At the Ragtime Recording Session

Special Features   At the Ragtime Recording Session
 
The Broadway cast of Ragtime went into a New York studio Jan. 26 for the first of two 13 1/2-hour-long recording sessions for the two-CD RCA-Victor original cast album. Playbill On-Line was there.

The Broadway cast of Ragtime went into a New York studio Jan. 26 for the first of two 13 1/2-hour-long recording sessions for the two-CD RCA-Victor original cast album. Playbill On-Line was there.

The location: the historic Hit Factory on Manhattan's West Side, just uptown and west of the Broadway theatre district, and 12 blocks from the Ford Center, where Ragtime nightly tells the musical story of three families -- a black pianist and his girlfriend; a WASP fireworks manufacturer, his wife, and the wife's younger brother; and a newly arrived Latvian Jewish immigrant and his daughter -- whose lives collide in passion and violence in the era just before World War I.

Today, the first of two recording sessions for the 32-song score, we're watching the cast and orchestra record the show's prologue ("Ragtime") and finale ("Wheels of a Dream" reprise).

There's a palpable sense that everything must be perfect. For the artists there's the knowledge that this is something they'll be hearing the rest of their lives, and if one little thing is a fraction off. . .

Nearly 100 people are situated throughout Studio One. The room, lined with wooden acoustic panels, is a forest of microphone booms with an undergrowth of music stands. On the studio's main floor is most of the 42-piece orchestra (an augmentation of the 26 musicians in the Broadway pit). Each section of the orchestra (strings, woodwinds, brass) warms up behind chest-high transparent barriers.

The chorus, standing on risers and facing the orchestra, runs through a vocalise. Most of the principals -- including Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald and Marin Mazzie -- are lined up on one side of the studio.

Percussion is in a separate soundproof booth, the pianist is in a second booth, and two of the other leads, Peter Friedman and Mark Jacoby, are in a third.

Nearly everyone is informally dressed -- jeans, slacks, T-shirts, sweaters -- and equipped with headphones. A Playbill On-Line reporter is in a fourth sound booth.

All the booths have thick glass windows that overlook the main floor.

In the center of the main floor, and visible to all on a raised podium, is conductor David Loud. Nearby sits orchestrator William David Brohn, pen in hand, poised over a manuscript of the score.

There are 20 people in the control room, among them members of the show's creative team -- executive producer Garth Drabinsky, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens -- recording engineer James Nichols and assorted assistants, and a handful of journalists including a second reporter from Playbill On-Line.

The control room, which resembles the bridge of a space ship, is filled with desktop-panels of pulsing equalizer lights. Everyone faces a wide window, which also overlooks the main floor. The window and walls are soundproofed, and there's an intercom connected to the boom microphones in the studio. Those in the control room are free to comment or critique without being heard by the cast or musicians.

If the house in New Rochelle is "Mother's domain" (as Marin Mazzie says in the recorded Prologue), the control room is the domain of Jay David Saks, the producer of the Ragtime recording. Saks -- the internationally renowned audio producer of the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, is also the producer of the Grammy-winning recordings of Into the Woods, Jerome Robbins' Broadway and the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls.

It's 5:30 PM and everyone's waiting quietly yet anxiously.The session's been going on since 9:30 AM, and will continue through 11 PM.

There is the usual pre-performance buzz in the studio: clarinets running through scales, a violinist quickly playing through a bit of "Crime of the Century," a singer warming up ("me-ee-ee-oh").

Suddenly Loud, who had been conferring with Brohn, steps up to the conductor's podium and says, "OK, we're going to be taking this."

Silence falls. Headphones are adjusted and instruments are raised. All eyes are on Loud.

He cues the pianist in one of the soundproof booths. The sound of the opening piano rag is heard on all the headphones and over the speaker in the control room.

"In 1902. . ." begins The Little Boy (Alex Strange), who serves as the show's narrator of sorts. Unlike the 1996 "Songs From Ragtime" concept album, this recording will include the entire score -- nearly twice the amount of music on the concept album.

The opening "Ragtime" sequence also includes much more of librettist Terrence McNally's "third person" narrative.

Gradually the other instruments join in. The tuba thumps. Mitchell (who everyone calls "Stokes"), clad in a cream sweater and dark pants, leans into the small black screen in front of his microphone and shuts his eyes on the sustained notes.

Judy Kaye, as revolutionary Emma Goldman, delivers her line, "These are the demons who are sucking your souls dry! I hate them!" with gusto, fully in character, gesturing to the actors who play the show's greedy plutocrats. They grin.

Brohn follows along in his manuscript, tapping a pen on his knee. He makes no notes during this take, which indicates that the musicians are doing it right.

When it comes time for the reenactment of the Thaw-White murder case, the chorus spits the words "Bang! Bang!" crisply, putting plenty of lip into it.

In the song's final section, Loud crouches slightly to indicate he wants it quieter, and then, as the song reaches its climax, he straightens up and rises on one foot for the fortissimo section. The first take is over. Loud applauds the cast.

Saks comes on the PA system with notes. There will be a retake. Saks, who produced the 1996 "Songs from Ragtime" concept recording, knows what he wants and he knows how to get it from the performers -- firmly yet gently.

Drabinsky and the songwriters also know what they want; after the first take of the "Prologue," Ahrens says to Saks, "Ask the New Rochellers at the top to sing very precisely and to listen to each other -- because they're off."

Saks takes the microphone and gives assorted notes to the performers (To one actor: "Don't loose focus on the words 'with' and 'for'; to another: "Lynne says it sounds too careful").

After the second take, Saks tells the cast "much better, much better" and gives just a few additional notes.

Tommy Hollis, who plays Booker T. Washington, wants to take one of his lines again. "The word 'gentlemen!' needs more ring to it," he pleads over the studio intercom to Saks, his amplified voice filling the control room.

"I hate to talk you out of it," says Saks, "but we all think it's fine."

During the third take a hush comes over the control room, the kind of hush that happens when everything is working with the split-second precision of a fine Swiss watch. The choral entrances and exits are exact, the characters' speeches are just right. By the end of the song, nearly everyone in the control room is swaying, snapping their fingers or not-so-secretly conducting along with Loud.

Drabinsky is pleased. "That's a bull's-eye."

"That's good," says Flaherty. "Now that's a show tune. That's a show tune!"

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