is - that speaks to the universal, not by being very, very specific, but by being kind of general. And that may be part of what makes "Allegro" not the greatest musical ever.
GROSS: Well, you know, the other thing is, too, this is a song that's about, you know, come home back to the small town where you were born. You know, it's about leaving the big city, coming back to that small town. And for people like myself who aren't from a small town and who have - you know, so many of us have like, left home, and like, we needed to leave home, we needed to leave the place where we grew up, and so it's hard to necessarily relate to that theme, but it's such a beautiful song so we have to hear it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: This is Audra McDonald from the new recording of the 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Allegro."
(Soundbite of song "Come Home")
Ms. AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) Come home, come home
Where the brown birds fly
Through a pale blue sky, to a tall green tree
There is no finer sight for a man to see.
Come home, Joe, come home.
Come home and lie by a laughing spring
Where the breezes sing, and caress your ear.
There is no sweeter sound for a man to hear.
Come home, Joe, come home.
You will find a world of honest friends who miss you,
You will shake the hands of men whose hands are strong.
And when all their wives and kids run up and kiss you,
You will know that you are back where you belong
You'll know you're back where there's work to do,
Where there's love for you...
GROSS: That's Audra McDonald singing "Come Home" from the new recorded version of the 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Allegro." And my guest, Ted Chapin, co-produced the record. He's the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.
Mr. CHAPIN: I wanted to pick up on what you had said, Terry, before playing that because artists don't always succeed. But of all the projects and shows that Rodgers and Hammerstein did that didn't work as well as they had wanted - and there are a couple, there are a handful - this "Allegro" was the one that both Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to fix.
And I think Hammerstein didn't want the show to be taken as the city is not good, the country is good because, you know, the way they chose to plot the show, their lead character, who is a doctor and becomes a very successful doctor in the city, at his crisis moment of being asked to become the head of the big hospital in the city, makes the decision to go back to where he came from, to the country, and be a small country doctor.
Hammerstein said, and he's quite passionate about it, I didn't mean the city is no good, the country is good. I mean, a character has come to a point in his life where he steps up to the responsibility for himself rather than the responsibility that he has taken on to his community. So his responsibility to himself is to do something that he feels is purer to him. Now, he acknowledged that's what he was trying for, and everybody acknowledged that they didn't quite get there.
GROSS: My guest is Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. He's one of the producers of the new CD, "Allegro." It's the first complete recording of the songs and score from the 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
So it's kind of fascinating. "Allegro" had the largest advanced ticket sales in history up until its point in 1947 - $750,000 in advance ticket sales, and $4.50 was the top ticket price at that time. Oh, my God.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHAPIN: Right. I can't remember...
GROSS: But it closed in 10 months. So it was like this huge pre-success, but a flop after it opened. Why don't you think it caught on?
Mr. CHAPIN: Well, if you look at the critical response to it, it was pretty much divided down the middle. And those who liked it called it a great work of art, and those who didn't like it called it sort of artificial and phony. And I think that's where it started, and I think ultimately, as with really every show in the theater, word of mouth will either make you a huge success or will get to you. And the word of mouth on "Allegro" wasn't good. People really didn't like seeing it - not enough people, anyway. So it didn't run very long and went out on a tour, and at the end of that tour, it was pretty much over.
GROSS: So you are the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, and you wrote the introduction to a recent book of the complete lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein. And you write: As I read through these lyrics, something became clear to me. The teaming up of Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers was not inevitable. The two men worked in different styles. Joining forces involved its own risks. What if together they ended up being artistic oil and water?
What were some of their artistic differences that you, in retrospect, think might have been difficult to overcome?
Mr. CHAPIN: I think when I wrote that, it was when I was looking through all the Oscar Hammerstein lyrics prior to the time that he started to work with Richard Rodgers. And even though in the '20s, he and his mentor, Otto Harbach, always took co-credit for every lyric they wrote, so we had no idea which of those lyrics Hammerstein contributed to in any way.
The lyrics are spotty. Some of them are brilliant. I mean, "Showboat," you know, is absolutely, you know, up there among the best lyrics ever with some operetta stuff thrown in there as well. But then, when you go through the '30s and you see glimpses of brilliance, but then other stuff that doesn't quite work, as I was reading through these, I realized this was the time that Rodgers and Hart were just sparkling on Broadway. I mean, they were just tossing them off - "Babes In Arms" and "On Your Toes" and "The Boys From Syracuse," and here was Hammerstein kind of clunking along with these operettas.
