DIVA TALK: Preserving History: The Gypsy Recording Sessions

DIVA TALK: Preserving History: The Gypsy Recording Sessions Hello, diva lovers! Thanks for all your responses to last week's column, which compared LPs to CDs. I LOVED reading all your "vinyl histories" and will reprint some excerpts in a future column. . . . But, now, on to the Gypsy sessions!
(L-R) Tammy Blanchard, Bernadette Peters, John Dossett during the Gyspy recording sessions at Right Track Studios.
(L-R) Tammy Blanchard, Bernadette Peters, John Dossett during the Gyspy recording sessions at Right Track Studios. (Photo by Andrew Gans)

RECORDING GYPSY:

Warn your neighbors, folks! If the Gypsy CD is anywhere near as thrilling as the sound heard in the recording studio this past week, fans across the country will be blaring Bernadette Peters' renditions of "Some People," "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" for years to come. In fact, the Angel Records release — set to hit stores Aug. 19 — may turn out to be the definitive Gypsy recording.

I celebrated my 35th birthday this past Tuesday, and I couldn't fathom a more exciting gift than an invitation to attend the Gypsy recording sessions, which were held June 22 and 23 at Manhattan's Right Track Studios on West 38th Street. I was unable to attend the Sunday morning session, so I missed the first half of the day, which featured Marvin Laird and the Gypsy orchestra recording Jule Styne's famed Overture and Entr'Acte. The morning also included the taping of "Newsboys," "May We Entertain You," "Farmboys," "Broadway" and David Burtka's toe-tapping "All I Need Is the Girl."

I arrived at 3 PM, just in time for the afternoon session featuring star Peters. A little scene-setting: the recording studios are located on the fourth floor of the building. The sound booth, featuring two rows of control panels and a row of couches along the back wall, is separated from the main recording room by a panel of glass. The large orchestra was situated in this cavernous room with conductor Laird on a raised podium in the middle. A row of microphones was lined up facing the orchestra, directly in front of the sound booth. There was also another smaller recording room to the left of the sound booth, where two-time Tony Award winner Peters recorded all her tracks. Among those listening intently in the sound booth on the first day of recording were Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes; veteran Tony winning Broadway composer and Gypsy lyricist Stephen Sondheim; musical supervisor Patrick Vaccariello; and record producer Jay David Saks.

The first take of "Together," the second-act charmer featuring Peters and co-stars John Dossett and Tammy Blanchard, began at 3:32 PM. Peters started with the song's spoken introduction, "We got Herbie for brains, we got for you for talent, and you both got me . . . to yell at." After the first take, I realized how glad I was that the Gypsy producers waited a few weeks to record the musical, rather than doing so immediately following the show's opening. Peters' interpretations — though powerful to begin with — have grown remarkably since the musical began its run March 31. What's always so enjoyable about watching the actress and what makes repeat visits to her shows necessary is witnessing how her performance grows and changes; she never offers a by-the-numbers performance; it's always fresh and from her soul. And, her delivery of songs becomes more nuanced, more layered and more vocally astounding. Two further takes of "Together" were recorded at 3:43 and 3:50 PM, followed by two takes of "Toreadorables." Peters and Dossett offered a lilting "Small World" at 4:22 PM. For the second take of that duet, two "pleases" were added to the musical interlude when Rose persuades Herbie to be the agent for her daughters' act. In the show, Peters manages to lure Herbie through seductive poses and non-verbal begging, which wouldn't be discernable on a recording.

It's clear that everyone in the room who works with or has worked with Peters adores her, probably no one more than composer Sondheim, who knows every note and lyric of the score, and interjects such phrases as "Hire her! Hire her!" or "Yes! Yes! Yes!" after Peters completes various songs. He is a stickler, however, and knows exactly how he wants certain phrases to sound, even requesting Peters to do a third take of "Small World" to better enunciate the "g" on "traveling" and "settling."

The remainder of the afternoon included Blanchard's touching "Little Lamb"; the final scene between Rose (Peters) and Louise (Blanchard), when the mother and daughter try to reconcile their differences; the second portion of "Mr. Goldstone"; and Peters and Dossett's charming "You'll Never Get Away from Me."

