On Tuesday, June 21st, Mervyn Rothstein, of Playbill Magazine and Playbill.com, conducted an interview with PS Classics co-founder Tommy Krasker about our new studio cast recording of Sweet Bye and Bye, by composer Vernon Duke (pictured, left) and lyricist Ogden Nash. It turned out to be a rather expansive interview about the original production, which closed during its pre-Broadway tryout in 1946; the restoration, which dates back to Tommy's discovery of the original manuscripts in a New Jersey warehouse in 1986; and the recording itself, which hits stores on July 12th. It also includes some questions about Tommy's background, and about the history of PS Classics -- and Tommy was in a particularly candid mood that day. Playbill.com has kindly allowed us to reprint it here. We hope our readers will find it informative.
Mervyn Rothstein: How and why did you choose to record Sweet Bye and Bye?
Tommy Krasker: I was working in 1986 as an archivist for the National Institute for Music Theatre, and one of my first assignments was to accompany historian Bob Kimball out to Secaucus, NJ, of all places, where about 20,000 musical theatre manuscripts had been discovered at the Warner Bros. Music Warehouse. When films had gone "talkie" in the late '20s, Warner Bros. had acquired a whole bunch of publishing houses, so that they'd have songs to use in their films. That included the publishing houses of the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, among others. What would happen is, a show would close and all the musical components would get thrown into a carton and sent to the music publishers for storage. And suddenly, this material resurfaced in some back, back storage room at the Warner warehouse in New Jersey. It was an amazing find, and in total disarray. You'd open a packet, and there would be a flute part from one show, the violin part from another, a lyric sheet from a third show, and an early piano manuscript from a fourth. Bob and I were out there with our music theatre research books, trying to identify each manuscript, and it was like a great game of detective work!
The thing that no one really says about the Secaucus discovery is that about 90 percent of the stuff found there was junk. I know that sounds harsh, but a lot of the material was from shows by Ziegfeld or George White, or other key producers of the day, and they had staff writers who were competent but not great artists. So anytime you found something of real musical merit, that was an event. And so after weeks and weeks of "Oh, here's the flute part from the third song in the first act of Snapshots of 1921," when you kind of feel like slitting your wrists, I stumbled upon several cartons of manuscripts from a show called Sweet Bye and Bye.
Now, I'd never heard of Sweet Bye and Bye, but the music was by Vernon Duke and the lyrics by Ogden Nash — in other words, amazing pedigree — and when I looked in my musical theatre reference book, I saw that the book was by S.J. Perelman and Al Hirschfeld, so I was doubly intrigued. So I did what I wasn't supposed to do, and on my lunch break, I went to a copying machine down the hall, and copied all the manuscripts. Actually, I think that was illegal, but I'm figuring no one's going to throw me in the slammer 25 years later. Because I wanted to go home and play it all at the piano. And when I did, I was entranced. It was very much a product of the mid-'40s, the early Rodgers and Hammerstein era, but the music was so challenging and romantic and virtuosic, and the lyrics were so facile — I confess I was entranced. But of course, at that point, it was 1986, and I'd never even set foot in a recording studio. So I put the material in my piano bench, and every year or so, I'd take it out and play through it, for pure pleasure.
Tell me about the show and its history, and about those anecdotes — a star's suicide attempt, Perelman's attack on its leading man at the first performance.
TK: I guess it was shortly after the time that I first played through the score that I wanted to learn more about the show itself. So I went to the New York Public Library and started to research it, and the stories were incredible. I should mention that the Secaucus discovery included hundreds of manuscripts from Sweet Bye and Bye, comprising dozens of songs, in multiple versions, so it was clear that the show had gone through wild overhauls before it closed out of town, before reaching Broadway, in 1946. But looking at old Playbills and reading multiple versions of the scripts and finding newspaper clippings from the era, I started to put together the story behind the story, and it was a doozy.
