The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue
There's no way to start my day without Will! Just multiply me by the millions From Gotham out to Frisco Bay Those Toms and Dicks and Jacks and jillions Are asking "Hey, did you see what Will said today?"
- Music by Cy Coleman
- Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
- Book by Peter Stone
- Directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune
- Orchestrations by Billy Byers
- CD produced by Cy Coleman and Mike Berniker
- Opened 5/1/91 at the Palace Theatre in NYC; 983 performances
Mr. Ziegfeld (voice)
Paul Ukena, Jr.
- Roxanne Barlow
- Maria Calabrese
- Colleen Dunn
- Dana Moore
- Wendy Waring
- Leigh Zimmerman
Betty's sisters; Will's sisters; some of the New Ziegfeld Girls
- John Ganun
- Troy Britton Johnson
- Jerry Mitchell
- Jason Opsahl
The Will Rogers Wranglers; other roles
Will Rogers, Jr.
Gregory Scott Carter
This musical was based on the life of Will Rogers, popular humorist and performer who died in a plane crash in 1935. His life is viewed through the (opulent) lens of the Ziegfeld Follies, which he often headlined in his heyday, and is somewhat nonlinear and very unconventional in structure, since every episode in his life is a big production number. Will often speaks directly to the audience and to Mr. Ziegfeld, who isn't always happy with the way the show progresses. For example, after detailing his childhood, he mentions how he left home to see the world. Mr. Ziegfeld interrupts him and tells him he has to "meet the girl," and Rogers more or less says, "Oh, yeah, I did meet Betty Blake at about this time." We then are introduced to Betty Blake ourselves--she's sitting on the moon, mooning. Because Betty is impatient to marry Will, the show skips forward several years, at which point Will is playing in a two-bit wild west show. They're about to be married--but Mr. Ziegfeld intervenes again: the wedding can't take place yet because the wedding should end the first act, and the first act hasn't ended yet, so... time rapidly goes by, during which Will grows more successful and they have four kids as they travel around the country. Then Will is invited to join the Ziegfeld Follies, and time warps again into the 1910's, where he's become a big vaudeville and radio star and is about to embark on a journey to Hollywood. But the first act is ending, so now the wedding takes place.
Act 2 shows Rogers at the peak of his popularity--so popular that he's actually asked to run for President. Meanwhile, Betty is feeling neglected and sings the blues, but Will returns with "a treasury of precious jewels" (and a parallel production number). The mood is spoiled by bill collectors and creditors; Ziegfeld is broke, and the Depression is upon them. At Herbert Hoover's request, Rogers delivers a speech to the nation. Later, he reconciles with his estranged father. And, finally, he goes on that fateful plane ride with Wiley Post (who has been popping into the show every so often with the cheerful refrain, "Let's go flyin'!"
- Let's Go Flying
- Never Met a Man I Didn't Life (short version)
- Give a Man Enough Rope
- It's a Boy
- So Long Pa
- My Unknown Someone
- Wild West Show/Dog Act
- We're Heading for a Wedding
- The Big Time
- My Big Mistake
- The Ziegfeld Follies (My Big Mistake)
- Marry Me Now/I Got You/First Act Finale
- Entr'acte/Give a Man Enough Rope/Rope Act
- Look Around
- Our Favorite Son
- No Man Left for Me
- Presents for Mrs. Rogers
- Will-A-Mania (reprise)/Without You
- Never Met a Man I Didn't Like
Entries in red were winners.