Also observing the recording session was composer Jule Styne's widow, Margaret. I had the chance to speak with Margaret, who had also watched Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly record their Gypsys. I asked her to speak about Peters' Rose, and Styne explained, "To me she has this wonderful touching quality. She makes you want to cry. . . . You're very sympathetic to her, and it's very touching. I find as the show goes on, I really care about her, more so with this [Rose] than the others. . . . [Bernadette is] very touching, very vulnerable and sexy. She's very multi-dimensional." Styne also added that she wished her husband were alive to attend the recording. "I wish Jule were here. He'd love it so much. He'd be popping up and down. His ear was amazing. If there were ten violins, he could tell which out of ten was playing the wrong note."

The Gypsy orchestra broke for dinner 6-7 PM, and the recording resumed with Tammy Blanchard and Kate Reinders singing their first-act plea, "If Momma Was Married." The day ended on a high note as the three strippers — Electra (Julie Halston), Tessie Tura (Heather Lee) and Mazeppa (Kate Buddeke) — belted out their second-act show-stopper, "You Gotta Get a Gimmick."

As much fun as it was to attend the first day of recording, it was the second day that was, in a word, thrilling. Listening to Peters record her exceptional versions of "Some People," "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" was a treat of a lifetime. The afternoon began a little after 1 PM with Peters recording her first number in the show, the classic Styne-Sondheim tune "Some People." It was decided that the first take's tempo was a bit too fast, so a second was recorded at 1:20 PM. It was interesting to note the difference in the studio's atmosphere on this second day of recording: On the first, people were much more casual, talking through some of the recordings and mulling about. On the second day, an additional sense of excitement filled the air, and there was complete silence as Peters recorded her "big three" tunes: Everyone was completely enraptured by her performances, and each take was greeted by enthusiastic applause. I particularly liked the determination Peters brought to the second take of "Some People," especially the phrase "some people ain't meeeee" and the spoken line, "but I'll get it, and I'll get my kids OUT!" After, Sondheim simply exclaimed, "Great!"

Peters took a 15-minute break as the orchestra recorded the portion of "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" featuring the out-of-tune trumpet solo. Sondheim was unhappy with the instrumental passage, and felt that a bugle was needed to achieve the appropriate comic effect. Unfortunately, there was no bugle in the recording studio; just as a messenger was about to head to the Shubert Theatre, a trumpeter came through with the correct sound, and during the take, Sondheim laughed, "Now, that's funny! Ask him if he wants to understudy." Peters also joked that she could play the solo, having done so during the West End concert tribute to producer Cameron Mackintosh, where she took part in the "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" sequence.

At 1:42 PM, Peters began her first take of Gypsy's first-act finale, "Everything's Coming Up Roses." The take featured a few of Arthur Laurents' lines that lead up to the song: "I'm gonna make you a star. I'm gonna build a whole new act all around you. It's going to be better than anything we ever did before, better than anything we even dreamed. Oh, you're right Herbie, it is for the best. The old act was getting stale and tired, but the new one. Look at the new star, Herbie. She's going to be beautiful. She is beautiful. Finished! We're just beginning! And there's no stopping us this time." Peters delivered the lines with a chilling intensity before launching into a passionate "Everything's Coming Up Roses." It was quite amazing to watch the actress, who was joking in the sound booth one moment and pouring her guts out in the recording booth the next. Her ability to call up such heartfelt emotion in a split second was astounding.

Peters was unhappy with her performance, however, on the first track, stopping midway at "You can do it. . ." A second track began at 1:47 PM, and she was emotionally and vocally thrilling. (I love the way she vibratos the first syllable of "everything" each time she sings "everything's coming up. . .") What is it about her voice that is so moving? Part womanly and part girlish, it is a powerful instrument, not only in volume (though that is impressive) but in the wealth of emotion it is able to convey. I closed my eyes during several of the day's takes and even without seeing Peters' facial expressions, her voice — that mix of husky, sweet, rounded, vibrato-filled tones — induces a response that spans the emotional scale. In fact, after hearing Peters' rendition, it's hard to believe that I ever thought of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" as a sweet, throwaway tune. In the context of the show — and in Peters' hands — it becomes one of the most harrowing theatrical moments, the ultimate anthem of desperation.

