Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Those Beautiful Girls








James Goldman wrote my favourite play, The Lion In Winter.

Stephen Sondheim has written many of my favourite musicals, many of my favourite songs, one of my favourite movies and, generally, created a lifetime of work that just feels like breathing to me.

That's a good place to start. Now.

Alexis Smith caught my attention as a teenager. She acted in some movies with my boyhood idol, Errol Flynn. She played Mrs Hallet in the film version of one of my favourite books, THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE. She captivates in another favourite of mine, HERE COMES THE GROOM, almost stealing the film away from Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman. And when I saw her on BROADWAY PLAYS WASHINGTON singing Nothing But from PLATINUM--well, it closed the deal, for me. Pat has called her 'one of Stephen's ladies'.

Lee Remick was my favourite actress. She remains on my list of favourites and always will. Her performance in ANATOMY OF A MURDER continues to leave me breathless, as do most of her films--including the ones I am (only now) getting around to seeing; films like THE RUNNING MAN, LOOT and NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY. I am sad that I will never see her performance in THE OMEN but I cannot watch devil related films. A photo of Lee Remick hangs in my home office.

Diana Rigg was, first, Mrs Peel. I imagine that Mrs Peel is a first for every teenage boy from certain generations past. Those teenage boys either have sexual fantasies about Mrs Peel or fantasies about being Mrs Peel but Mrs Peel is listed as their first. After Mrs Peel, for me, came ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, EVIL UNDER THE SUN and a host of films made for the large and small screens. We own a box set of THE AVENGERS that is dedicated to the Mrs Peel episodes.

Dee Hoty is one of the Broadway stage's great leading ladies. A statuesque beauty with talent to match, she has warmed hearts in lead roles in WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE GOES PUBLIC, FOOTLOOSE and MAMA MIA, all the while being gorgeous and alluring, especially in CITY OF ANGELS. She is as lovely a person offstage as she is exciting a performer, onstage. Dee Hoty is never spoken of in my home, that we do not sigh and smile.

Blythe Danner is a great American actress. She has been given numerous awards for her work, throughout her career. She has worked (non stop) onstage, in the movies and on television, all the while raising a family (that includes an award winning actress in the form of daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow). Blythe is also one of the most beautiful and loving women a person could ever hope to meet. She is also one of my household's beloved ladies.

These women have all played a character named Phyllis Rogers Stone in important productions of the musical FOLLIES. FOLLIES has a book written by James Goldman. FOLLIES has a score written by Stephen Sondheim. FOLLIES has a cult following that is nothing short of a phenomenon. Mr Sondheim, himself, has said that the original run of FOLLIES was not really what one would consider a success (especially when one considers the seven Tony Awards the production earned). Whether or not FOLLIES was a success, the fact remains that it is a show that continues to ensnare musical theater lovers in its grasp and hold them, merciless, as each of them...each of US...becomes obsessed by the story, the songs and the fascinating legend of its ever-changing tapestry.

For years no one produced the play FOLLIES. Then, in the Eighties, the very first concert version of a musical was produced (starting a new trend, indeed, a new format in musical theater that has snowballed into something that is by rote, now) and that concert was FOLLIES. It had an all star cast, was recorded for cd, filmed for PBS and released on video. It remains one of the most exciting and revered events in New York theater going history.

A revival of FOLLIES was produced on Broadway in 2001. It sparked much opinion and much debate about whether or not it was any good. It didn't really matter because people still went to the play.

Between the two Broadway productions was a London production that featured new musical numbers and many script changes and there was a Los Angeles concert version that hoped to mirror the success of the New York concert version. There appears, in fact, to be a different script for every version of FOLLIES--and there have been many versions in the regional theaters of America. I don't know about all of them but I have heard tell of many of them, starring people like Donna McKechnie, Juliet Prowse, Karen Morrow, Shani Wallace, Marilyn Maye... the list is endless.