First off, it was clear that Perelman and Hirschfeld were writing a very different show from the one Duke and Nash conceived. The show was set in the year 2076, and I think Duke and Nash were really taken with an understated theme of the show, which is, "How do you really find your way in a world of limitless possibilities?" The feeling of isolation and dislocation was, I think, a really important theme in 1946, particularly for soldiers coming home from World War II, and Duke and Nash wrote some incredibly powerful songs. The book writers, meanwhile, were writing this wild insane farce without a lot of character consistency or motivation. It was a really bad fit, and it came to roost when they started to cast. They ended up with a leading man, Gene Sheldon, who had no acting or singing experience, whose forte was comic mime. Comic mime. I still can't make sense of that decision. So right away, two of Duke and Nash's best songs had to be cut, because Sheldon couldn't sing. And as the leading lady, they ended up with a British actress, Pat Kirkwood, who might have been fine, except the third week of rehearsals, she had a nervous breakdown, by most accounts attempted suicide, and was committed to a sanitarium. The director and producer, Nat Karson, who basically had never directed or produced before, then did one incredibly right thing — he hired Dolores Gray to take over the role.
So they get to New Haven, the first place they're stopping on their way to Broadway, and Gray stops the show twice, but Sheldon is a disaster. Accordingly to several accounts, he goes out on stage, and instead of doing his lines, he starts to go into his vaudeville shtick — sewing his fingers together, all sorts of comic mime that had nothing to do with the show. He comes off stage, Perelman throws him against a wall, Sheldon hits his head on a brick, and an ambulance has to cart him off to the hospital. For the rest of that performance, the stage manager does the role, book in hand, and then for the rest of the New Haven run, the choreographer takes over the role. Then Erik Rhodes [the comic foil opposite Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the movies "The Gay Divorcee" and "Top Hat"] is hired to take over the role, but according to Duke, he can't remember a single line, and a half-dozen more songs have to get tossed. I mean, the show was a shambles, and really, the most important part of the story for me is that this gorgeous, cohesive score was cut to shreds. Songs were dropped right and left because the original leading man couldn't sing, the leading lady had a nervous breakdown, the script wasn't working — by the time the show closed in Philadelphia, I think about only 30 percent of Duke and Nash's original score remained. I don't think I've ever seen an occasion like this where a brilliant score was just left in tatters.
What was it about the score that was so brilliant? And how did Duke and Nash get involved?
TK: I don't know much about how Duke and Nash got involved writing — it's in Duke's autobiography, "Passport to Paris" — I think they just wanted to collaborate, and began doing so in the summer of 1945. And soon after, the offer came in from Perelman and Hirschfeld to join them on Sweet Bye and Bye. I've always had a fondness for Duke's work — it's often so romantic and daring at the same time. I remember when I was working for Nonesuch Records in the 1990s, and we were looking for a new album idea for soprano Dawn Upshaw, I suggested the songs of Vernon Duke — I thought it would be a good fit, which it was, but I also just wanted to do a Vernon Duke album! Part of a producer's job on any album, of course, is to suggest material, and I think because I had such a fondness for Sweet Bye and Bye, I must have crammed that album with four or five songs from that show. I find it a fascinating score — partly an integrated score in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition, but also full of wit and whimsy. Very moving, rich material, in which the leading man's feelings of isolation — in gorgeous, soaring ballads like "Born Too Late" and "Roundabout" — are played out against a backdrop of hopefulness expressed by the rest of the cast, in the title song and the Act I closer, "Let's Be Young." And the musical literacy is insane. The curtain raiser is like nothing I'd ever heard — forget that no audience had heard anything like it in 1946, I still can't think of anything like it. When we recorded it this spring, the orchestra couldn't get over it — they said it was like Rachmaninoff meets Ives meets Bernard Herrmann!
What about Perelman and Hirschfeld? It seems a strange combination — a guy who draws caricatures of actors in Broadway shows for The New York Times suddenly deciding to write a musical?
TK: S.J. Perelman and Al Hirschfeld had been buddies for about 15 years, and I think one day, maybe over drinks, Perelman said, "Why don't we write a musical together?" It was Hirschfeld's one musical theatre libretto, and after the disastrous experience that was Sweet Bye and Bye, he vowed never again. You know, there are those shows where something seems funny on paper, but doesn't seem that funny on stage — this isn't one of them. It doesn't even seem funny on paper. This sounds awful to say, but the early draft read like a couple of good friends getting together, pouring a drink, and putting things down on paper that they think are funny, but aren't.
