I actually don’t fully understand the business model behind offering a complete album for free online. But I guess it helps get us away from the pirates and builds interest in actually buying the album. So NPR, which had the complete album of The Book of Mormon for free, now has the complete recording of the current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. It’ll be available on the website for a week, and then we’ll have to pay money to hear it.
I have only listened once, not enough to decide what I think about it, though I know I’ll be buying it. Every version of Follies is a problem, because the show is so huge and difficult to cast, because it has certain built-in structural problems that can’t be solved (though the 1987 London rewrite, which the writers later disowned as too compromised, did apparently add more of a story element to the show, and – not coincidentally, I think – was the only version that ever made money). And because the original cast recording was cut to pieces – almost every song had internal cuts made to it because the producer was under orders to get it all on one LP – there’s no “definitive” recording: the best cast is the original, but you can’t recommend a recording of the original cast except bootlegs made in the theatre.
This one has advantages that the other two complete recordings don’t have. The 1985 concert recording was a glamorous event, but a lot of the people in it were cast for name recognition rather than appropriateness. And the 1998 recording sounds very studio-bound even though it was based on a production at the Paper Mill Playhouse. This new recording is based on a real theatre production and sounds like it, and the theatrical feel is important to a show that is almost purely a theatre piece (it has no plot, and musical theatre itself is one of its main subjects). I haven’t made up my mind whether I think Bernadette Peters is right for this, granted that my thoughts on it are coloured by Dorothy Collins from the original cast recording and Victoria Clark, who I thought was one of the highlights of the Encores! concert version: this part and its songs work best for me when they’re delivered in a simple, un-mannered way. But as a complete statement of the score, this is certainly a recording I’m already glad to have. It’s just that any recording of Follies is, more even than for most musicals, a supplement to the memory of seeing it. It was a show that already seemed like a legendary show from the past when it was still in its first run.