(October 2009) Two weeks ago, when we went on sale with our quartet of October releases, we alerted a friend who posts at an online "show music" forum. He wrote back to thank us, then posed a doozy of a question. With so many unsettling trends in the industry, he asked -- the retail chains that have vanished, the smaller stores that are struggling, the theatre reviewers who've been downsized, the cast album sales that have plummeted -- why are we always so "relentlessly upbeat" in these About Us columns? Maybe, he suggested, we're not doing our customers -- or ourselves -- any favors. Maybe we should do a column where we "tell it like it is."
In a similar vein, we did a Q&A for Playbill.com recently, all about our new studio cast recording of the 1926 musical Kitty's Kisses. We spoke about discovering the materials, and restoring them, and hiring a cast of Broadway stars to perform them -- but then the interviewer stopped us dead in our tracks with that dreaded question, "Why don't you do more of these vintage musicals?" We sidestepped as best we could, because we were both raised in families that taught us it's not proper to discuss finances with strangers, but finally, we threw up our hands and confessed, "They lose money." And that's the truth -- the audience for "current" cast albums is small enough; make it a vintage musical, and about 90% of your potential customer base heads for the nearest exit -- but still: who wants to admit that something they consider "important" isn't "popular"? It was hard to "tell it like it is."
We don't tend to stress the downside of the business -- in part because industry trends are written up more much cogently elsewhere than we could ever manage here. This column is about the only place we're able to discuss why -- in the face of all these alarming trends -- we're still here: because we love the artists with whom we work, the projects on which we collaborate. And because we enjoy working alongside so many other people who are devoted to the Great American Songbook.
Seven years ago, we signed a deal with Image Entertainment to distribute our CDs. It's a company of hundreds, and maybe two of them knew music theatre. So we went for our first meeting, where we had to speak about our product and explain the essence of PS Classics to a crowd to whom "the heritage of Broadway and American popular song" meant very little. (This was January of 2003, and our upcoming releases were First Lady Suite, Lauren Kennedy's Songs of Jason Robert Brown, and The Maury Yeston Songbook; there wasn't one name there they'd recognize.) So we talked about Gershwin (you figure most folks have heard of him), and made our way to Rodgers & Hammerstein (at least half, it seemed, had done Oklahoma! in high school), and so on, finding familiar tent poles along the way, until we got to Maury Yeston and Michael John LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown -- and you explain that there's a tradition of great singers singing great American music that stretches back to that place known as Tin Pan Alley, and how it's one continuous story. That to us, there's no "old" music and "new" music -- where would you draw the line? (There is "good" music and "bad" music, don't get us wrong. We were quick to point out that we don?t believe every note written by Gershwin or Porter or Rodgers & Hart is pure gold.) We're upholding a tradition that's been around for over a century.
And even as the customer base dwindles, we continue to believe in that tradition, and see evidence that others believe in it too. The most E-mails we've gotten to our website this year was when we announced we were recording Kitty's Kisses; no one knew what the heck it was, but we were flooded with E-mails of gratitude and excitement. And that's what keeps you going: not the 90% of your potential customer base who might not purchase a vintage musical, but the 10% who will. Because they know that if you don't keep preserving these works, they vanish. And on Kitty's Kisses, there wasn't an artist involved who didn't understand intuitively the need to carry on that tradition, and every one of them -- Kate Baldwin, Andrea Burns, Danny Burstein, Victoria Clark, Christopher Fitzgerald, Malcolm Gets, Rebecca Luker, Jim Stanek and Sally Wilfert -- joined us because they believe in that tradition, and (as you'll hear on the album) reveled in it. As did our engineer, Bart Migal, and our art director, Derek Bishop.
And now we're beginning to get too upbeat, so in the interests of keeping this column free of Pollyanna-ish aphorisms, we're going to talk finances, much to the chagrin of our collective families. Let's rephrase the Playbill question a bit -- to "when will you do another of these vintage musicals?" and let us "tell it like it is." If we sell 2500 units of Kitty's Kisses, we'll have just enough money to record another vintage musical next year (and that one will most likely be Sweet Bye and Bye, by Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash). Join us in our quest to keep preserving the heritage of Broadway. If you find yourself with an extra twenty bucks sometime this fall (say, you're getting into a cab, and you think, "or I could take the subway, and use this on something else"), buy an extra copy of Kitty's Kisses and give it to a friend, or a colleague, or a nephew -- the one who thinks that musical theatre began with Rent. Or that the first Sondheim show was Into the Woods. Or that the first integrated musical was Oklahoma! Introduce them to that giddy, blissful, innocuous magic called the Twenties musical -- a time when four dozen musicals opened every season, their only impulse to entertain. Encourage them to celebrate Kitty's Kisses for what it was, and for what it became -- because without the Twenties musical, there was no Rodgers & Hammerstein era, no Sondheim, no Yeston or LaChiusa or Jason Robert Brown.
Because in the end, it's not about what's new, it's about what's good. It's not about what sells, it's about what matters. And ultimately, any efforts to "tell it like it is" miss the point. "How it is" is just one part of the picture; the legacy of the American musical embraces not just "how it is," but how it used to be, and what it might become. It was easier to sell that message a decade ago; there were more stores, more critics, more customers. But we persevere, as do so many of our colleagues. Join us in our continuing efforts to tell it like it was.
— Tommy Krasker & Philip Chaffin, October 2009
Tommy Krasker, Executive Producer for PS Classics, can be reached at
email@example.com. Philip Chaffin, A&R Director, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.