We try to update our About Us column every year, but this spring has been the busiest in our fifteen-year history -- with cast recordings of On the Twentieth Century, Fun Home, The Golden Apple and the new Vernon Duke musical Misia, plus solo discs by Judy Kuhn and Nicholas Rodriguez -- and every time we've started to do a new column, we've gotten sidetracked by another album. But last week, Billboard ran an interview with Tommy, celebrating his 25 years producing albums and PS Classics' 15 years in business. It spoke of our background and our philosophy, focused on three of the cast albums we released this spring, and, through the ads that friends and colleagues took out to congratulate us, highlighted some of the wonderful people we've met along the way. Billboard kindly agreed to let us reprint it here.
— Tommy Krasker & Philip Chaffin, June 2015
||"On the Twentieth Century," starring Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher, is one of three Tony-nominated musicals this year with cast albums recorded by PS Classics. "One of the best experiences I've ever had making an album," says producer Krasker (inset, left), with label co-founder Chaffin.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Capturing a musical theater performance for a studio album is rife with challenges: the time and budget pressures of working with a full orchestra; the demands on a cast to deliver that definitive performance, fit for history. In his 1970 documentary Original Cast Album: Company, about the recording of that disc, director D.A. Pennebaker depicted a late-night, cigarette-smoke-filled pressure cooker with a young composer, Stephen Sondheim, brooding in a black turtleneck.
But that's not how it goes at a recording session with producer Tommy Krasker, co-founder of PS Classics, the independent label that specializes in cast albums and vocalists.
"I am not someone who thrives on drama in the studio," says the 56-year-old matter-of-factly. "I like everyone to feel relaxed during cast album dates: I may be sweating bullets in the booth, but they shouldn't know that. They're there to make great music, and my feeling is that happens when folks are at their most comfortable. The album isn't about the producer, it's about the artists. When I did my first album for Sondheim, that was Saturday Night back in 2000, Steve came up to me at some point late in the day and told me how much he liked my producing style, because I made everyone feel relaxed."
During the past 15 years, Krasker and husband Philip Chaffin (they married in 2012) have produced more than 130 theater recordings -- including 13 Sondheim works -- for PS Classics. Their work has earned eight Grammy Award nominations. Playbill editor-in-chief Blake Ross credits PS Classics with helping "to keep cast albums alive. [They] have proven to be a very valuable asset to the entire industry."
This theater season, musicals with cast albums recorded by PS Classics have received 21 Tony Award nominations, the most ever for shows recorded by the label, including 12 alone for the breakthrough musical Fun Home. PS Classics also has released the cast albums for this year's Tony-nominated revivals of On the Town and On the 20th Century. (The Tonys air June 7 on CBS.)
But Krasker still doesn't see himself as a Broadway power player, nor does PS Classics target commercial blockbusters. You won't find a jukebox musical --Broadway's way to trade on established pop hits (see Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys)-- in the label's catalog. PS Classics releases cast albums and collections from singers trained in the standards. And Krasker, who studied music at Yale University, says he only picks repertoire that he genuinely likes, and manages his business with similar heart.
"We gravitate towards shows that have emotional weight, that stir us. Sometimes they stir others, sometimes they don't. We have never taken on an album thinking, 'We should do this; it'll be a hit.' Sometimes the shows we record get totally ignored come Tony time; this year, the shows we recorded amassed 21 nominations. We're still shocked.
"It's me, and it's Philip and it's five part-time people who are the most kind and generous and talented people we could imagine working with," says Krasker of his team. "Our engineer, Bart Migal, who I do believe is the single greatest genius I've ever met in my life, has been with us since 2002. So have our art director Derek Bishop and our webdesigner Mark Bakalor. Our Product Manager Allan Stein came aboard in 2009, as did our Editorial Coordinator Robert Edridge-Waks. They're all amazing -- and frankly, they could all do a hell of lot better financially elsewhere. But I think they love the projects we do; they love our passion for our work, and they share it."
The couple even eschews matinée mingling in the Theater District, preferring to stick close to their home in suburban Westchester, north of Manhattan. "Going to one of those crowded spaces where everyone knows everyone, and everyone's schmoozing everyone, and making deals -- I think I'd rather gouge my eyes out with a wooden stake," says Krasker. "More and more, we take meetings in our offices in Bronxville, and people are always very kind about coming to us."
From left: Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone
and Emily Skeggs
in Broadway's Fun Home.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A short train ride is a small tradeoff for what PS Classics can do for a show: no less than make a performance immortal. Nowadays, a cast album -- sometimes the only dynamic document of a show's existence once it has closed -- is no longer a given. Orchestral and cast sessions became prohibitively expensive for the major labels (as evidenced by the closing of their midtown studios and the shuttering of cast-album divisions at the labels).
