Jeffrey Lesser first came to sound through the movies. He was working as the associate sound operator (essentially a sound intern) on a low budget film when the lead sound engineer unexpectedly left to take another job. In a matter of a week, he went “from just holding a boom mic over your head for hours to actually running it,” Lesser recalls. But it was his love of the purity of sound and music that led him to the world of record-producing. “When you’re working on a film, sound is ‘get whatever sound you can, we can fix that later,’” he says. “I wanted someplace where sound was more important.”
Since then, Lesser has worked with legends like Lou Reed and Barbra Streisand, theatre icons like Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChiusa, and produced the cast albums for everything from tick…tick…BOOM! to Prince of Broadway. (He’s also the man who recruited Robert Lopez—and other musical theatre composers like Jerry Bock—for the Wonder Pets! television series, leading to Lopez’s two E’s in his EGOT.)
“In the recording world, my job as a producer is to oversee all the choices that go from the beginning of the choices of the songs through the arrangement, through the selection of musicians, overseeing the recording of the vocals,” Lesser explains.
Unlike a pop album recording, in which professionals record in layers (“you’ll record a rhythm track and get a great groove with a guide vocal … we will add solos separately if there’s a guitar solo, if there’s a sax solo; vocals are done over a finished”), Broadway albums are recorded guerrilla-style.
“The entire production of the recording is generally—not 100 percent—but generally recorded in one mammoth long day,” says Lesser. “Many times, the orchestra and the actors and singers are recording together. [But] you don’t run through the show in the way it’s presented in real time.”
Whereas pop vocalists can go into the studio over weeks for unlimited takes, Lesser says Broadway vocalists generally get two shots at a song and a couple of small moment fixes. The producer must come in prepared. “I see the shows many times before we do the recording,” he says. What has set Lesser apart is his ability to create the ambiance of theatre. “I try to duplicate the experience that the audience has seeing the show, except that the recording is on steroids because anything you want to hear you will hear.”
This fine-tuning comes during post-recording mixing and editing. Though some producers hand this off, Lesser executes this part of production, as well. “Mixing is balancing all the orchestra, balancing all the voices, playing with panning and reverb,” he explains. “It does have to feel like everybody is in the room together.
“With a Broadway cast recording, the vision of the show is already established, so it’s trying to capture something that you’re seeing onstage.”
Mastering is the last step in any recording: setting the songs in the order they’ll be released, adjusting the levels from one song to the next, timing the gaps between songs. “Jason [Robert Brown] loves getting involved in the gaps between songs because he conducts those,” Lesser shares.
Over 30 years in the business, Lesser says any successful career as a producer must emanate from a pure love of music and theatre combined with an astute concentration, or as Lesser describes, “the ability to hear something hundreds and hundreds of times and still keep it fresh in your brain, because each time you do something to it, you’re trying to make it a little better.”
What’s more, a respect for the artists in the room and ingenuity to meet their individual needs will yield the truest sonic product. It’s why he’s worked on every Jason Robert Brown album since the original Songs for a New World up through his most recent How We React and How We Recover. It’s about “making someone feel comfortable in the studio so it’s just an extension of a demo they might have recorded in their living room,” a lesson this producer learned from Lou Reed.
“He said, ‘I love the way it sounds here. How come my records have never sounded exactly like that?’” Lesser recounts. “I took that to heart, found a studio that was sort of the same shape of his rehearsal room, his writing room, and he was thrilled with the way the New York album sounded.” After all, the studio setting (physically and atmospherically) is as much an instrument as a piano or voice in the final album.
Even after dozens of albums and four Daytime Emmy Awards, Lesser feels most accomplished listening to that spinning record. “There’s just something incredible about seeing a blank screen or blank piece of paper and that somehow, magically, within sometimes a very reasonably short time, you have a finished song, you have a finished TV episode, you have a finished album,” Lesser marvels. “I love that transition from nothing to everything.”