PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tommy Krasker

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tommy Krasker
 
Record producer Tommy Krasker talks about rescuing and recording the forgotten Broadway musical Kitty's Kisses.
PS Classics' co-founders Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin.
PS Classics' co-founders Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin.

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Kitty's Kisses. Sounds like the second favorite original cast album of the Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone, doesn't it?

But it's an actual Broadway show, an obscure little musical chestnut from 1926, composed by Con Conrad and Gus Kahn, that ran a not-too-shabby 170 performances at the Playhouse Theatre. And leave it to Tommy Krasker, veteran record producer and co-founder of PS Classics, to unearth the long lost, original score and get the songs on record for the first time. For the past decade, PS Classics has stepped in where the big record labels have fallen down, recording new Broadway shows, rescuing old ones and giving Broadway's most talented singing stars a place to record. With Kitty's Kisses, Krasker brings to realization a dream that began more than 20 years ago. (The album — with a studio cast that includes Kate Baldwin, Andréa Burns, Danny Burstein, Philip Chaffin, Victoria Clark, Rebecca Luker and more — is recorded and will be released at psclassics.com on Oct. 6 and in stores Oct. 20.) Krasker discussed the project with Playbill.com.

Playbill.com: Let's talk about the restoration of Kitty's Kisses. Tell me what was involved putting it together.
Tommy Krasker: For me, the restoration of Kitty's Kisses goes back to 1986.  I was hired by historian Bob Kimball to assist him in cataloguing about 20,000 musical theatre manuscripts that had been discovered at the Warner Brothers Music Warehouse in Secaucus, NJ.  There were items from hundreds and hundreds of vintage musicals of the '20s and '30s, all randomly stored away in boxes: an orchestra part there, a lyric sheet there.  We spent months working in Secaucus, and most of our time there was spent cataloguing — we were armed with five or six reference books; we didn't often get a chance to actually play through the material we were archiving.

But one day I opened a folder and there was a song from Kitty's Kisses, by Con Conrad.  The only Con Conrad songs I knew were the two songs he wrote for [the film] "The Gay Divorcee" — "The Continental" and "Needle in a Haystack."  I loved those songs, so I was curious what else he wrote.  And the title of the show, Kitty's Kisses, intrigued me.  It was so Twenties. So I went to a piano in the next room, and played through this song, which was titled "Choo Choo Love" — also very Twenties. There was no lyric on the manuscript, it was just a piano part, so I had no idea what the song was about, but it was adorable.  It was this kind of knockabout Charleston. And over the next couple months, I found more Kitty's Kisses material: a sketch here, a vocal part there, and I began to piece together the score. And I kept liking what I was hearing; it truly transported me back to the Jazz Age — it was fun and silly and clever and tuneful, and purported to offer no more than just a good time.  And in my spare time, I went to the New York Public Library and found out everything else I could about the show: I read the script, I read reviews, read clippings, looked at photos, and basically tried to put together a piano-vocal score of Kitty's Kisses. Now this was probably 1987 or 1988, and when I was done, it was like, "OK, now I'm done," and I had no idea what to do with it. I hadn't started producing albums yet — I'd barely stepped in a recording studio at that time.  So I filed it away, and didn't think about it for a couple of years.

Playbill.com: Who do you see as the audience of a CD like Kitty's Kisses?
TK: I hate to pigeon-hole our audience; I hope all our releases will reach beyond the "expected" crowd — in this case, people who love vintage musicals — and appeal to folks who just like good music, well sung.  I remember when I got my start in the business, doing studio cast recordings for Mrs. Ira Gershwin, I would go into record stores and never know where they'd put our product.  I remember looking for Lady, Be Good! [which Krasker produced] and one store had it in "jazz," another in "cast albums," another in "classical," and another in "composers," under G.  But the truth of it is, the albums did appeal to all those audiences.  So I hope Kitty's Kisses has appeal to all sorts of listeners — and maybe in particular, I hope it attracts some folks who might buy it just wanting to hear Rebecca Luker, or Vicki Clark, or Danny Burstein, or Andréa Burns. In part because they're all brilliant on this album and deserve to be heard, but also, it would be lovely if fans of theirs bought the album just because they were on it, and were introduced to a little bit of musical theatre history in the bargain. Not such a bad thing! Playbill.com: In the 80s and 90s there was a spate of studio recordings/restorations of vintage Broadway scores — Show Boat, Fifty Million Frenchmen, the Gershwin discs that you produced, Kern's Sitting Pretty, on a variety of labels. It doesn't happen with regularity today, except at PS Classics (Fine and Dandy, Through the Years and now Kitty's Kisses). Why don't we see these restorations happening today? What are the factors then that led to the blossoming of recordings back then, and what are the factors informing the dearth today?
TK: Those were amazing times.  I was doing the Gershwin recordings, and John McGlinn had hit it big with the three-set Show Boat restoration and was doing a series for Angel, and Evans Haile was recording for New World. It was an exhilarating time.  I'm the last to ever understand trends — I'm usually eight steps behind them — but I think the first issue is: how many of those albums made money? I'm not privy to sales data, but a lot of those restorations had well-paid stars, and huge orchestras and casts — and I suspect sadly many of them never broke even.

