PBS ‘Songbook’ series makes lost stage classics live again

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Broadway musical fans will go ape Friday night when PBS launches the third season of the “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook” series.

The episode is called “Show Tunes” and focuses on the role the Broadway musical has played in American pop music.

While countless great tunes have lived on long after the shows that introduced them closed, the musicals themselves only survive in the memories of those who saw them, as well as cast albums, photographs, Al Hirschfeld caricatures and other memorabilia.

The ephemeral nature of theater is one of its joys and curses — you have to see a performance or production when it happens which makes it a much more treasured part of life, but what a shame that great moments in theater are lost forever with each passing Broadway season.

“Songbook” producer-director Amber Edwards includes two extraordinary discoveries in Friday night’s episode — terrific, privately shot sound film of the original 1971 production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” and the 1974 revival of “Gypsy” that featured Angela Lansbury (the first actress brave enough to tackle the role that Ethel Merman created in 1959).

The original “Follies” has become a legendary production and those of us who were lucky enough to see it tend to agree that none of the revivals has come near the impact of the 1971 staging by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, and the spectacular costume and production design by Florence Klotz and Boris Aronson.

The “Follies” film on the PBS show includes close-to-full numbers featuring Alexis Smith and Gene Nelson as well as footage of the start of the hallucinatory “Loveland” sequence (when the present-day book scenes led to a collective “nervous breakdown” in which the four major characters time traveled from 1971 to their heyday in the 1940s).

The quality of the image and the sound is extraordinary for film more than 40 years old.

The “Gypsy” sequence is doubly delightful because we get to observe Lansbury watching the material for the first time in the company of Feinstein. Edwards splits the screen so that the actress’ assessment of her long ago performance comes through loud and clear (an old pro’s deserved pride in what she accomplished way back when).

As Lansbury notes in her interview, all that remains of her first Tony-winning musical performance in the 1966 “Mame” is some silent 8mm footage. She expresses her gratitude that the original 1979 production of “Sweeney Todd” was taped in its entirety so that younger people can appreciate what she did in the years before “Murder She Wrote” made her a huge TV star.

The “Gypsy” footage is really terrific, bolstering my feeling that Lansbury was the best of all post-Merman Mama Roses (certainly no one else has acted the part with such depth and ferocity).

If you love Broadway history, you won’t want to miss “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook” on Friday.

Joe Meyers

4 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    Ken – When I was 19 I saw ‘Follies’ as a story of my parents’ World War II generation. Since I grew up hearing their tales of the movies and shows they saw as young people I knew the background of the musical’s subject matter, but of course the material about middle-aged angst was something I couldn’t really identify with.
    The older I get, the more I’m been put off (at the revivals) by the self-pity of Ben and Buddy and Sally and Phyllis. I think the problems in the James Goldman book are more apparent without the brilliant staging of Harold Prince and Michael Bennett (and the extraordinary design elements of the original production).
    Bennett’s staging of “Who’s That Woman?” – the mirror number – embodied the theme of “Follies” as clearly as any of Goldman’s dialogue. It remains the most spectacular single dance sequence I’ve ever seen in a Broadway show – both for the execution and the storytelling and characterization underneath it.
    I assume you’ve read Ted Chapin’s terrific book “Everything Was Possible” which traces the creation of the original production. If not, get it immediately!

  2. Ken Anderson says:

    That’s really a wonderful anecdote to go with such a historic show. What a stroke of serendipitous luck! I’ve fuzzy YouTube clips of “Mirror, Mirror” and everything I’ve heard about that production seems to be true.
    Not asking you to respond any time soon, but I’d be curious to know if “Follies” (a pretty mature show about people in middle age) resonates any differently with you now, as contrasted with your impressions of it from a 19-year-old’s perspective.

  3. Joe says:

    Ken – Yes, I was so lucky to see the original ‘Follies’! A total fluke. I was visiting my brother in New York on a college spring break in 1971. I had loved ‘Company’ the year before, so I walked up to the Winter Garden box office and bought a ticket for a preview of the new Sondheim a week or so before it opened.
    Little did I know that my mind was about to be blown and that the show would prove to be so historic.
    What the subsequent productions have lacked is the way the original costume and scenic design added so many layers of beauty and nostalgia to the piece. Boris Aronson and Florence Klotz were true “authors” of the show along with book writer James Goldman.
    And Bennett used incredibly tall showgirls as the ghost dancers – he made a special trip to Vegas to find them and let me tell you, they looked like they were nine feet tall as they drifted around the stage!
    I was a 19-year-old movie-mad college student and “Follies” was the first Broadway show I saw that had the vision and scope of what was happening in film then. If I could go back in time and re-experience one Broadway production, that would be the one!

  4. Ken Anderson says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on this program! I didn’t know it existed at all and i would have been crestfallen to have missed the opportunity to see footage from the original production of “Follies,” my No.1 favorite show of all time.
    Time to fire up the DVR! (P.S. You actually saw the original production? Seriously envious.)