They set it in the year 2076, and took their cue from the time capsule that had been buried during the New York World's Fair in 1939. Their idea was, what if that time capsule was unearthed in 2076, and someone has put some candy stock in the time capsule, and over time, that stock has matured and given the guy's descendant controlling interest in a candy cartel. It was a fish-out-of-water story, where this meek tree surgeon suddenly finds himself running a big business. But the writers really couldn't settle on a tone or a satirical target; it's very haphazard and uneven, and reads more like a revue than a book musical. Here's the big irony, though. By the time the casting issues got resolved, and that was already during the final weeks of the run, the authors did do a lot of solid work on the book, and it definitely ended up in the best possible shape. The book ended up getting stronger, but the score ended up getting mutilated. Not a really good trade-off.
Let's talk about this recording. How did you choose the cast? And what's actually on it?
TK: Part of me still can't actually believe we recorded this! I think I was on the verge of tears for most of the recording sessions — I had just dreamed about preserving this score on disc for so many years. Philip Chaffin, my partner, who runs PS Classics with me — he and I had recorded an old forgotten '20s musical called Kitty's Kisses back in 2008, and we started to talk about our next vintage musical recording. And we tossed around a lot of ideas, a lot of composers, a lot of eras, but for sheer musical merit, nothing even came close to Sweet Bye and Bye. The problem with Sweet Bye and Bye was finding the money. These vintage recordings lose money every time — it's a limited, devoted audience — and every time we do one, we have to wait a couple years to do another.
But no orchestrations survived for Sweet Bye and Bye — just hundreds of piano-vocal manuscripts and lyric sheets — and it wasn't the kind of score you could do with, say, two pianos. It needed to be scored. It didn't necessarily need to be scored for 25 pieces, but it needed colors.
We got lucky in two respects. We had just recorded A Little Night Music with Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the orchestrator on that, Jason Carr, really impressed us. His charts recorded beautifully — eight pieces sounded like 15. And he had a classical background that I knew would complement Duke's own background. So we invited him to our offices and played him some songs, and he immediately got it — he understood Duke and Nash's aims, and what the score needed to sound like, and said, "Sign me up." And then another bit of luck: I knew the Vernon Duke collection was housed at the Library of Congress, so I called a colleague there to see if the Library might fund Jason's work, so that they could add a fully-scored Sweet Bye and Bye to their collection. And they said yes.
There was still a huge amount of careful restoration and research that had to happen — it was a full year between our meeting with Jason and our first day in the recording studio. But all the pieces fell into place so neatly.
Philip, of course, knew he wanted to do the role of Solomon Bundy, the tree surgeon — he'd already been singing "Born Too Late" in concerts for decades, ever since I first played him the work. And we couldn't imagine anyone doing the Dolores Gray role better than Marin Mazzie, with whom we'd done several albums. And the rest of the cast was populated either with friends with whom we love working — like Danny Burstein and Graham Rowat and Telly Leung and Jim Stanek — or folks with whom we were dying to work — like Heidi Blickenstaff and Michele Ragusa and Sara Jean Ford. And then we needed some character actors to do some of the smaller roles, and everyone we went to — John Cullum, Georgia Engel, Fred Applegate, Edward Hibbert — they all said yes. Everyone wanted to be a part of recreating a little bit of music theatre history. And you know, the truth is, folks don't get much of an opportunity to go into a recording studio with an orchestra and sing amazing show music — so this is always a treat for the actors.
Philip and I have done a half-dozen of these vintage restorations over the years, and we often use the same people — one reviewer always talks about the "PS Classics troupe" or something like that — like we're M-G-M and they're all under contract. But the truth is, we do gravitate to a lot of the same people because we know they'll give 100 percent and we know the experience will be fun. And you know, I'm 52 at this point, and I spent a lot of years freelancing for other labels, and working on projects I hated with artists I loathed. When you have your own label, you get to pick your projects, and especially when you know they're not going to be huge moneymakers, you want the experience to be enjoyable. Sweet Bye and Bye was a particular delight because I longed to produce it, and there was a role Philip was dying to play, and we cast old friends and made new ones, and it was a joyous experience.
Let's talk a little about you and your background — how PS Classics happened, how you came to be doing what you do.
