Book Review/Musings – Everything was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies

My friends have accomplished multiple projects during this pandemic. Some have done major cleaning and organizing. Others have ready many books. My biggest accomplishments have been more than two dozen webinars and virtual gatherings that I’ve hosted, moderated, or been a panelist on for both the Stage Managers’ Association and the United States Institute for Theatre Technology. Meanwhile, my house is a disaster. I keep saying I’m going to do more organizing, beyond our camping gear that has gotten a bit refreshed (and a new shed we put together for its storage). I especially keep meaning to sort through the out-of-town and stage management gear that is piled up in my guest room/Zoom office. When this Rhymes with Orange cartoon popped up earlier this summer, my husband and I felt seen. It now lives in perpetuity on our fridge:

Cartoon of the Home Office. Man tells another
Floorganized, by Rhymes with Orange. I resemble that remark....

I do miss reading books. With the best of intentions, I joined the Stage Managers’ Book Nook Facebook group, within days of its being created in October 2018. Generally, the group recommends a book a month. I did great for the first one – in hindsight, the choice of Station Eleven has been eerie to think about given our current situation. I don’t think I could read it again right now, but boy it was food for thought of how theatre people would deal with a post-apocalyptic world. I then read about half of All the Light We Cannot See in time for our discussion….and didn’t finish it for many months after that, though I enjoyed it and carried it to multiple out-of-town gigs. I was in the process of re-reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time when the pandemic hit. Even with my extended borrowing time (due to library branch closures), I still never finished my second read through.

Book cover of Everything Was Possible
Book cover image

During some virtual stage manager discussion in May, someone recommended that every stage manager (or every theatre artist) should read Everything was Possible: The Birth of the Musical FOLLIES. I dutifully put it on my Goodreads to-read list. Fast forward a month or so, and a member of our Facebook group offered up a free copy of the same book. I was the first to respond and it was soon shipped off to me. However, with the state of our postal system as it is, with my “informed delivery” tracking, I could see it SITTING in a Chicago post office branch for ten days with no movement. I finally received it earlier this month. With the pressure to send on down to the next person in line, I’ve devoted more time to reading lately than I had the rest of the summer. It helped that I got away from all technology this past week, and then Sunday I took a “me” day and spent a good chunk of it finishing the book. I need to ship it off soon to the next reader in line, but I’m strongly considering buying another copy for myself. I’ve also had the attention span of a gnat lately, so it was refreshing to have that much focus for a couple days of reading. It’s definitely a skill set I’ve got to build back up from “The Great Pause” we’re in.

First off, it was nice to be immersed in a show’s production again, even if not my own. It’s been more than five months since our industry came to a crashing halt, and I personally have just passed the six month mark since I was involved with a production. (I accepted work that wouldn’t conflict with the spring USITT convention that was ultimately canceled, so it’s been longer for me.) The book chronicles Ted Chapin’s experience as a production assistant on the original Broadway production, much of it taken from a journal he kept for college credit. While he had no desire to be a stage manager, in order to have the observation accessibility, he accepted the PA position. This of course brings up the current hot-button issue of how many Equity stage managers accept low-paying off-contract PA positions on Broadway now, for a foot in the door…and how our industry currently allows it. Trust me, there’s been much discussion.

--Spoiler Alert: if you haven’t read the book yet, proceed with your own caution --

It was also interesting to see the production process through the eyes of someone who may or may not have been familiar with what he was experiencing. He was not Equity, so did not attend the first day’s meeting of Equity members. I question whether he got the details right, as he wrote:

The next to arrive was Terry Marone, the official from the union for actors and stage managers, Actors’ Equity Association. She was a fixture on the first day of rehearsal for all Broadway shows. A former singer and dancer, she was responsible for making certain all the proper union paperwork was completed, including contracts, insurance, and pension and welfare forms. Any performers who weren’t members had to join, and she was to take them through the process; the three Las Vegas showgirls were likely candidates. And once all Equity members were assembled, she had to read the rules and regulations out loud.