When Philip [Chaffin] and I started PS Classics in 2000, one of our goals — one of our naive goals — was to turn out a vintage restoration every year.  But they're expensive, and they don't sell the way Grey Gardens or Nine or Road Show do. We wanted to see if there was a way to reinvent the wheel, budget them carefully, and make enough on each one to sustain a series.  We're still trying to figure out how to do that. We lost our shirts on Through the Years, and it took us a few years to regroup with Fine and Dandy. Fine and Dandy didn't make money either, but it was well-budgeted and well-received, and it at least gave us a model for going forward.  Truly, if Kitty's Kisses sells as well as Fine and Dandy, I will be thrilled.

I was thinking the other day about when I was doing those Gershwin albums; Mrs. Gershwin used to say that one of the reasons she decided to make those Gershwins discs was because when she got to heaven, she wanted to be able to say to Ira, "I did right by the music."  Now I don't pretend I'll be accounting to someone in that way, but Philip and I really care about these older musicals. I joked to Philip last week, as we were putting Kitty's Kisses to bed, that we were born 60 years too late.  And the e-mails we get to our website — just even the ones we got when we announced Kitty's Kisses last month — tell us there are a lot of customers who care, too. That's really gratifying.

Playbill.com: You have discs coming out from Rebecca Luker, Kate Baldwin of Finian's Rainbow and Liz Callaway. How do you choose which theatre stars to record, since so many of them are equally unfamiliar to the general buying public?
TK: The familiarity of the artist is never a concern for us.  In fact, we've turned down some projects with some very visible artists because we simply didn't "get" the product.  We have to trust that if we keep putting out good albums, customers will come.  The first consideration is always the artist's talent, and how that translates to disc — and then the repertoire, and how it reflects the taste and personality of that artist. That's mostly what we look for in green-lighting solo discs. I feel exceptionally fortunate to have albums by Rebecca and Liz and Kate coming out this fall; you couldn't ask for three more distinctive ladies, and like the artists themselves, the albums couldn't be more different.

Kate's, actually, is a bit of an anomaly for us, since it celebrates the work of specific songwriters [in this case, Burton Lane and E.Y.Harburg].  We don't do a lot of those — my fear is always that the pairing will feel arbitrary, like there's no real bond between the artist and the repertoire.  A great artist can sing just about anything — the question is always, will they bring something to it that no one else can?  I remember when Kate approached us with the idea of doing a Lane & Harburg album, I said to her, "If Finian's Rainbow hadn't happened at Encores! last spring, would you still want to make a Lane & Harburg album?" You only get one chance to make a debut album. And she talked about the qualities she admired in their work — Lane's grace and spark, Harburg's wit and edge — and she sang through some material for us, and we realized the very qualities that were attracting her to their work were shining through in her performances. It was a great match.

Playbill.com: How many CDs do you put out a year?
TK: Every year, Philip and I promise to limit ourselves to ten CDs a year — there are only two of us here, full-time.  But every year, at least a few unforeseen projects come up that are simply too good to pass up. I think by year's end, we'll have released 13 CDs this year — much more manageable than last year's 17!

Playbill.com: How has the recession impacted your business?
TK: I don't think a year has gone by in the last five where we haven't had to reevaluate all our models.  My head's still spinning from 2008 — so muchof our business ended up drifting into the digital domain, where of course, CD's are selling for half of what they sell for in stores. But the business considerations have never come first for us in greenlighting projects — it's still, after all these years, "what would we like to listen to?"

Playbill.com: After Kitty's Kisses, what will be your next little-known restoration?
TK: We've had so many conversations about that in the last few months. The thing I love best about Kitty's Kisses is that it's unknown.  It was a nice hit in its day, but it's exactly the kind of musical now that's most in danger of vanishing — it had no "name" composer, its hit tune never became a standard.  I think those, above all, are the shows Philip and I most care about preserving — the ones that no one else is looking out for.  We have had some serious correspondence, last weekend in fact, with the estate of one composer about doing one of his works next — and it couldn't be more different from Kitty's Kisses.  I think it'll surprise people — the composer and lyricist are pretty well-known, but the musical is forgotten.  It's another of the shows that I fell in love with when I found the materials in Secaucus, and I probably shouldn't say much more!

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