". . . Walking Off My Tired Feet"
The week before rehearsals begin, January 3-8
Over the New Year's weekend (1971) I got a phone call from production stage manager Fritz Holt. He asked whether I could show up at the studio at ten a.m. on Sunday, January 3rd. I didn't think rehearsals were to begin for another week, but since I was just hanging around at home, I agreed. The show was rehearsing at the American Theater Lab, which filled the entire second floor of a two-story building on West Nineteenth Street, just off Seventh Avenue, above a tire shop. It had been created for Jerome Robbins, one of America's most talented choreographers and directors, who wanted to experiment with a European-style workshop. The experiment didn't work, but it left a workable space in which Harold Prince liked to rehearse his shows. The quarters were spare, but more than adequate: one large rehearsal room big enough to represent an entire Broadway stage; a second room half its size, large enough for dance rehearsals; and a third one even smaller, for music. Support facilities included a couple of offices in the front, changing rooms in the back, and a commons room with some slightly ratty sofas and chairs.
Few people were around when I arrived. As I came up the stairs I heard a piano and a number of feet thumping a steady rhythm. I reported to the first open door I came to-the production stage manager's office, where Fritz Holt greeted me as "our production assistant." First day, first defeat-or so I thought. "Production assistant" is the theater euphemism for "gofer," and that's not what this experience was supposed to be. Sure, I had done it twice before, andenjoyed it both times. But this was to be different; even though I had agreed to be a general assistant to Ruth Mitchell, this time I simply wanted to observe the process. That's also how I had sold it to Connecticut College, which was giving me credit for observing a show being assembled. I hadn't proposed an independent study of fetching coffee and sandwiches. The journal I agreed to keep would show an observer's objective eye, not the musings of an errand boy, so when I heard myself referred to as the "production assistant," my heart sank. But in short order I realized I was wrong. While I still had plenty of time to observe, being the gofer gave me a real position, albeit a minor one, within the company. It also, frankly, gave me things to do, and as the weeks went on, I ended up with some pretty responsible tasks, including maintaining up-to-date scripts with all the constantly changing dialogue and lyrics. I was made to feel a part of the experience, and felt accepted by the company in a way I might not have been had I just been watching. And being the gofer gave me license to wander into rehearsals without people feeling as if a stranger were in their midst. It provided a great position from which to observe the goings-on.
Fritz introduced me to the two other stage managers: first assistant and dance captain George Martin, a lithe and tidy, well-groomed gray-haired dancer who seemed a model of efficiency and discretion; and second assistant John Grigas, an ex-dancer, somewhat older, stern faced, and with a caustic quip for every situation. Clearly not a man to cross. His first words to me were: "We want you to go out and get us some coffee." So I pulled out my pad, took the orders, and out I went. If a job is worth doing, I figured, it's worth doing well-and I had learned during my first gofer experience that in New York, "regular" coffee means coffee with milk and sugar, not "regular" as in plain. There is no such thing as plain-black means black, regular means regular, and those who prefer regular are sorely disappointed to open a cardboard cup and find black liquid inside. I'd made that mistake.
A musical as large as Follies needed its three stage managers. Fritz Holt, as production stage manager, was ultimately the boss of the stage and everything behind the curtain. It was his responsibility to schedule the overall rehearsal period and to coordinate all technical aspects of the production. He was also the liaison with the shops-costume, props, scenery-and with all the other support personnel who were contributing to the show. During the rehearsals, he would stay with Hal in the large room whenever possible, marking down the blocking and scene shifts in his master script. It would become the map by which the show would be run once in the theater, and since he would be responsible for all understudy and brush-up rehearsals, his script needed to be up to date and accurate. George Martin, as dance captain, would stay with Michael, and he would notate the dances, both as a reminder of what had happened in prior rehearsals as well as to create a choreographic map for the whole show. John Grigas was stationed in the office, and so became the conduit for company problems and concerns. He was also assigned the small acting role of a chauffeur. Once the show got assembled onstage, Fritz would call the show from the stage managers' desk on stage right, George would man his desk on stage left, and John would float backstage and assist any performer who needed guidance or a helping hand.