And as I was looking at these, I thought, wow, for Richard Rodgers to have gone to the man who wrote some brilliant stuff here but some stuff that's not so great, when he was sort of at the top of his game, what a wonderful risk. And it would have been possible for, you know, the composer of Rodgers and Hart, and you know, the lyricist of, you know, "The Song is You" to have come up with something that just didn't work.
GROSS: You know, Richard Rodgers used to write the music first, and then Larry Hart would write the lyric second. But when Rodgers worked with Hammerstein, Hammerstein would write the lyric first, and Rodgers will write the music to accompany the lyric. It must have been so difficult for him to change the way he worked, although I think maybe I heard that the reason why he wrote the music first was that Larry Hart was always late.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHAPIN: Yes. He had to grab Larry Hart, and you know, and sit him down. He did - he was always out, wanting to go out and party and stuff. One can only imagine that in the Rodgers and Hart days, so many of the melodies and the lyrics seem so connected that at least some talking about it ahead of time must have taken place, you know, so that "You Took Advantage Of Me" would at least be an idea before Rodgers would have written the melody that goes with that.
But I think, you know, Rob Russell Bennett, the great orchestrator who did "Allegro" and other shows, made a wonderful comment about Rodgers at one point, which is, you know, deep down inside there is something that comes up with these melodies and just keeps coming up with them. And I think the man was so fertile, and his, you know, his composition just kept pouring out of him that he could adjust. He could say, OK, now I get the lyrics first, now I get the - you know, now I have to come up with this.
Although, ironically, the last song Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote together, "Edelweiss" from "The Sound of Music," Rodgers wrote the music first because Hammerstein was not well. They were out of town with "The Sound of Music." They knew they needed a song, and Rodgers wrote this melody, and then Hammerstein came to Boston and wrote what was his last lyric.
GROSS: Ted Chapin is one of the producers of the new CD, "Allegro," and the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. He also wrote a book about the birth of the 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical, "Follies," and wrote the introduction to a recent collection of Oscar Hammerstein's complete lyrics.
There's always a lot of action in the Rodgers and Hammerstein world. Right now, among other things, there is the new recording of the 1947 musical, "Allegro," the roundabout theater production of "Pal Joey" and the Broadway revival of "South Pacific."
One of the pretty famous songs from "South Pacific" is "A Wonderful Guy," which starts its refrain with one of Hammerstein's most famous lyrics, "I'm as corny as Kansas in August." And in the new book of Hammerstein's complete lyrics, it includes things that he said about various songs, and in the passage before the lyric is quoted, there's a quote from Oscar Hammerstein in which he is talking about his emphasis on interior rhymes and lighthearted similies in this song.
And he says: The emotion expressed in the song is so simple that it can afford to wear the decorations and embroidery of more ingenious rhyming. There's no subtle philosophy involved. A girl is in love and her heart is sailing. She's sentimental and exuberant and triumphant in the discovery. The job of the lyric is to capture her spirit. I think it does.
And so, it's almost like he's making excuses for all of the clever interior rhymes in here and saying that the emotion expressed in the song is so simple that you can afford to get away with all of that cleverness.
Mr. CHAPIN: You know, he was a dramatist. He was a wonderful dramatist, and I think even though he's not thought of as a clever rhymester(ph) and is almost as famous as - for songs like, "Old Man River" where there are hardly any rhymes at all, but the language that he chooses is what's so brilliant. I mean, he chooses language for the right characters.
And of course, "Dramatically Wonderful Guy," what's fascinating about it is that she has - prior to that song in the show she sings, "I'm going to wash that man right out of my hair." So she is done with him. Then he comes on stage in all his elegance and explains that he really, really loves her and wants her to come to a party, and she just, after resisting, is totally gone. And then one of her - after he walks off stage, one of her friends says, yeah, I'll bet you washed him out of your hair. And then she has to sing this song.
