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On occasion, folks e-mail us asking about the mechanics of making a cast album: the creative decisions involved, the various stages of production -- i.e., how a cast album gets made. We don't reveal a lot in our responses, as we tend to feel the best albums -- as with the best shows -- feel so organic that it's hard to tell (or occasionally for the creators to remember) who did what, and that if you start to pick apart the creative process, you're ultimately left with more questions than answers. But PS Classics co-founder Tommy Krasker did an interview in March for Sondheim, the Magazine, in which he agreed to answer many of the producorial questions he typically skirts. Sondheim, the Magazine permitted us to reprint it here. We hope our readers will find it informative.

Questions for Tommy Krasker of PS Classics by David Ovenden, Co-Chairman of The Stephen Sondheim Society, Editor of Sondheim, the Magazine.

David Ovenden: Tommy, It wasn't until I looked at your catalogue that I realised that I had so many of your recordings in my collection, not only of Sondheim shows, but of many other musicals as well.

My questions relate to your work on Sondheim shows but I really don't mind, and I am sure my readers won't either, if you digress into other aspects of musical theatre. You have just finished recording the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music. What were the particular challenges of transferring this stage production to a recording?

Tommy Krasker: I don't know that A Little Night Music had any "particular" challenges. I think the challenge was what it always is: to preserve the score and performances as well as possible, and to capture and convey the essence of the production itself. Hopefully, this Night Music won't sound quite like any other Night Music recording -- if it did, I really screwed up somewhere, because this production isn't like any other. I go into every recording with a strong point of view: what attracts me to the material, and what I hope to achieve. 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 particular feel for the material. 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.

DO: Presumably you have to make artistic decisions which differ from those made by the team staging the production because you are using a different medium. Do the director, MD, the cast, or for that matter the composer, have a say in these decisions or is it a collaborative effort?

TK: The decision of "what to record" typically begins as a dialogue between myself and the composer, initiated by me. The process on Night Music was the same as on all the recordings I've done with Steve [Sondheim]. I watched the show several times, determined over the course of a few weeks what I wanted to record, and spelled it all out to Steve in a very, very long e-mail. The kind of e-mail that you slave over because you want everything to sound coherent and persuasive and semi-intelligent. And my webserver doesn't have spell-check, so you re-read it about a dozen times before you press "send" to make sure you've spelled things like "Liaisons" and "Carl-Magnus" correctly. I suggested a fairly expansive approach on Night Music, in great part because I felt it was the best way to convey the emotional strengths of this production. My other goal on Night Music was to make Desirée and Madame Armfeldt more "present" on disc than they typically are -- in particular because of the two actresses [Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury] playing them. That tied in nicely with my expansive approach, and I suggested some key underscored dialogue where Angela and Catherine especially shine.

In the case of Night Music, Steve happily agreed to maybe 95% of my recommendations. We went back and forth via e-mail for a few days, ironing out the other 5%. Then, because there was no bookwriter around, in cases where I wanted to use dialogue passages but make trims, I took my questions to Trevor [Nunn]. He'd obviously know best what the actors were playing, and how best to trim without sacrificing or upending their performances; Trevor chimed in with some beautiful trims, and suggested a couple of short dialogue exchanges that I hadn't considered, which were very shrewd, and that's pretty much what we recorded.

DO: Would you normally augment the theatre orchestra to give a richer musical experience?