During rehearsals, the stage managers were clearly in charge of logistics. Schedules were their responsibility, not only of who would be using which room, but who would be needed for what rehearsal. As I was shown around, each room's use was described to me. Today the midsized rehearsal room was Michael Bennett's domain, as evidenced by the sounds of dance rehearsals already in progress. The music room was empty, with only a piano and a couple of chairs placed about. When we got to the large rehearsal room, John said, ". . . and this is where Mr. Prince will be working, so always check first with Fritz before coming in here." I was shown where I should park myself in the common hallway while waiting for tasks, always making myself available, never in anyone's way, but near the bulletin board and the pay phone. "Get yourself a clipboard and always be poised for action," he said. The whole place looked organized, and the stage managers' office was most organized of all-desk, typewriter, phone, cups of pens and pencils, stacks of current scripts, neat piles of music, etc. There was also a two-drawer filing cabinet. "This is where Mr. Prince keeps his stuff," John said, and then, pointing to the lower drawer, ". . . and this is where he keeps his Courvoisier." (It wasn't Courvoisier; it was Fernet-Branca, a digest if that had been recommended to Hal as a cure for his anxiety-prone gut, or what he referred to as "JBS-Jewish Boy Stomach." Once he found out it contained alcohol, he stopped having it around.)
Through the wall I heard a piano playing one particular section of one song over and over while several voices sang, repeatedly: "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the saddest gal in town?" The dancers were working with Michael Bennett and his long-time assistant Bob Avian. John Berkman, the dance-music arranger, was at the keyboard. Paul Gemignani, the show's percussionist, was at the trap set. "Who's That Woman?" was being created. More on that later.
Harold Prince arrived at noon. He greeted me warmly and said that the day before, he had turned to his ever-present associate Ruth Mitchell-called Ruthie by one and all-and said: "Where's Ted? Get him down here now, for God's sake. We can always keep him busy!" The place seemed far too empty for Hal; he was anxious to get rehearsals going. He wandered around, trying to find things to do. Walking into the empty large rehearsal room, the one I had been told would be his, he said, "I just want to start! Give me some actors, please!" Outlines of the intricately tiered set had been taped out on the floor; it passed his inspection. By week's end there would be movable platforms approximating the levels of the set, but for now the traditional masking tape would have to do. Back in the stage managers' office, he pulled out a transparency of the poster for the show and proudly taped it to the window, declaring it to be "the best poster I have ever had." Colorful and striking, it had been created by David Byrd, a longhaired young artist whose distinctive style was first noticed in his psychedelic poster for the Fillmore East-sometimes called nouveau art nouveau. He had walked into Hal's office one day and said, "I want to do posters for you." Hal said, "Sure," and luckily his initial take on Follies led to this artwork, which both Hal and the advertising agency felt was the best idea presented. It bore a superficial resemblance to his poster for Godspell, with one central face as the focal point. But the figure in Follies was bolder and more striking, an austere face with droopy and prominent eyelids-presumably a woman-looking up and out, wearing the rest of the poster, including the bold lettering proclaiming the title of the show, as if it were a headdress. (A stark black-and-white photograph of Marlene Dietrich was said to be an inspiration.) Running from her lower right cheek, across her stone face and continuing up her left cheek through the "E" of "FOLLIES," was a long, widening crack. Something was clearly amiss in the image of this American icon. The colors were very strong, with shades of orange in the space below where all the credits would ultimately go, and dark blues at the top with nighttime stars shining through. The long hair was drawn with pop-art detail, similar to the Godspell poster but in vivid colors, and around the outside was a border of orange and blue. It seemed appropriate, yet very strong.