TK: I think my story is like that character from Wonderful Town who comes to New York and wants to be a writer and then sings, "And since then I haven't written a word." I came to New York wanting to be a stage director, and have never done it! I worked on one Broadway show, the original Nine, as a rehearsal pianist — and I didn't have the stomach for it. There was this hostile undercurrent, and a lot of backstabbing, and finger-pointing — maybe it happens on most Broadway shows, maybe this one was unusual — but I was 22 or 23, and it freaked me out. I thought, "OK, I can't work in live theatre." I started working as an archivist — it was easier to work with dead people — and then I got really lucky: I was working for Mrs. Ira Gershwin and she started a recording project in the late 1980s and made me the record producer. We were going to record the old Gershwin musicals that predated the advent of the original cast recording. I had never been in a studio before — talk about learning on the job! But I discovered I was good at it, and it allowed me to work with actors in a way I had been trained to, still in a pressurized way — since studio dates are intense and grueling — but not in the ways that were very hard for me to stomach working on a Broadway show.
The Gershwin project closed down in the mid-'90s, but by then, I'd established myself as a record producer, and worked freelance for Nonesuch Records, and BMG Classics, and Philips Classics, doing cast albums and discs for solo artists like Dawn Upshaw and Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin. And sometime in the late '90s, I saw those opportunities start to evaporate: a lot of labels were eliminating or downsizing their Broadway divisions, and the folks who'd been hiring me weren't there anymore. Philip and I at the time were actually working on a solo disc for him, and we decided to self-release it in 2000, and suddenly, folks starting calling and writing us and saying, "We see you have a label. I want to do a CD."
And it was quite by chance, but suddenly we had a label, PS Classics, named for our two dogs, Please and Sumner. (They've both since passed away.) We were really filling a void, and that was never so apparent as in our third year in business, when, because of my relationship with Maury Yeston, whom I'd known for 25 years, we were encouraged to bid on the cast album for the revival of Nine, with Antonio Banderas — and we got it! We never thought we'd be doing cast albums on our label, but within the next few years, we were doing Fiddler and Assassins and Grey Gardens, and we had Grammy nominations and it's all been very surprising and gratifying and terrifying. We love the work we do — we don't take on any projects that we don't feel passionate about — but oh my God, what we've had to learn about the business side of running a label. We knew nothing. And these days, of course, the music business is changing so fast that the minute you master something, it's already obsolete!
So what's next?
TK: We have six albums coming out between June and August — a cast album of the Gershwins' Strike Up the Band, which lay unfinished when the Gershwin project ended; Sweet Bye and Bye; Jason Robert Brown's symphony for orchestra and actors, The Trumpet of the Swan; the Off-Broadway cast recording of A Minister's Wife; and solo discs from Kate Baldwin and Liz & Ann Hampton Callaway. They're all albums we love — I couldn't be more proud of what we're doing this year. You struggle every year not to — oh, I don't know, "sell out" is too strong a phrase — but not to take on albums for the wrong reasons. We vowed when we started this label that we'd never take on any album where we couldn't hold it up, at the end of the day, and say, "We love this. We feel it's as good as anything in our catalog." And I definitely feel that way about our 2011 releases.
As to what's next, I have no idea. Maybe a good rest! We don't plan far ahead. Folks are always surprised by the lopsidedness of our catalog: some years we do a lot of cast recordings, some years we do mostly solo albums. We do what interests us. Last year we did four Broadway shows; this year, that wasn't where our attention took us. As to what our next vintage recording will be: oh Lord, let's see how Sweet Bye and Bye does, and we'll talk! There are a lot of old musicals I'd still love to see recorded: one old Gershwin show, for sure, and an Arthur Schwartz musical. And Sweet Bye and Bye made me think about some other shows as well. The challenge with Sweet Bye and Bye was to avoid restoring the show to the way it was "left," because by the time it ended its pre-Broadway tryout, the score was definitely at its worst. I had to go back and get inside Duke and Nash's heads, and figure out, when did they think the score was at its best — in other words, if they could have made this cast recording, what would they have wanted preserved? And it started me thinking about some other Broadway scores that have actually been recorded, but not as the authors originally wrote them. They too underwent huge overhauls from start to finish, and not, to my mind, for the better. It might be fun, if I could get the proper permissions, to take on one of those scores. Who knows?
(Merv Rothstein writes Playbill magazine's popular A Life in the Theatre column, which also appears on Playbill.com.)