Shortly before the 2008 Tony Awards, Amazon.com's David Horiuchi spoke to Tommy Krasker, a prolific producer of cast recordings and the cofounder of the PS Classics label. Shows recorded by PS Classics--including "Sunday in the Park with George," "A Catered Affair," and "Xanadu"--received 16 Tony nominations in 2008.
*Amazon: What are the challenges of recording a Sunday in the Park With George (2006 London Revival Cast), which has such an iconic original cast recording? Not to mention the show is very visual.
*Tommy Krasker: My first rule when I'm recording a revival is: don't listen to earlier recordings of the show. I mean, no doubt I've heard them at some point (sometimes I grew UP on them), but from the moment I commit to recording a revival, I distance myself from earlier cast albums. I don't want to be influenced -- that's not the production I'm recording. The first question I always ask myself when I'm preparing any cast album is: what are the particular strengths of this production, and how do I capture those in disc? With the revival of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, you had two amazingly nuanced performances by the leads, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, and a director, Sam Buntrock, who conceived the show as a genuine love story, which paid off beautifully in the final scenes of Act II. So in determining what to record, in shaping the performances in the studio--those elements were foremost on my mind. It's funny: there's been so much written about the brilliant use of projections in the new revival of SUNDAY, but I think Sam Buntrock's real achievement was in mining the love story at the show's core. I thought we captured that well on disc.
I remember when I recorded the Broadway revival of Assassins (2004 Broadway Revival Cast), I loved the way Joe Mantello's production always kept moving; there was always someplace for your eye to go. A song finishes, you have a play-off, and suddenly, you land somewhere else. I wanted to capture that visual quality AURALLY, so John Weidman and I devised what he called an "impressionistic" take on the show, where we including bits of scenes to serve as transitions from song to song. Sometimes they're not even the same scenes that ultimately lead into specific songs, but it created, to my mind, an aural equivalent of Joe's production. And I think that's part of the dual goal of the producer: to make the score sound as good as possible, and to capture and convey the essence of the production itself, whether it's a revival or a new show.
*Amazon: Or how about Xanadu on Broadway (Original Broadway Cast Recording 2007): a new show but an iconic movie with an iconic soundtrack?
*Tommy Krasker: The first thing I knew with XANADU was that I wasn't the right producer for the album! Pop music is not my strong suit. So Philip [Chaffin, co-founder of PS Classics] and I turned the producing reins over to the wonderful Jeffrey Lesser, who can produce just about anything. That said, because we were still acting as "the label," I remember having a lot to say about the recording edition for XANADU. The challenge there was unusual, at least in my experience. Because the show was derived from an iconic '80s soundtrack, there were hordes of people who were going be downloading tracks without ever reading the synopsis, so you needed the tracks to be musically commanding and engaging in their own right. But the show itself, of course, is a riotous, tongue-in-check sendup of the 1980 film; a lot of the musical choices are only clear if you understand the tone of the show, the context for the songs. So we had to walk a very fine line between creating "pop" tracks and still suggesting the comic spirit of the show.
I think the opening number of the XANADU recording -- "I'm Alive" -- is a real triumph on disc, and it was carefully reconceived for the album by music director Eric Stern and librettist Douglas Carter Beane. On stage, the number stops halfway through for a few pages of wonderfully funny dialogue that set up the plot and feel of the show; we knew we needed SOME of that dialogue, but didn't want the first track to come to a dead halt musically. Eric and Doug managed to trim the dialogue effectively while keeping the musical pulse going, creating something unique to the album that is, I think, extremely appealing and effective.
*Amazon: On the other hand, A Catered Affair (Original Broadway Cast Recording) is completely new. How does your approach to that differ?
*Tommy Krasker: Again, it's mostly about playing to the strengths of the production, in this case, the extraordinarily rich performances and the seamlessness of book and score. In retrospect, there's a lot of dialogue on the CATERED AFFAIR album, but it wasn't like I sat down and said, "I'm going to include a lot of the script." It happened naturally--"organically," if you will. If you start to trim the dialogue out of the CATERED AFFAIR songs, you decimate one of the glories of John Bucchino's score: not merely the ease with which dialogue flows into song, but the ease with which song and script co-exist. Lose that, and you lose the show.
*Amazon: After a cast has prepared a show and performed it before an audience, what then is your role as the producer in the studio?