With only one dance number actually in rehearsal, Hal didn't know what to do. He tried to get in touch with anyone he could find via phone. First was Florence Klotz, the costume designer. "Where is she? She could be designing a costume now and could bring a sketch down at the end of the day!" Because it was Sunday, there was no one at his office in Rockefeller Center to tell him what the box-office grosses had been for the week just ended for his other two shows then running on Broadway: Fiddler on the Roof ("it did $29,000 for the first two performances, so I hope we did over $70,000 for the week") and Company. He called Stephen Sondheim: "I'm having a nervous breakdown. I'm down here with nothing to do and I've lost all enthusiasm for the show."
Then Ruthie, his calming influence, arrived. A former stage manager, she had worked with Hal for years and knew him better than anyone. Sensing his restlessness, she told me, "Wait until next week when everyone is here. It's easier when everyone is working. This week is just piddling around." In fact, there was a lot of piddling around to do in this final week before the full company rehearsals began.
Once Hal Prince took on The Girls Upstairs it became Follies. Although he had said offhandedly that the first title sounded to him like "a bunch of hookers," the change to Follies was profound. He wasn't sure that a murder-mystery musical would work, and wasn't interested in finding out. But he was intrigued by the psychology of a reunion of old chorus dancers, and loved the play on the word "follies"; in addition to the obvious Ziegfeld Follies connection, he was intrigued by the notion of a "folly," something frivolous and silly, as well as the madness inherent in the French word folie. Operating, as it was, on many different levels, the show was the kind of musical that interested Prince, the director. He found inspiration in a black-and-white photograph he saw in a book about old movie palaces, which had originally appeared, albeit in a slightly different pose, in full color in the 1960 election-day issue of Life magazine, with the caption: "Swan Song for a Famous Theater." The photograph was of Gloria Swanson standing amidst the rubble of the half-demolished grand foyer of the Roxy Theater, looking upward, with her arms outstretched, dressed in black, but dressed to the nines-"gowned in a Jean Louis sheath, a feathery boa, and $170,000 in jewels"-and standing on a steel I beam. Her glamour stood in stark contrast to the surroundings. What's left of the Roxy Theater looks as if it must have been spectacular, with elements of the gold filigree still gleaming, although everything is half destroyed and beyond repair, with broken concrete, dangling wires, and bricks strewn about. Swanson, who had starred in The Love of Sunya, the movie that had opened the Roxy thirty-three years earlier, looks triumphant. Or is she pleading for something? Clearly it's too late to stop the wrecking ball. Is she somehow embodying show business from the viewpoint of someone with a glamorous past dealing with the harsh realities of the present? Is this a show-business precursor to Greenpeace? Whatever its true meaning, it is an extraordinary photograph, filled with romance, heartbreak, glamour, pathos, and drama. It was, Hal felt, a key to what he wanted the show to be about. It provided him with a tool to use with his collaborators as they reinvented Follies from the elements of The Girls Upstairs.
Hal decided he wanted to use ghost figures. Some would be ghosts from the Follies of the past, reminiscent of the grandeur of the Ziegfeld showgirls, who would haunt the shadows of the present, almost as part of the scenery. But he also wanted specific ghost characters to portray many of the principal characters as they were back then. The present-day characters would not necessarily be aware of their ghost counterparts, although they might be. He challenged Steve, Jim, and Michael to come up with ways to make the two realities play off each other. Characters and their ghosts could exist side by side, and conversations could take place that were part present and part past. Ghosts could act out what the present-day characters are remembering-sometimes accurately, sometimes not. Present-day characters could try to go back in time to change the outcome of what happened, and so on. Michael had the thought that the ghosts haunting the theater would move very slowly, drifting throughout in their own rhythm as lurking memories. He was conjuring ideas for "Who's That Woman?" a musical number in which the various possibilities of past and present would play off each other. And it was his idea that all ghosts would be dressed in black and white-characters as well as showgirls. All characters in the present would be in full color.