And what is - I'm now in my role as president of the Rogers and Hammerstein Organization, I've seen enough productions of "South Pacific" to realize the only way that this song works is if the actress realizes she has to take a step backwards. Because if you play the end of the song, she's totally gone for him, but if she - the girlfriend is saying, I bet you washed him out of your hair. She's got to bring her up - herself up straight and basically it starts singing to them. And by the end of the song, she kind of re-convinces herself that she's just in love with him.
And it's a - Josh Logan did a wonderful staging trick. If he leaves his hat on stage and halfway through the song she sees it and she picks it up and dances with it. Again, little theatrical tricks that explain why the emotion of the song - as Hammerstein says, at the beginning of the song, she's in love with him; at the end of the song, she's in love with him. Let's make the journey fun, and he knows how to do that.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear Kelli O'Hara singing it from the recent cast recording from the Broadway revival of "South Pacific"?
(Soundbite of song "A Wonderful Guy")
Ms. KELLI O'HARA: (Singing) I'm as corny as Kansas in August.
I'm as normal as blueberry pie.
No more a smart little girl with no heart,
I have found me a wonderful guy.
I am in a conventional dither
With a conventional star in my eye,
And you will note there's a lump in my throat
When I speak of that wonderful guy.
I'm as trite and as gay as a daisy in May a cliche coming true.
I'm bromidic and bright as a moon happy night pouring light on a dew.
I'm as corny as Kansas in August
High as a flag on the Fourth of July
If you'll excuse an expression I use
I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love,
I'm in love with a wonderful guy...
GROSS: That's Kelli O'Hara from the current revival of "South Pacific." And my guest, Ted Chapin, is the head of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, and he is also the co-producer of the new recording of the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1947 musical "Allegro," and there is also a book of the complete lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein.
So, what does the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization do, or I should pull back and ask more broadly, what are some of the more important responsibilities of the organization?
Mr. CHAPIN: Well, it starts from the fact that when Rodgers and Hammerstein started to write the show that became "Oklahoma," they and/or their advisers said, let's keep everything centrally controlled. So as they became their own producers and wrote what basically amounts to a new musical every other year for 16 or 17 years, which is pretty astonishing, all the rights to those shows are all centralized in one location, and that's the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.
So our responsibilities range from licensing performances for any of those shows to the use of the music in commercials - because we also have a music publishing division - pops concerts, television productions, you know, everything that has to do with those copyrights by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
GROSS: So, if a summer camp wants to do "South Pacific," do they need your permission or is it only if like Broadway wants to do "South Pacific?"
Mr. CHAPIN: No, everybody needs our permission. But we'll make a nice deal for the summer camp.
GROSS: Like what?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHAPIN: Because everybody always says, you know, oh, my God, how much are you going to charge? And there's no mystery to it. It's all based on how much you're going to take in at the box office. If it's a Broadway production where you're going to take in $900,000 at the box office for a week for eight performances, they're going to pay a lot more than a summer camp that's going to charge 50 cents or nothing, for that matter. So it all - it ranges depending on the appropriateness of the situation.
GROSS: So if the summer camp neglects to ask for the organization's permission, will you go after them?
Mr. CHAPIN: Ah, the copyright police. Yes and no is the answer. I mean, we like to know - well, let me phrase this properly. Often there is somebody who hasn't been cast in a production that hasn't been licensed properly to send something in a plain envelope that says, you should check out this summer camp or you should check out this theater. What we then do will depend entirely on what we discover because there are people who are renegades, and they've been doing for years and do it for a lot of other shows, in which case we go after them.
Sometimes people are simply ignorant of it. I mean, we have a wonderful situation right now where somebody in Bhutan has performed a number of songs from "The Sound of Music." We're thrilled, but we kind of want to know what they did and who did it, not because we want to go after them, but we want to know what's up in Bhutan. Is there some school in Bhutan that did "Guys And Dolls" last month and next month is going to do, you know, "Grease"? I want to know that.
So in a funny way, having one foot in the protective world and one foot in the encouraging world, it makes our position somewhat gentle, but I think that's where the magic of running this organization, you know, comes, and not being the policeman everyday and not being the encourager everyday.
GROSS: And if somebody comes to the organization and requests use of a song for a commercial, will you give it?
Mr. CHAPLIN: If it's a proper use, we do. We have tended to do it. Richard Rodgers late in his life OK'd a Clairol commercial where the lyric in "I'm going to wash that gray right out of my hair."