Although the afternoon also included Rose's opening line — "Sing out, Louise" — the reprise of "Small World" and the first portion of "Mr. Goldstone" — sung with comedic flair — the high point of the three-hour session was Gypsy's climactic number, "Rose's Turn." At 2:17 PM, Peters began, with a cry in her voice, exclaiming, "I made you! You want to know why? You want to know what I did it for? Because I was born too soon and I started too late — that's why! With what I have in me I could have been better than any of you. What I've got in me, what I've been holding down inside of me, oh if I ever let it out, there wouldn't be signs big enough. There wouldn't be lights bright enough. Here she is BOYS! Here she is WORLD! Heeeere's Roooose!" Peters stopped at "How do you like them egg rolls, Mr. Goldstone" to restart: the second take began at 2:23 PM.

After Peters finished what I felt was a flawless version of "Rose's Turn," I realized that her rendition of this song may be the highlight of a career already filled with many highlights: She has taken a song that has been delivered incredibly by others and brought it to a new level. And, as I've written before — about her appearance on the Tony telecast — I feel the song reaches its climax in the word "well" that precedes "Well, someone tell me when is it my turn? Don't I get a dream for myself!" The frustration, the longing, the wanting, the needing — all the love and success that Rose has been unsuccessfully searching for her entire life — finally explodes in this belty "Well." Peters' performance is so dramatic that she can't wait until the rest of the sentence to explode: The explosion comes early in “Welllll!” and it's frighteningly intense.

A second take of "Rose's Turn" was recorded at 2:35 PM, as Sondheim, eyes closed and smiling, nodded his head with approval. Director Mendes, who chatted frequently with composer Sondheim throughout the two days of recording, asked Peters to redo the "Momma" section of "Rose's Turn" to enunciate the second syllable of "momma" in one of the stammered moments of the song. Peters did that section several times, and producer Saks commented, "That's chilling. Every time she sings gives me goose bumps." Perhaps conductor Laird put it best, "That was fabulous, Bernadette."

I actually felt like I was witnessing history-in-the-making, watching one of the finest performers Broadway has ever produced preserve her interpretation of one of the finest scores ever written as one of its creators — Stephen Sondheim — observed the entire process. And, I can't wait for history to repeat it itself when the cast recording is released in August. REMINDERS

Liz Callaway in Concert:
June 28 in Divas On the Hudson in Westchester County, NY
July 18-19 in 101 Years of Broadway at the Lenape Center in Marlton, NJ
Aug. 29-30 at the Stockbridge Cabaret in Stockbridge, MA
Jan. 31, 2004 in Sibling Revelry in Boston, MA
May 8, 2004 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY

Barbara Cook in Concert:

Sept. 7-8 at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, IL
Sept. 13 at the Tulsa Opera House in Tulsa, OK
Sept. 20 in Bethlehem, PA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Oct. 3 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Nov. 22 at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY

Patti LuPone in Concert:

June 27 at the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame Gala in Hollywood, CA
July 19 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, CA
Aug. 5 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, PA ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Aug. 22-23 in Passion at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL
Oct. 25 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA (“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”)
Nov. 7-9 with the Houston Symphony ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Jan. 23, 2004 at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Jan. 24, 2004 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL
Feb. 27-29, 2004 at the Myerhoff Hall in Baltimore, MD
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ

Christiane Noll in Concert

Aug. 28 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Aug. 29 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Aug. 30 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Oct. 11 Chattanooga, TN with Don Pippin
Dec. 31 Des Moines, IA with Des Moines Symphony & Brad Little

Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!

Bernadette Peters, Margaret Styne, Bernadette Peters &amp; Sam Mendes during the <i>Gyspy</i> recording sessions at Right Track Studios.
Bernadette Peters, Margaret Styne, Bernadette Peters & Sam Mendes during the Gyspy recording sessions at Right Track Studios. (Photo by Andrew Gans)