TK: Night Music was actually one of the rare times I've expanded an orchestra for disc. In the old days, it was commonplace to augment the strings. There were string sections in those days -- if there were six violins in the pit, you could easily expand to 10 violins for the recording without upsetting the orchestral balance. But you can't take an instrumentation for 10 or 12 players and say, "Let's have four flutes instead of one." Typically these days, the orchestrators are scoring it as it's meant to be heard; they're creating a very delicate balance between strings and woodwinds and brass and percussion. So augmenting for recording doesn't happen much anymore. But on Night Music, I watched the show and felt that Jason Carr's orchestration worked beautifully 90% of the time, and only 10% of the time did I feel the limitations of the instrumentation: a limitation that wasn't readily apparent on stage, but which -- without the visuals -- might become problematic on disc. So I spoke with Steve about my concerns, and as it turns out, he shared them -- and then I spoke with the musical supervisor, Caroline Humphris, and as it turns, she shared them. And we all knew which "spots" we wanted to address, but of course, we left the question of how to address them to Jason. And the solutions he came up are perfect. He's augmented in spots, subtly and splendidly, without undermining the intent or integrity of his original orchestration.

DO: Has the trend for small scale "chamber" productions of Sondheim (and for that matter other shows), with actors playing their own instruments, made a significant difference to the way in which a show is recorded?

TK: I think the big difference is that the producer ages a lot faster in the studio the day of recording. The Sweeney and Company recording dates were very successful, and the casts were brilliant, but those sessions where actors are playing instruments are an enormous challenge. Cast album days are so hard by definition. You're trying to accomplish so much in one day: trying to get the best performances, of course, but also trying to keep the cast fresh and comfortable and happy, and trying to stay on schedule, because overtime is exorbitant, and trying to keep track of breaks and make sure the mikes are working and the headphone feeds are good, and in the middle of all that, you're trying to ascertain if all the individual pieces you're recording are going to result in a satisfying album -- in other words, you're trying to be sure that not only are the actors happy, and the composer happy, but what did you think about that particular take? Was it what you'd hoped for? And every time you start a new song, you're readjusting headsets and moving folks to different mikes and hoping the assistant engineers will get their asses out to the studio to adjust the mike heights before you have to tell them to.

So then you add in the part where "the actors are playing instruments" and you can imagine what it's like. As Sheldon says on The Big Bang Theory, "The horror..." You just make sure you're ridiculously well-prepared. I have everything charted out in detail beforehand.

DO: How do you make the transition from theatre to studio easy for the cast? They are used to doing things in a certain way, standing in certain places, interacting with people and so on, whereas for the recording they are in unfamiliar surroundings without all the usual paraphernalia of the show.

TK: You know, when I first started making cast albums, I used to reposition people with almost every song, so they were standing relative to where they stood on stage, with the same people on their left and the same people on their right. But after a while, I realized there's also something to be said for letting actors stay at the same mike the whole day. So you do what's best for the actors and for the recording, on a case-by-case basis. On Night Music, because a lot of the sung exchanges have rapid interplay -- a few words by one character, a few words by another, a few words by a third -- I almost always positioned characters in a similar configuration to where they stood onstage. You didn't want them to miss a line -- or be late on a cue -- because they turned to look for someone who wasn't there. But at the same time, out of respect for Catherine and Angela, I left them at the same mikes all days, and basically maneuvered people around them. It worked well, I thought.

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 the actors to start at the place where they're most comfortable and assured; you don't want them second-guessing their performance before they've even started.

DO: How do you meet expectations that something has always been done in a certain way and should always be done so?

TK: I ignore all expectations. 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, for example, 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 was so much written about the brilliant use of projections in that revival of Sunday, but I think Sam'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, 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 included 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. Joe left me one of the nicest phone messages I've ever gotten when he heard the completed Assassins disc -- he said he couldn't believe how well I'd captured his production. And that was the ultimate compliment, because that was the goal: not just to capture Assassins, but to capture Joe's vision of it.

Inevitably, whenever I'm about to record a revival, someone from the press asks me: are you recording things that have never been recorded? And I just sigh, because it's so counterintuitive to how you make a good album -- you don't include material just because it's never been recorded. You include material because that's how you'll make the best album.

DO: How does something which is essentially a stage work combining sets, lighting, facial expressions, etc. translate into a sound recording?