Mr. CHAPLIN: He gave permission for that. So part of my role, I feel, is to do what is in keeping with what has happened in the past. I mean, I've always said to the families that I represent, I don't think it's good to say, dad wouldn't have liked this because dad is not here. What do you feel? Are you comfortable with this? And I will say, I am for these reasons or I'm not for these reasons.
So you know, the idea of using "So Long, Farewell" for an automobile at the end the year where they want to get rid of the inventory of automobiles, that seemed OK, and we licensed it last year.
GROSS: So what's the biggest - I'm going to put you on the spot here - what's the biggest mistake you've made in terms of granting or denying permission?
Mr. CHAPLIN: I'd love to hem and haw here and say, I don't know, and I will tell you that it was an animated version of "The King And I."
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: When was that?
Mr. CHAPLIN: Oh, a while back, several years ago. It was when Hollywood decided that American - the classic American musicals should be the subject of animated movies. It was, you know, sort of that when Disney and Alan Menken, Howard Ashman made some wonderful animated movies, were really using a musical theater mentality to make wonderful animated films.
GROSS: Was this approximately the same time as the musical version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame?"
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHAPLIN: Yeah, you got it. You got it. You got it, and it was just - it just, I mean, it wasn't at one of the premiere animation houses, although the guy who took the rights from us was a very interesting animator who we didn't realize was going to turn around and sell it to somebody else. So, that's, I think, without any hesitation, I - as soon as we signed the deal, I got a case of Don Perignon sent to me, and I looked it and I thought, I've made a mistake.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: My guest is Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and the producer of the new CD of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1947 musical "Allegro." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ted Chapin. He is the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. He is the co-producer of the new production - the new recorded production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Allegro," and he was also the production assistant on the original production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Follies." And a few years ago, he wrote a book about "Follies" which was called "Everything Was Possible." What year was "Follies" originally?
Mr. CHAPIN: 1971.
GROSS: OK. So, when you were working with Sondheim then, and what you were doing was like fetching coffee and typing scripts, Sondheim wasn't a legend yet. He wasn't recognized as the genius that we now recognize him as being. He wasn't yet counted as definitely among the top American songwriters ever. So what was it like to know him then and to work with him then?
Mr. CHAPLIN: Well, among other extraordinary things about "Follies," and there are many, Sondheim had done "Company" the year before, and a lot of us who were interested in the musical theater were just kind of blown away by "Company" because it was something so fresh and modern and new about it that, you know, we became instant mavens.
So we were a smaller group then. We knew who Stephen Sondheim was, and we were very, very interested in what he was going to come up with next. So that - some of us felt we were slightly in the know, so there was that factor. Also, Michael Bennett, who had not yet done "A Chorus Line" was also not quite who he was going to become a few years later. Harold Prince was on the trajectory to who he was going to become.
And what I remember sensing in "Follies" was everybody was therefore hungry. They really, really wanted the show to work, and they really, really wanted it to be a hit. And they wanted to prove they have things they wanted - they have prove to people.
Sondheim had loved the show. It had been around for a few years. He and James Goldman wrote it before he wrote "Company," and it had been through various incarnations, so he was especially needy about getting it on, although when Hal Prince came in, Hal Prince changed a lot of the show so that there actually seven or eight songs in the final score of "Follies" that were written between the day we went into rehearsal and the day we closed in Boston, which of course, anybody who works in the musical theater knows you never do that. You never leave seven songs to be written once you're in rehearsal.
GROSS: Everybody was hoping for "Follies" to be a big hit. It wasn't. It lost like, what, all of its money, all of the investment money?
Mr. CHAPIN: Yeah, but an original investor said that finally, after many years, they did get their money back. Yeah, no, it was not a success, not unlike "Allegro" if I may...
Mr. CHAPIN: It divided people. And those who loved it, loved, loved, loved it. And those who didn't dismissed it as being rather pretentious. I think in the whole concept of a show that takes place, in essence, on the Ziegfeld Theater stage the night before it's being torn down, and then uses the psychological notion of what a reunion would actually bring out in people who haven't seen each other for many years - who made the wrong choices in their lives, loved the wrong people - and you know, and then exploded into the psychological follies, I mean, that's very sophisticated stuff for musical theater.