- Best Musical
- Best Director
- Best Score
- Best Choreographer
- Best Book
- Best Actor (Keith Carradine)
- Best Actress (Dee Hoty)
- Best Featured Actress (Cady Huffman)
- Best Scenic Designer (Tony Walton)
- Best Costume Designer (Willa Kim)
- Best Lighting Designer (Jules Fisher)
- Drama Desk Awards:
- Outstanding Musical
- Outstanding Choreography
- Outstanding Music
This is one of my favorite Cy Coleman shows, but it's not perfect by any means. As you might have gathered from the summary, the book is kind of stupid. When the show opened, it came in for a lot of criticism: it's weird, it runs counter to the essence of Will Rogers, they hammer you over the head with the "Let's go flyin'!" business, etc., and from the distance of a dozen years, much of this criticism appears justified. (There's only one "Let's go flyin'!" on the disc, however.) Luckily, book issues are not a big deal with the CD. About half the songs are smashing--mostly the ones in the first act. "Will-A-Mania" stands as one of my favorite production numbers from any show. "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" sounds like it should have been the real Rogers's theme song. "It's a Boy" is hysterical, with the six unmarried sisters yelling "Woo hoo!" in the background every time they're mentioned. "The Big Time" is a great "train song" and has one of the best sets of children I've heard in a long time. (Trust Coleman and Comden and Green to do train songs right....) This disc is one of only two shows I can think of with actual dogs performing (the other being Top Banana)--you can just see them flying through hoops, jumping over each other, etc. as the music churns away and the dogs bark, though sometimes the yelps take on a weird note, as if the dogs were having sticks shoved up their butts. I don't know if that's a recording problem or the dogs really sounded like that. It's funny, anyway. And the lyrics from these two old pros are, as usual, quite witty; Comden and Green they don't appear to have lost a step despite having been 76 (!!!) each when this musical opened.
The trouble with the second act songs is that they don't have half the energy of the first act songs; they're all ballads, except for "Our Favorite Son," which is fairly undistinguished. It's a bad idea to put all your lively production numbers in one act and leave the other act to just sit there. Given the more serious themes of the second act, this is understandable but not well balanced regardless. The speech to the nation, which is not reproduced on disc, sounds like it stopped the show dead (in a bad way), and none of the songs that followed it would have been enough to bring the energy level back up. I do wish they'd included the speech, though.
While the three solos by Hoty are pretty, they're all slow, and "My Big Mistake" and "No Man Left For Me" express the same sentiments in the same mood and tempo. She doesn't seem to get to do much except be wistful or tolerant. (At least on the CD, there's no real friction in Betty's relationship with Will.) And after the sensation of the first "Will-A-Mania," it's almost depressing to hear the slower and sadder version sung by Clem Rogers near the end of the second act.
The performers, especially Carradine, make up for a lot of the show's deficiencies. He has just the right touch of down-home folkiness and projects a decent amount of charisma, though it sounds more practiced than natural at times. He's so perfect in the role that it's funny to think that the producers originally wanted John Denver to play Rogers. Hoty is always a joy to hear, even if she doesn't get any of the fun songs. (If you can, find the Paper Mill Playhouse version of Follies and check out her Phyllis Stone.) Latessa isn't on the album nearly enough, but he's properly curmudgeonly on "It's a Boy." And Cady Huffman, in a "Vanna White" role, is quite jolly and seems to get more to do than Hoty. The kids, who are audible only on "The Big Time," do a splendid, if squeaky, job blending their four little voices together.
Note that according to the booklet, "This album has been produced ... as a contemporary, digital, track-by-track recording (unusual for an original-cast album) both to bring out the subtleties of the voices and instruments, and to convey a more immediate sense of the show itself." Not being at all versed in CD production techniques, I can't figure out how this makes the recording different from, and superior to, other recordings from the same era.
An adequate booklet. It begins with three uncredited pages of the musical's background and a story summary that are followed by a song list with the characters who sang the songs, and two pages of credits. The back of the booklet contains major credits. There are no pictures from the production except on the front cover, and there's no indication of when and where the show opened. The textual material overuses superlatives, especially "brilliantly" (e.g., "The show's concept is both strikingly simple and brilliantly complex"). And why on earth did they use that salmon pink everywhere?
A fun, flawed show whose joys outweigh its sorrows, it's probably spectacular live, and I wish we'd seen it when it came through Denver. A must for Cy Coleman and Comden and Green fans; a recommended but not essential purchase for general Broadway fans. Note that there was some bitterness when this show took the Best Musical trophy over The Secret Garden (and thank God it took the trophy over Miss Saigon), but the Tony voters almost always choose "fun" over "beauty," and quite frankly I enjoy this show more than The Secret Garden and would have cast the same vote.
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