*Tommy Krasker: Cast recording sessions are extraordinarily challenging; they're physically and mentally exhausting. You're always trying to balance getting the very best performances and keeping on schedule, because overtime is exorbitant. The most frustrating sessions are invariably the ones where technical elements aren't working properly at the start, and you lose valuable time. On the wonderful occasions where the technical elements are working from the get-go--and A CATERED AFFAIR was one of those occasions--you get to concentrate on the performers and the performances, and that's always a joy. I like to run a relaxed session, and I always tell the actors, on their first take, to give the performance they're used to giving in the theatre; then, if we feel we need to rethink them a little for the studio, we can do so. But you want them to start at the place where they're most comfortable and assured.
I remember after Faith Prince did the first take of "Our Only Daughter," I went out into the studio to speak with her. On stage, the song followed a lengthy scene between her and Tom Wopat, so it started with a certain intensity; in the studio, without the preceding scene, the top of the song felt melodramatic. We hadn't "earned" those emotions yet. So Faith and I decided to start the song more gently and then build it slowly to the end. She did a second take that was splendid, and then a third and final take that was simply stunning.
*Amazon: There are two distinct audiences for a cast recording: those who have seen the show and those who haven't. How do you balance those needs?
*Tommy Krasker: Actually, you don't, or at least I don't. I just try to make an album I'LL like! Occasionally I'll do things with an eye towards the listener: add a few lines of dialogue to help "set up" a song, or find a substitute for a phrase that can only be understood with an accompanying visual. But it all comes back to presenting the music well, and giving a feel for the production, and if you accomplish that, I think you're satisfying both the people who are discovering the show for the first time, and those who are RE-discovering it.
I never feel a need to "tell the story" on the CD--I always say, that's what the synopsis is for. But I do feel that you have 79 potential minutes to play with, and one thing we can do now that we couldn't do when shows had to be shrunk to two sides of an LP is to put songs in context.
That goes hand-in-hand with trying to capture the strengths of a particular production, where some of the values might not be purely sung, but might involve dialogue or underscoring. I know on the cast album of the revival of Company (2006 Broadway Revival Cast), I wanted to put more of the focus on Bobby, because Raul Esperza's characterization onstage was so essential to that production; and I wanted to put "Another Hundred People" in context, because Angel Desai was offering a very different interpretation than Pam Myers had originally--a delicate, shaded, almost sad performance that took its inspiration from the two scenes with Bobby that interrupt it. So I said to Mr. Sondheim, this is probably stupid, but let's record it with those scenes; we can always cut them. When we edited it together, I did make some tiny internal cuts in the dialogue, but ultimately I think I found a way of making it a good listening experience AND putting the song in context. Mr. Sondheim agreed. I love that track. Others don't, I know!
Back when I was a freelance producer, there were a couple cast albums I took on early in my career where I didn't have a strong point of view going into the studio. And I think those are the worst cast albums I've ever produced; they feel generic to me. Lively, but generic. Other people like them, so what do I know?--I just don't. I tend to do my best work when I have a strong feel for the material--not just an AFFECTION for the work, but a real vision of what I want the album to be.
And then that point of view informs all my choices, from the notes I give in the studio to the editing of the performances to the mixing of the instruments, all the way down to the length of spaces between tracks.
*Amazon: What was your favorite new show this season?
*Tommy Krasker: It was Moonlight - The Complete Series, with Alex O'Laughlin. I was really upset when CBS canceled it. Oh, you mean favorite BROADWAY show? Please, we recorded TWO of them: I'm not going NEAR that question!
More from PS Classics:
Follies (New Broadway Cast Recording)
Death Takes a Holiday (Original Off-Broadway Cast)
A Minister's Wife (Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording)
She Loves Him
Sweet Bye and Bye
The Trumpet of the Swan
Strike Up the Band 1930 (2011 Studio Cast)
Anne Steele: Strings Attached
Love on a Summer Afternoon: Songs of Sam Davis
La Cage Aux Folles: New Broadway Cast Recording
Sondheim on Sondheim
Life Begins at 8:40
Christa Justus's Throw It to the Wind
The Broadway Boys: Lullaby of Broadway
Stephen Sondheim: A Little Night Music
Finian's Rainbow: New Broadway Cast Recording/CD
Gutenberg! The Musical!
Let's See What Happens
Passage of Time
The Journey Home
THE STORY OF MY LIFE (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Howard Sings Ashman
When the Wind Blows South
Kate Pazakis Unzipped: Live at the Zipper
The Marvelous Wonderettes: Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording
Jackie Hoffman: Live at Joe's Pub
Jason Danieley and the Frontier Heroes
The Grapes of Wrath
Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust
A Long and Winding Road
Happy Days (2007 Original Cast Recording)
Take Flight (2007 London Cast Recording)
Fifteen Seconds of Grace
A Deeper Shade of Red
Jonathan Sings Larson
This Place I Know
Somethin' Like Love
Hugh Sings Martin
Adding Machine: A Musical