And I remember when the show was out of town, people waiting all night for these characters to complain to each other and sing these songs and then finally, there was this follies sequence, and they thought, well, I've been waiting all night long for the Ziegfeld Follies, you know, and I get this and the show is over - completely missing the point that the follies sequence at the end of the show is a psychological breakdown and what all these characters are singing about is what they're going through psychologically.
So that - some people just didn't get it. Simply didn't get it. And others - the ones who did had their jaws, you know, drop, just realizing the brilliance of it all.
GROSS: I think that my favorite song from "Follies" is "Losing My Mind," which is a torch song sung by Dorothy Collins. And I just love the lyric from this. It's so simple, I mean, she's pining for somebody. And the lyric is so direct and so perfect. I mean, she sings: The sun comes up, I think about you. The coffee cup, I think about you. I want you so, it's like I'm losing my mind.
And I love the way she sings this on the original cast recording. Tell us a story about the song or about the recording of the song. Tell us something about this that we wouldn't know if we weren't there.
Mr. CHAPIN: OK. When "Follies" went into rehearsal, "Losing My Mind" was a song for the Alexa Smith character. And they - the creators, Jim Goldman and Sondheim, Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, were still talking about the form that the follies sequence would take and whether there would be a kind of Will Rogers monologue in addition to songs.
So as they were going along talking about it, this song for the Phyllis character, "Losing My Mind," was sort of there, and you know, nobody knew what was going on. It turns out that Alexa Smith had gone to see Sondheim, had asked for an appointment, had gone to his home, and said, you know, Steve, I'm not as good a singer as Dorothy. And - but I got great legs. So maybe you should give "Losing My Mind" to Dorothy and write me a song that I can show my legs and dance around. And Sondheim just told that story. I wasn't there, but he told that story.
So the song was given to Dorothy Collins, and the moment that I will never forget was in rehearsal of "Follies," and we were rehearsing on the set in the Scenic Studio in the Bronx because it was so complicated, and there was - they would be doing - we would be doing run throughs of as much of the show that had been staged.
And there was one day where we got to the point when the follies sequence came in, and suddenly, out on stage came Dorothy Collins. And she stood there, and with just a piano, she sang "Losing My Mind" from beginning to end. You could hear a pin drop in that studio because nobody in the company had heard the song and obviously had not heard Dorothy sing it. And it was one of those moments where the entire company burst out applause, and Dorothy, who's one of the sweetest people on the face of the earth, suddenly became totally red-faced and embarrassed, but thrilled.
And it was her song from that moment on, and she just - she did it with such simplicity and such beauty that it was just a highlight, and it was staged very, very, very simply by Bob Avian, who was Michael Bennett's assistant. And I have to say, Michael, always deferred that stage and said, that was not mine, that was Bob Avian. And again, it's a fine collaborator who gives his collaborators the proper credit when credit is due.
GROSS: Well, before we hear Dorothy Collins singing "Losing My Mind," let me thank you. Thank you, Ted Chapin, so much for talking with us.
Mr. CHAPIN: It's been my pleasure.
(Soundbite of song "Losing My Mind")
Ms. DOROTHY COLLINS: (Singing) The sun comes up, I think about you.
The coffee cup, I think about you.
I want you so, it's like I'm losing my mind.
The morning ends, I think about you.
I talk to friends, I think about you.
And do they know, it's like I'm losing my mind.
All afternoon doing every little chore.
The thought of you stays bright.
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor.
Not going left, not going right.
I dim the lights, and think about you.
Spend sleepless nights to think about you.
You said you loved me or were you just being kind.
Or am I losing my mind...
GROSS: "Losing My Mind" from the original cast recording of "Follies." Earlier we heard from Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. Coming up, John Powers reviews a DVD collecting three telefilms by Dennis Potter, the creator of "The Singing Detective" and "Pennies from Heaven." This is Fresh Air.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Unraveling The Mystery and Talent of Dennis Potter
TERRY GROSS, host:
The late English writer, Dennis Potter, is known in America for such brilliant television work as "Pennies from Heaven" and "The Singing Detective." Both were turned into Hollywood movies. But throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s, his TV dramas were regular, eagerly awaited events on British TV.
