The Girls Upstairs: Stories of 1998's Ill-Fated FOLLIES

A conversation with Donna McKechnie and Larry Guittard about the beloved 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse production of Follies.

By: May. 07, 2023
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What is it about juicy backstage drama that so intrigues audiences? For decades, people have flocked to films and plays portraying the exciting events that happen behind the curtain. Arguably, the most famous musical on this topic was written by the God of musical theatre: Stephen Sondheim. It's title: Follies. Not only does it dish a provocative backstage tale, but it leaps inside the heads of aging performers to explore the psychology of fading from the spotlight and the choices they made for their careers and love lives.

Follies is a 1971 musical directed by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett. It was inspired by a New York Times article detailing a reunion of former Ziegfeld show girls. Sondheim decided to write both music and lyrics, enlisting James Goldman to write the book. The show bounced around between different producers. At first, in 1967, it was to be produced under the title The Girls Upstairs by David Merrick and Leland Hayward. When that deal fell apart, Stuart Ostrow signed on as producer, with Joseph Hardy directing. Again, these plans fell though, and Hal Prince ended up as both producer and director. It was he who decided to change the title.

The Girls Upstairs: Stories of 1998's Ill-Fated FOLLIES Instead of discussing the original Broadway production, let's delve into the projected first Broadway revival, which was to begin at the legendary Paper Mill Playhouse and transfer to Broadway. The theatre's own artistic director was set to direct the production, with Jerry Mitchell in the role of choreographer. Paper Mill's production was to star a bevy of well-known Hollywood and Broadway stars: Liliane Montevecchi as Solange, Phyllis Newman as Stella, Kaye Ballard as Hattie. Donald Saddler as Theodore Whitman, Natalie Mosco as Emily Whitman, Carol Skarimbas as Heidi, Eddie Bracken as Dimitri Weissman, and iconic MGM star Ann Miller as Carlotta. The two lead couples were to be played by Donna McKechnie as Sally, Dee Hoty as Phyllis, Larry Guittard as Ben, and Tony Roberts as Buddy. That's what I call an All-Star cast!

Unsurprisingly, the production received rave reviews, especially for Miss Miller. Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote in his review, "Actresses from Yvonne De Carlo to Nancy Walker to Carol Burnett have performed the role of Carlotta Champion, who like Ms. Miller is a movie star well past her heyday, in various incarnations of Follies and in styles that tended to be heavy on both the grit and the irony. But surely no one has ever gone so directly to the wounded, wondering core of the song as Ms. Miller does."

The show was all set to make a seamless Broadway transfer. They had the money, producers, and even had booked a Broadway theatre. But the widow of the librettist James Goldman, Bobby, controlled her late husband's estate and shut the whole Broadway transfer down. It was reported that she was displeased with the Paper Mill Production and wanted Roundabout Theatre to try its hand at a different production for Broadway. The whole ordeal left everyone involved absolutely heartbroken.

I chatted with two of the productions leads about their firsthand experience. I first met with Donna McKechnie (who portrayed Sally) at show business-favorite restaurant, Joe Allen. In between bites she gave me her input:

What led you to be involved in this production?

I got a call from Paper Mill to audition for Phyllis. They had heard that I had just done the role in a one night only recorded concert at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for the BBC in London. Steve had flown over just before we opened to work with the leads on their songs and he was so kind and helpful with each of us. Papermill called Steve after my audition and said, "Well, we've got our Phyllis, it's Donna!" And he said, "Oh, no, she's not Phyllis, she's Sally!" When I heard this news I was a bit stunned and then realized how kind he was to help me so much in London. He was right...I am more Sally than Phyllis. I felt really seen by him and I felt such gratitude. I assumed that nobody would ever hire me to play Sally and I was too afraid to ask for it even though it was my secret longing. I was so touched by the thought that he'd "seen" me. When you think about it, what most people want is to be "seen", especially in the arts.

Do you think Sally is more sensitive than Phyllis?

Well, she's a different character entirely. Phyllis is sensitive, too, but they show it in different ways. I thought Dee Hoty was perfection as Phyllis. Sally was depressed and living in the past. She was so disillusioned. I worked hard at not living in the past, but I could relate to Sally's disillusionment.

What was it like working with Ann Miller?

As a kid I watched her in all of these movies. Ann was a beacon to me! Just so down to earth. She had a great career, but she was a "dancer". She just loved to dance. She was also very funny with a great sense of humor. Ann shared a dressing room with Phyllis Newman. Phyllis would come into our dressing room and say, "Look what Annie has done!" She had stacks of Kleenex boxes on a shelf. I don't know where she was sleeping but she kept bringing new Kleenex boxes from the hotel, like she was stocking up. It was just one of those quirky things. Annie had a real zest for living. She taught me by example to keep making the effort.

I next shared a phone call with one of the production's leading men, Larry Guittard, who portrayed Ben. I asked him about his experience:

What led you to be involved in this revival?

I was asked and had never seen the show. I think I was probably doing another job at the time. I was just at a point in my career where I was definitely ready to retire. I thought about stopping even before I went to do the London revival of A Little Night Music. But I was grateful I did that. It turned out to be a very enjoyable and interesting time. And I always thought A Little Night Music was his best score. It was Steve (Sondheim's) best score for me. But I said yes to Follies.

Were you influenced by John McMartin's performance on the album?

No... I was not aware. There was a story floating around in the business about a famous moment in the end where he forgets his words and how brilliantly he did that. So that was always kind of intimidating. Knowing that he had managed that in a noteworthy way. But that's all I knew. I know John and I've worked with him.

Was there anyone in the production that you were specifically excited to work with?

Well, it was good to work with Donna again. Cause we had done Annie Get Your Gun together.

Was the script reworked for this production?

Yes. It was tightened up for the benefit of the show. Though I had not seen the show, I had read the script. My reaction just in reading it, that it was book-heavy and kind of soap opera-ish. They tightened it up considerably and it improved the show very much.

Can you explain why the show didn't transfer to Broadway?

Well, I can give you what was sort of in the air. I don't know anything definitive about this. I had heard that Bobby Goldman nixed it. And what happened is her husband had died shortly after the production, and so had he stayed alive I think we would have gone to Broadway. But that changed everything because now she had the rights. And I think he died maybe weeks afterwards. It feels like only days. At the time I had heard that she resented that the book had been cut back. If he did like it, why didn't she? You know? It was my last show; I retired after it, but I certainly would have gone on with it if they had moved us to Broadway.

Show business is often unpredictable. A show's curtain can only rise if its ducks are all in a row; if one piece of the puzzle falls, the show's future can be in jeopardy. The Paper Mill Playhouse production of Follies was beloved by the cast, crew, and audiences alike. Some would say it was the perfect revival that never came to fruition. A truly heartbreaking showbiz story.