Musical performance has a number of components, not the least of which is personal connection and commitment: the vital element in full-blooded, compelling work. On my recent trip to New York, I saw “Prince of Broadway”, a review of the shows in the illustrious career of director/producer Harold Prince. One of the highlights is Tony Yazbeck’s performance of “The Right Girl” from “Follies.” The character is Buddy Plummer, a man frustrated by the suspicions he’s spent the last couple decades married to a woman who wishes she’d married someone else. And, as a traveling salesman, he has had affairs on the road, looking to fulfil what he hasn’t had at home. At the event of the Follies reunion, his suspicions about his wife prove true; this number the clarity of his epiphany.
Gene Nelson, a talented song and dance man with a film career, played Buddy in the original 1971 production. As choreographed by Michael Bennett, this number, a dark song-with-dance, utilized Nelson’s athleticism. Boris Aronson’s set featured stairs and railings which allowed Nelson to bound, leap, and swing between pipes in telling his story. It was both graceful and thrilling, and communicated Buddy’s overwhelming loneliness.
The current, scaled down show (Aronson’s set would cost the budget of a small country today) doesn’t afford those same opportunities. Yazbeck and choreographer Susan Stroman’s solution is a tap dance. Hope, self-recrimination, loss, and anger exploding to rage come through in the smartly re-thought staging. Notably, the dance music has been augmented to accommodate this version. Yazbeck creates his storytelling in a different way from Nelson, yet remains true to the intent and spirit of the material.
What all of this adds up to is the fact that as Nelson’s version was his own, this version is Yazbeck’s own. Despite the fact he’s young for the role of Buddy, he owns it—it’s his and no one else’s. In the best performances that’s the underlying subtext: “This is mine.” The actor is so personally committed to the part; you don’t see anyone else playing it. Others will play it, of course, and it will be up to them to be equally convincing.