My husband's copy, back when they were actual printed/bound rulebooks

Technically, no one can be forced to join the union, though it is highly encouraged. Those of us who are Equity don’t like it when a non-union person takes one of our contracts, complete with all of the protections it provides – but it is allowed. Also, I really question whether she read every rule out loud. The Production Rulebook from 2015-2019 tops out at 185 pages. (The latest negotiation hasn’t been published yet, but the summary of changes is 18 pages.) I need to do more research, and see if Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier in particular has access to the rulebook that would have been used in 1971. I do have my husband’s copy of the 1980-82 Hollywood Area/Bay Area Theatres rulebook, and it’s still 45 pages long.

I did cringe at some of the duties of stage managers on the production. The production stage manager was Fritz Holt, and most of his duties don’t surprise me. George Martin is introduced as “first assistant and dance captain” – holding both of those positions at once. On an original Broadway production. Oh, and it gets better. When Gene Nelson nearly killed himself doing “The Right Girl” with tap shoes on the set during rehearsal, it was “decided that no one would wear tap shoes during any of the tap choruses in the show….George Martin and two other dancers would put on tap shoes, watch the stage, and dance the rhythm of every routine along with the dancers – but in place and on the Masonite board [offstage.]” The first assistant stage manager did this during the show! Meanwhile, second assistant John Grigas “was also assigned the small acting role of a chauffeur.”

I’ve also been learning more about Ruth Mitchell while Jennifer and I have worked on an exhibit on stage management paperwork through the centuries. Many of her papers are in the New York Public Library. I hadn’t yet put together that after stage managing she moved on to be Hal Prince’s right hand, as she was for Follies, and Company prior to that. There are many fun examples of her paperwork and cue sheets online, that I encourage you to check out, though nothing specifically from Follies.

Other adventures in the book that made me smile included:

  • The use of “sweetening” tracks of extra vocals – and when Equity found out about it, the performers received an extra week’s salary for the recording
  • Using the co-directors to do some voiceovers – and Michael Bennett using the chance to chastise a particular character/actress for being off on choreography
  • Hal Prince wanted the set model in the rehearsal hall instead of the shop, but he passed the phone off to Ruth instead of completing the conversation with the set designer – afterwards she fumed at him, “Why do you do that to me?”

I also went down a bit of a YouTube rabbit hole this weekend, and found a series of videos edited by David Fletcher. He combined some silent film color footage of the original Broadway production, along with audio from the soundboard and/or other videos like the LA production. It gave me a chance to visualize the production, in addition to the many photos in the book. The book discusses the behind-the-scenes logistics (and the surprise addition of the technical aspect during rehearsals) for the opening of “Buddy’s Blues,” as well as change in who played the two women backing him up. This made it fun to see the visual result online:

After reading about the antics of Fifi D’Orsay, I thought I’d visualized her…but she’s even more over-the-top than I imagined. Meanwhile, Ethel Shutta is about as adorable and strong as described. (Warning, this one is particularly low quality video, and does start with no image for the first 30 seconds. Read his YouTube description to see what he combined to do his best.)

All in all, it was a very enjoyable book, particularly given my length of time away from actually doing anything like it for a while. Chapin describes well the details that go into rehearsing, teching, re-writing and producing a show, from descriptions of tech tables to the tensions of artistic personalities and the negotiating that happens, particularly between bruised egos. As they progressed throughout the tech process, I thought of the phone conversations I have with my mother at this point in any show. “You always say things are falling apart during tech.” “No, but Mom, this time they really are….!” And yet we figure our way through. It’s just that some times are SO much harder than others. I can’t quite imagine the pressure of working on the first-ever-headed-for-Broadway version of tech, but it’s a bit refreshing to know that communication isn’t always easy for anyone else either. And things have progressed enough now that the other stage managers on the team wouldn’t particularly be running away to do any dance steps!

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