‘Follies’: sprucing up Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 masterpiece

The big news in Broadway musical fan circles this week is the release of a new limited edition CD of the original cast album of “Follies,” the 1971 show that Stephen Sondheim did with co-directors Harold Prince and Michael Bennett and book writer James Goldman.

The original production has become legendary, and with good reason. It was the peak effort of the decade-long collaboration between Sondheim and Prince that resulted in “Company,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd” (they also came up with “Pacific Overtures” and “Merrilly We Roll Along” in the years between 1970 and 1981).

I was lucky enough to be on a college break in Manhattan during the winter of 1971 and scored a ticket to a preview of “Follies.” I had seen “Company” and loved it the previous fall, but the ambition and the scale of “Follies” blew me away. It was the only show I show during that period that had the same excitement as the ground-breaking movies that came out in the 1960s.

Prince and Sondheim seemed to be as much inspired by Fellini and other film directors as they were by their Broadway predecessors. With ghosts wandering through otherwise “realistic” contemporary scenes and spectacular vaudeville flashbacks “Follies” played a bit like a stage version of “Juliet of the Spirits.”

It was the most expensive musical ever produced on Broadway up to that time — an $800,000 budget — and the attempt to chart the decline of American show business and the “American dream” in the years between World War II and 1970 was electrifying as staged by Prince (and co-director Bennett) and as presented in music by Sondheim.

There have been two Broadway revivals of “Follies” in recent years, but neither of them came close to the 1971 original, which in addition to the score and the direction had spectacular set design by Boris Aronson and extraordinary costumes by Florence Klotz. The designers had to present two different eras on stage — the 1940s and the early 1970s — and they succeeded brilliantly.

“Follies” ran for a year but lost money because it was so expensive to run. Harold Prince made so many right choices on the show that his decision to have the album recorded by Capitol Records rather than Columbia (which had done “Company” the previous year and always did the best cast albums) turned out to be disastrous.

The record label refused to record the two-album set that was necessary to capture all of the music in the show, so songs were cut entirely and others trimmed to fit on one LP. Adding insult to injury was a rushed production of the album that resulted in an inferior sound mix that has pained fans of Sondheim for the past 40 years.

Bruce Kimmel of the Kritzerland limited edition show and movie label saw the original production and like most other fans bemoaned the inferior sound of the LP and its subsequent CD reissues. But after doing successful remixes and remasterings of two other flawed cast albums from the same era — “Promises, Promises” and “Sugar” — the producer decided to see if the original master recordings of “Follies” were still available.

The tapes were in the Capitol archives, Kimmel did a test remix of one number, was pleased with the improved quality, and moved forward with a full restoration of “Follies.”

The CDs shipped last week and I am happy to report that the results are wonderful. The cuts made in the score are still unfortunate, but the sound quality has been vastly improved, giving the vocal work of stars Dorothy Collins and Alexis Smith a whole new dimension.

The downside of Kimmel’s business is that the major recording companies only allow him to produce limited editions of his restorations and the more popular titles tend to sell out quickly. Kimmel reported on his Facebook page last week that only about 100 copies of the 1,500 copy release are still available.

(For more information on the new “Follies” CD and Bruce Kimmel’s terrific backlist go to www.kritzerland.com)