TK: That's not as much of a consideration as you might think. The long-playing cast album has been around a long time; we're all used to "filling in the blanks," intuitively accepting things that might not be clear purely on an aural level. That said, you're also not looking to completely baffle the listener, so of course, if there's a lyric or a passage that's incomprehensible without the accompanying visual, you figure out a solution. But one of my favorite passages from all the albums I've produced is one of the most "visual": the final 20 minutes of Act I of Sunday in the Park -- the long passage going from "Beautiful" into "Chaos" into "Sunday." I think it works extremely well on our CD, and it's not like you're getting to watch a giant canvas being assembled while you listen. It works on its own terms.

DO: Without naming names, of course, how do you deal with performers who can put on a great show on stage but whose singing weaknesses are exposed by the recording process?

TK: Well, I'm lucky now, because I have my own label, and I can pick and choose the projects I work on. And if something seems like it's not going to be worth it -- if the rewards aren't going to outweigh the headaches -- I won't do it. And that probably includes cases where you'd watch a show and go, "You'll never make that person sound good on disc." One of the nicest surprises in the studio, though, is when you have someone who's never been in front of a mike, and they just take to it like a duck takes to water. The mike loves them. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, on Night Music, was one of those people.

DO: Is it easier to make a recording early into a show's run or is it better to leave it until it has had time to settle in and mature?

TK: It doesn't matter. We recorded Finian's Rainbow two months into the run, and the cast had their act down cold -- and it was a pleasure. We recorded Nine a week into the run, and the cast was fresh and finding new things constantly, and that worked beautifully, too. And as I recall, we recorded The Frogs after the show closed, and that cast was so pleased to be finally doing a recording, that the energy level was through the roof. I can't remember why, because I usually hate starting the day with ensemble pieces, but we did the title track at, like, 10:30 in the morning. And the ensemble blew me away on the first take. Blew Steve away. I mean, it was 10:30 in the morning, they shouldn't have been that brilliant -- but I think they were so excited to preserve that score, and that excitement came through. That's a really good track, as I recall.

DO: What particular difficulties are there to bringing Sondheim's shows to the recording studio?

TK: Particular difficulties? None really. Steve's just about my favorite person to work with. Working with him -- and with John Weidman as well -- is always a pleasure, so in some ways, it's more comforting to record a Sondheim show than any other.

DO: Which has been the most difficult Sondheim show to transfer and why?

TK: Wow, that's a good question, and a hard one. They all present challenges, of course, and in retrospect I think I've met those challenges better on some albums than others. I'm loathe to mention which have been the most difficult, because folks involved might take those judgments personally. Let me say that I think Assassins, Sunday in the Park and Night Music have been among the most challenging and ultimately among the most rewarding. How's that for avoiding the question?

DO: Would you have made recordings of the same show twice if you thought the director and performers brought something different and unique to the production?

TK: Well, I've done Sweeney twice now, and certainly the New York Philharmonic concert wasn't anything like the John Doyle rendering, so I'd say yes!

DO: Which show of Sondheim's would you most like to record?

TK: You know, at this point, I think I've recorded all but about six of Steve's shows, but the answer is Follies. If you'd asked me twelve years ago, when I'd recorded none of his shows, it would still have been Follies. One time when I was in college, I took the train into New York City, and as you were walking from Grand Central to the theatre district, there was a store called Music Masters that had bootleg cassettes of live performances of Broadway shows. And I picked up Follies, and must have listened to it a hundred times. People in my dorm used to come by and listen to it. I remember Thomas Shepard said something about the original disc once, to the effect that if you hadn't seen the actual production, but had only heard the original cast album, then you would have had no idea what the show was about. I would love to record a great production of Follies sometime: you know, record an expansive 2-CD set of a production that rivaled the original in casting and scope. I should mention that I would also like to win the lottery, have a winter home in Florida, and go to Italy. With my luck, I'll probably be offered a Follies next year where the actors are playing their own instruments.

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