After working for the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts for eight years, from 1986 through 1994 - the first four years as an archivist, the next four years as archivist and record producer - Krasker first noticed the shift away from the cast album while working as a freelance producer for major labels in the late 1990s.
"The labels started to downsize or demolish their music-theater divisions," says Krasker. "Philip and I had wanted to do a solo album for him for a long time. We funded it, and I hired all the best arrangers and musicians, folks I had loved working with for a decade -- and we turned out his first solo disc, a big-band tribute called Where Do I Go From You? And I had no place to shop it. The labels I had worked for were cutting down on titles, they weren't taking new artists. So Philip and I thought, well, maybe we can release it ourselves. We figured, I already know how to make albums, we can just learn the back end of the business: the packaging, the manufacturing, the distribution, the marketing." He jokes: "God, we were idiots."
Where Do I Go From You? debuted in 2000: with a vocal set by Chaffin, an accomplished baritone trained in musical theater, on the new label, PS Classics. The CD lacked a catalog number or barcode. But it was enough to get the attention of the theater community, which started to reach out with projects and offers.
"We were still thinking, 'This is something we'll do for small albums that can't get a 'real' label,'" recalls Krasker. "We still figured the big Broadway cast albums would find a home at the major labels." Three years later, PS Classics released the cast recording of the Broadway revival of Nine, featuring Antonio Banderas. The majors had passed on it.
Still, a movie-star-led cast album doesn't break sales records (Nine has sold 34,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music), and PS Classics is very much a labor of love.
"My favorite emails I get to our site are ones that say, 'I won't get to see this show on Broadway, but thanks to your album, I feel like I have.' And it's also why we continue to put out these lavish, full-color booklets along with our CDs -- I think the Twentieth Century booklet runs 56 pages -- because Philip and I want folks to have the whole experience. We're fans creating albums for other fans."
Revivals are the lifeblood of the theater, but nothing is as exciting as a lightning-rod new work. Fun Home, about a young girl's coming of age, has received 12 Tony Award nominations, including one for best musical. PS Classics originally recorded the show off-Broadway. But after it moved to the Great White Way in early 2015, "there was some new material, and originally our impulse was just to record the new material and let it go at that," says label co-founder Tommy Krasker. "But then Philip and I got around to seeing the show in previews at Circle in the Square, and it had a new energy to it -- the space transformed it, and new cast members energized it in different ways, and the rewriting was brilliant -- and we knew we had to capture that. And suddenly the whole recording plan expanded, to the point where we ended up recording over half the tracks anew."
ON THE TOWN
Nominated in four categories including best revival, this 1944 musical was made into a film in 1949 starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. The farcical plot, about three sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York, isn't the show's draw - it's Leonard Bernstein's grand score, including extended instrumental dance pieces that are frequently performed in ballet houses. "The bottom line for us is, we loved the production, and thought there was the potential for a spectacular recording, given the size of the orchestra and the brilliance of the cast, and we signed on." says Krasker, who worked with Grammy Award-nominated Rob Sher on the project. "You know, it's always tricky doing cast albums of revivals, because the comparisons to the Original Cast Recording are inevitable. That's why our motto is, don't just record the score well, but really aim to capture what's so magical about this particular production. I thought Rob really nailed that with On the Town, and we've had a lot of reviews and emails telling us that the new album is the definitive recording -- and that's just the nicest thing to hear."
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Krasker calls this project, which is up for five Tonys including best revival, "one of the four or five CDs that's meant the most to me." Starring Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher - theater luminaries also known to TV and film audiences - the musical is a comic opera with big personalities, glorious costumes and a stunning Art Deco set designed by David Rockwell. The original 1978 production won a young Kevin Kline his first major award, a Tony for best featured actor. "I actually directed On the Twentieth Century in college -- a show I absolutely love. I saw the original production five times. When Roundabout first announced it, over a year ago -- I think I was doing Violet with them at the time -- I said to them, 'I want to do Twentieth Century.' We signed on just because we knew it was Roundabout, so it would be high-quality, because I thought Kristin [Chenoweth] and Peter [Gallagher] sound like perfect casting choices, and because I'd worked multiple times with the music director and orchestrator. Twentieth Century is, I think, the first time we've ever actually committed to recording something a full year before it opened, but very often, we see something in rehearsals or previews and commit to recording. We don't typically wait for the reviews to come out. If we like it, we want to be involved. And sometimes, that comes back to bite us in the butt, if the reviews are horrible and the show closes two months later, but sometimes, as with Twentieth Century, we've made up our minds to be involved, and then the reviews come in, and they're raves, and we breathe again and think, 'Thank God!'"
Tommy Krasker, Executive Producer for PS Classics, can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Philip Chaffin, A&R Director, can be reached at email@example.com.