Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Broadway Birthday!" - The Will Rogers Follies opened 20 years ago today- May 1, 1991

Twenty years ago today the Broadway musical The Will Rogers Follies opened at the Palace Theatre. It would go on to win six Tony Awards including one for Best Musical. 

The subtitle of the musical is "A Life in Revue" - and that is just how the show is presented- as a review of Rogers' life, told through the guise of a big, splashy Ziegfeld Follies production.  Now Will Rogers was a lot of things -he was a high paid actor, a social commentator and humorist with at first a syndicated newspaper column and then a weekly radio show, a vaudeville star with his rope act, a great improviser at his live shows and also was about 1/4 Cherokee Indian - all of these characteristics are presented in the musical.

With "Rogers" speaking directly to the audience throughout the show, the musical tries to present the life of Rogers, from his birth to his death with the highs and lows in between- including the effect the Great Depression had on Rogers and how he was asked by President Herbert Hoover to give a speech to inspire the nation.  I say "tries to present" because the voice of Ziegfeld constantly interrupts him, telling him to move things along, giving him direction, often times making the events in Rogers' life a little more theatrical -like turning Will's first meeting with Betty Blake that was at a train station into a more glamorous meeting on the moon - and even changing the order of the events somewhat by delaying the wedding of Will and Betty so it can become the act one finale.   This theatrical conceit worked perfectly as it allowed the humor of Rogers to come through as well as his humanity and allowed for plenty of splashy musical numbers.  The show also incorporated a lot of Will's famous quotes including making his most famous one "I never met a man I didn't like" into the closing anthem of inclusion, respect and togetherness.

Director/Choreographer Tommy Tune created a style for the musical that allowed it to seamlessly combine the theatrical elements with Rogers' down home common sense, humility, warmth and wisdom.   Using a fairly simple set that included steps that ran across the entire stage, Tune also created some inventive steps as well- check out the video highlights below to see what I mean.   

Keith Carradine
The original cast included Keith Carradine as Rogers, Dee Hoty as Betty Blake (who would later become Betty Rogers) Dick Latessa as Will's father, Clem Rogers; Cady Huffman as "Ziegfeld's favorite" and the voice of Gregory Peck as  Florenz Ziegfeld.   The Broadway musical has a book by Peter Stone, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The show ran for two and a half years, closing after 981 performances on September 5, 1993.  Carradine left the show after a year to headline the national tour of the show and he was followed on Broadway by county singing superstars Mac Davis and then Larry Gatlin. Both of who also followed Carradine on the tour.

Will Rogers was the last show to open in the 1990-1991 Broadway season, opening up within just a few weeks of Miss Saigon and Secret Garden- both shows which were also nominated for Best Musical that year.  Tonys won by the show include those for Best Musical, score, Willa Kim's costumes, Jules Fisher's lighting and Best Director and Best Choreography for Tune.   Carradine and Hoty were also Tony nominated but they lost out to Miss Saigon's Jonathan Pryce and Lea Salonga.

And the real Will Rogers actually did perform at the Palace Theatre during his vaudeville years and also performed in the actual Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street. 

I saw the original Broadway cast and I really liked how the show touched upon the type of person that Will Rogers was as he wasn't someone I was that familiar with before seeing this show.  I loved Tune's stamp on the show as well.   I also liked how the show brought many of Rogers' famous quotes into modern times, showing how they are still relevant today and how nothing really changes and I really liked how the show also touched upon Rogers' connection with the environment in the song "Look Around."   I've also seen a couple of tours of the show as well as the Paper Mill Playhouse production that starred John Davidson as Rogers.  Tune's choreography was used in all of these productions - it is that connected to this show.

And Carradine actually portrayed Rogers again. three years after the show opened in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.

Recommended songs:

Give a Man Enough Rope
My Unknown Someone
The Big Time
My Big Mistake
Marry Me Now/I Got You/First Act Finale
Our Favorite Son
Look Around
Never Met A Man I Didn't Like.

Amazon link for the cd of  The Will Rogers Follies: A Life In Revue (1991 Original Broadway Cast)

Amazon link for the MP3 download of The Will Rogers Follies: Original Broadway Cast Recording

1991 Tony Awards performance of "Favorite Son" -

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade performance -  

My favorite song from the show- "Look Around" - from a regional theatre production -

Nick Spangler, winner of tv's Amazing Race and currently a swing on Broadway in The Book of Mormon sings "Give a Man Enough Rope" from a regional theatre production of the show -

"Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" from another regional theatre production  -

1 comment:

  1. Hi Gil!
    I was wondering if you have more info about this show's production history. From what I've found, it had 4 touring productions and a one year production at the Will Rogers Theater in Branson, Misouri, but I can't find any date or tour schedule.
    Could you help me with this?
    My e-mail is
    Thank you so much!
    I hope to hear from you soon.