STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: At the Recording Studio

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: At the Recording Studio Now that I've heard the original cast album of Children of Eden, it's all coming back to me.

Now that I've heard the original cast album of Children of Eden, it's all coming back to me.

Not just the show I liked so much at the Paper Mill Playhouse last November, but also the original cast album session I attended last January at the Hit Factory on West 54th Street.

I remember that in the control room full of buttons and boards, Stephen Schwartz stood center stage. The composer-lyricist may be approaching his 50th birthday, but in T-shirt, jeans, and fit frame, he looked years younger.

He was at home, too. All eight of his stage musicals have experienced recording sessions, starting with Godspell in 1971, even earlier if you include Pippin, Pippin which he recorded at Carnegie-Mellon. (Not one song, incidentally, wound up in Pippin years later.

This, though, would have to be one of Schwartz's most arduous sessions. Children of Eden was to be a double CD set (though a highlights disc would also be made available). So, among the 58 member cast -- 40 adults, 18 children -- he was regarded as the Voice of Experience. Thus, when Schwartz told his cast, "Let's get in the mood for this (title song)," he knew enough to say it in an encouraging voice. He maintained his tone through a litany of observations -- from "I don't think we need the kids singing those 'ah-ahhs'" to "Sing out, you guys who are singing 'We're lost.'?"

No one stopped to consider the irony that the guys singing "We're lost" seemed to be lost. Or if anyone though it, no one mentioned it. Nor was any subtext given to Schwartz's "Who are the low guys?"

"Here," they told him, which made Schwartz shift his gaze towards them, the men in the glass booth. "You'll need to sing softly," he instructed. "Make as if you're telling the story to someone who's as close as the microphone."

"That's the hardest part," observed 18-year-old Frank Tamez. "I spent all that time during rehearsals learning how to project onstage, and now I have to learn to be soft."

Star Stephanie Mills had no problem adapting -- "even though I haven't done an original cast album in 22 years," she said, referring to her breakthrough role in The Wiz, seven years after she recorded Maggie Flynn. But she knows the drill from having recorded 10 solo albums.

So, after the cast started the show's title song - and aborted it six bars later -- Mills said, "My headphones are real echo y."

"My fault," acknowledged Schwartz. "But I want a little bit of reverb. Makes it sweeter. Danny," he suddenly asked, "do you like where everyone's standing?" A recording session has its own blocking, different from the performance.

"Yes," said Danny Kosarin, the musical director who was standing in the midst of them. He wasn't conducting. He'd done that already for the videocam, so that the cast could watch him on tape, and always see him give the same performance without a single variance each time. That also freed him to be on the floor to help.

All eyes darted up to watch Kosarin, from downbeat to that final moment when he had his baton pierce the air with a matador's stab. Conducting informally was Schwartz, who was so overcome at hearing his score played on industrial-strength speakers that he couldn't help adding some eloquent body English. As the music reached its crescendo, he opened his arms wide, as if he were caressing a child. In a sense, he was.

But once the song was over, he was less romantic. "Give me a minute. We'll do another take."

Eleven-year-old Jessica Waxman said, "When I got in here, I didn't even know you could do a second take. I thought you just sang it all the way through, and that was it."

No, it's a mix-and-match process. When listeners get the album, the first line they hear might be the 14th take, while the final moments of the finale could have been from the first. Rarely, almost never, is the rendition heard by cast album purchasers the one and only take from start to finish. It's not so much about correcting mistakes, but about making something good-better-best.

The cast tried again, and once they reached the end, they were immediately silent. No one wanted to make an inadvertent noise that might ruin the take, and force yet another.

"Keep the first take," Schwartz told the engineers. "If I get something better this time, fine."

The cast looked a bit depressed. Not that Schwartz was overworking them. They just wanted to give him their best, and he was thinking they hadn't. Was it just my imagination, or did everyone put a little something extra into the lyric, "Try not to blame us"?

Afterwards, Schwartz asked, "Just one more?" and still no one balked. Adrian Zmed, who played Adam in the first act, Noah in the second, in fact, discovered something new, even after having done 50-plus performances. "When we were on stage, we couldn't really hear the orchestrations. Now we can, and they're gorgeous."

Schwartz started singing -- on one note, these five words: "This is your note, kids s-s-s-s." They nodded enthusiastically, and matched the tone during the next take.

"One more," decided Schwartz, who -- it was really clear -- wanted to ensure that the album was as perfect as Eden. "More breath." He adopted a falsetto voice and sang on pitch, "See how much breath I have?" Then, of course, the umpteenth look at his wristwatch.

Finally, after the next take, Schwartz exclaimed, "Great!" and Angelo Del Rossi, the executive producer of Paper Mill who was seated behind him, went to applaud. Before one hand could reach the other, though, Schwartz yelled, "Let's go on!" and Del Rossi stopped mid-clap. There isn't time at a recording session for applause.

"'In the Beginning'!" Schwartz yelled, referring to the show's opening song. The songs were not recorded in the same sequence that they were sung onstage. Solo numbers were scheduled together, then the choral numbers, so actors didn't have to be on hand when they weren't required. "In the Beginning," ironically enough, was scheduled near the end of the session.

Everyone was really concentrating now. One young man had two hands over his earphones, while the young woman next to him had her hands over her eyes, so that nothing would distract her. Together, they looked like two of the three "See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil" monkeys. But certainly no one else in the room had his hands over his mouth to complete the image.

Now came a complete playback of the song. Some cast members played air guitar as Schwartz continued to air-conduct. Others danced The Twist. I've been to over a dozen cast album sessions, and I can attest that The Twist is somehow always the dance of choice when music is played back.

Well over an hour later of takes, Schwartz finally yelled, "Everyone get lunch -- but the family!" Zmed, Mills, and their brood didn't flinch as the rest started a Sadie Hawkins' Day-like sprint. Dance captain Gary Kilmer took his time getting in, though, and gingerly lowered himself onto a couch. "I had my appendix removed the other day," he explained. "This is my first day out of the house. I wasn't missing it, even though it means going back and facing a three-flight walkup."

Meanwhile, Darius de Haas, who played Cain, called his machine to see about the original cast album of Abyssinia that he'd be recording the next day.

Only minutes after they began eating, Kosarin burst into the room. "Does anyone want to whistle for the ensemble number? I mean, like now?"

After half the cast members raised their hands, bolted from their seats, and started walking forward, they were already practicing their whistling. Said ensemble member Beth Roe, "This is the first job I've had since I graduated college, and I'm going to enjoy every bit of it."

If it all sounds chaotic, it really wasn't. Bill Rosenfield, the A&R director for RCA Victor, kept saying, "It's going so well!" You can be the judge, once Children of Eden hits disc stores May 19.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com