Three of the works from 1980 have just been released on a DVD called "Dennis Potter: Three To Remember." Our critic-at-large John Powers says that while these dramas make for riveting viewing, the real centerpiece of this collection lies elsewhere.
JOHN POWERS: Late in Dennis Potter's greatest and most famous work, "The Singing Detective," the mystery writer hero Philip Marlowe is grumbling about the public's desire for art that offers easy answers. People want all solutions and no clues, he says. What I want is all clues and no solutions.
The same is clearly true of Potter, whose gripping, enigmatic, controversial writing for TV made him one of British culture's defining figures from the 1960s through the 1980s. Mixing ferocious reality and game-playing fantasy, guilty regret and acid-bath nastiness, his work pushed the limits of what television can do farther than anyone since.
Not all of Potter's work was great, of course. He was too unstoppably prolific for that. But even his routine work is worth seeing. I was reminded of this as I watch the new DVD collection, "Dennis Potter: Three to Remember." It brings together three television dramas that showed on successive November Sundays in 1980, plus the unforgettable 1994 interview he gave in the brief weeks between learning he had incurable cancer and actually passing away.
On the face of it, the three telefilms could hardly be more different. "Blade on the Feather" is a psychological chess game about espionage. "Rain on the Roof" shows a 30-something wife beginning a flirtation with a disturbed, Bible-obsessed young man. "Cream in My Coffee" presents the anatomy of a marriage, from randy young love to bickering old age.
These stories are united by their common themes - I'm tempted to say obsessions. Each film offers a power struggle, illicit sex, violent death and the haunting memory of a dead father. Each bristles with Potter's trademark rawness. He's great at showing how people are soiled and suffers from the ugly, bleached-out cinematography that marred English television back then.
And each boasts unforgettable moments, like the scene in "Blade on the Feather" when a monologue about watching someone eat a fast-food hamburger turns into the most lacerating sexual putdown in history.
If you only knew Potter from these three films, you might think him the most corrosively cynical man who ever lived. That's why the real revelation of this box set is his dying interview, which, endowed with the authority of death, is astonishing for its peaceful, even beatific lucidity. Here, for instance, he talks about how impending death has enriched his sense of living in the present.
(Soundbite of Dennis Potter interview)
Mr. DENNIS POTTER (Writer, "The Singing Detective"): Below my window in Ross(ph) when I'm working in Ross, for example, there now, at this season, the blossom is out in full now there in the west early(ph). There's a plum tree. It looks like apple blossom, but it's white. And looking at it, instead of saying, oh, that's a nice blossom, you know, now - last week, looking at it through the window when I'm writing, it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, you know, and I can see it.
And things are both more trivial than they ever were and more important than they ever were. And the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous. And if people could see that, you know, there's no way of telling you. You have to experience it, you know. But the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance - not that I'm interested in reassuring people, you know, bugger that - the fact is that if you see the present tense - boy, do you see it, and boy, can you celebrate it, you know?
POWERS: Potter always believed that our lives are largely unconscious performances. We act out scripts written by childhood family dynamics, pop culture cliches and the class-defined realities of the workplace. In contrast, this interview is a highly self-conscious performance by a man who, in talking to us, is forcibly pulling himself away from the work he desperately wants to finish before he dies.
Dramatically drinking morphine on camera to fight the pain, he tries to make sense of his life, private and public - everything from his failure to show love to his coalminer father to his insistence that Rupert Murdoch's media empire is destroying British culture. He even jokingly nicknames his cancer Rupert.
For much of his life, Potter had a reputation as an angry, difficult man whose mind was writhing with snakes. This wasn't wrong, but in later years, it became clear that the underlying theme of his work was actually the search for health and transcendence, the attempt to recognize and eventually get beyond the crippling effects of regret, anger, self-pity - of all of life's inescapable wounds.
That's what happens in "The Singing Detective, " whose haunted, skin-ravaged hero walks out of the hospital a wiser man. And to judge from that final interview, which was a final attempt to write his own story, that's what happened in Potter's life, as well. As he sips his morphine and chain-smokes his cigarettes - no reason to quit now - Potter seems to be surrounded by light, as if the acceptance of death has miraculously purged him of darkness and left him transfigured. He's become his dream version of himself, and if he hasn't yet found the solution to life, he at least knows he's followed its clues.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.