FOLLIES has been the subject of much discussion in New York recently because ANOTHER concert version was just produced. When it was announced, I was a bit shocked and surprised. I mean, really, ANOTHER production of FOLLIES? Another CONCERT of FOLLIES? I didn't get it. I didn't care either because I was going to go, for very personal reasons. You see, I have a connection to this character in the play--this woman named Phyllis Rogers Stone. It isn't that I, so much, identify with her or anything like that. I suppose there are women with whom I identify--I know there are--in life and in fiction. And this is a fascinating character, with incredible musical numbers. Playing her got Alexis Smith a Tony award and Blythe Danner a Tony nomination. Yes. That's the connection. Phyllis Rogers Stone has been played, repeatedly, by women I happen to adore. Alexis Smith was the original Phyllis. Lee Remick did the concert version. Diana Rigg played her on London's West End. Dee Hoty starred in the production at PaperMill Playhouse. Blythe Danner brought her to life for the revival. Even the L.A. concert version featured Patty Duke (who I love) as Phyllis and there are famed regional productions that starred Juliet Prowse, who I adored and miss, terribly. For some reason, the universe just keeps sending women I love into that place where Phyllis Rogers Stone lives. It's sort of like Mama Rose. Every few years the GYPSY fanatics get to watch another great lady of the American musical theater experience that journey. I only get to experience them on cd or on dvd (whether pro shot, like the concert, or bootlegged--but we don't talk about that). I saw Dee Hoty as Phyllis and I saw Blythe Danner.

I did NOT get to see the last version of Phyllis Rogers Stone that New York saw. How ironic that it was created by one of my best friends, eh?

I was in Texas for my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary when she stepped out onto the stage of City Center in her black, one shouldered evening gown. I missed her in her red fringe Lucy and Jessie dress. I had to read on Broadway chat boards about how stunning she was. It was heartsickening but my parents' event simply HAD to take precedence over seeing my beloved girlfriend play Phyllis Stone. Thanks to the internet, though, I got to see snippets of her thrilling work in FOLLIES. My girlfriend, the genius.

Donna Murphy.

I won't talk about Donna's personal life. I respect her and our friendship too much to invade her privacy that way. I can only say that being able to call her my friend, knowing that my favourite person believes in me and that my favourite artist champions my work has given me strength and lit the way in dark moments. The mere fact that she trusts me with the happy task of doing regular family portraits for her is a major part of my self esteem. She is a buoy in this life, for me. This was not, though, the first time that I missed her in a performance. It will, clearly, not be the last. But whatcha gonna do? There are concerts and benefits and appearances and performances and I travel and won't always be there for those performances. She knows where I live and she knows where she lives for me: in my heart.

But the clips on the internet! Have MERCY! She is a goddess. And she is a woman. I like to watch the goddess but I like to talk to the woman.

Recently, I have been working on the Florence Klotz estate. I have mentioned this in recent stories. Florence was (for me) the greatest costumer of the American theater of the last century. Don't get me wrong--I also love William Ivey Long: he's Da Bomb. But Flossie was special. She won Tony awards for A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN, SHOWBOAT, GRIND, PACIFIC OVERTURES and, natch, FOLLIES. I have been cataloguing and photographing her sketches and her Tonys. Can you think of anyone better suited for this job? (It should be noted that the other people working on this project are show biz historian and author Ken Bloom and musical theater expert David Schmittou. Can you think of anyone better to be working on this project with me? I don't think so.) I have been living with her Tony award for A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC on my telephone table for three months. Her sisters came to live with us a few weeks ago so that I could photograph each Tony with sketches from the show for which the Tony was awarded (I might post some of the photos, if the interest in seeing them is great enough). Soon, the sketches and the Tonys will be distributed to museums in the area and I will have to bid them farewell. For the time being, though, I am living with FOLLIES.

Phyllis Rogers Stone and the women who have played her have been a part of my personality's patchwork quilt for awhile and they will all continue to be, just as misters Goldman and Sondheim do and will. I am more than happy to be a home where they can congregate together, especially given the earth shattering genius and beauty of the latest Phyllis.

She is (and I am) in great company.

please note that I found the photos of the Phyllises on the internet but was unable to find one of Dee Hoty in the actual role, only a red carpet snapshot; or one of Lee Remick, only the headshot used in the Follies cd booklet (a tragedy because both were STUNNING in their Phyllis drag). The photo of the Lucy/Jessie sketch with the FOLLIES Tony was shot three days ago in my studio.

3 Comments:

Blogger jungle dream pagoda said...

What extraordinary and magical KISMET,and you know how much I believe in kismet !!!What a lovely accompanyimg story ,as well.

PS I have a new piece of framed and matted art adorning my hallway,can you guess what it is?

PPS loved The Fantasticks,hallmark hall of fame


PPPs,how can I email Rita?

10:49 AM  
Blogger Timothy Hogan said...

I LOVE Diana Rigg. Her auto-biography NO TURN UN-STONED is a riot. and So So British. What an entertaining list of intimidating women. My favorite Lee Remick film is THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES Classic!

Great post, Stephen!

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please post the photos! Is there going to be a book of her costume designs?

9:57 PM  

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