The Melody Lingers On: Small Labels Keep Theatre Music Alive

By Robert Simonson
29 Mar 2007

Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight recordings.
Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight recordings.

The Broadway musical world may not have noticed it at the time, but in the year 2000 there was a revolution within the industry, and it had nothing to do with the millennium.

In that year, an actor named Kurt Deutsch, unhappy with the terms of his actress wife's new recording contract, decided she could do better if they made her debut album themselves. Around the same time, Tommy Krasker, a record producer dissatisfied with the opportunities offered him by the big labels, decided to launch, with partner Philip Chaffin, a new company dedicated to theatre people, theatre music and American popular song.

Today, musical theatre artists and fans know the companies they subsequently created as, respectively, Sh-K-Boom Records and PS Classics, two small outfits who are increasingly responsible for recording many of Times Square's biggest shows. Of the musicals currently running on Broadway, Sh-K-Boom released the CDs of The Drowsy Chaperone and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and PS Classics recorded Grey Gardens and (with Nonesuch) Company.

As Bruce Kimmel — who operates Kritzerland, another small theatre music label, dedicated to recording concept albums, vocalists, and cast albums, and who has been producing cast albums since 1993 — succinctly puts it, "In recent years, the majors have once again backed off, except for occasional releases, and the smaller labels are doing everything."

"A lot of places I was working at were busy downsizing or eliminating their Broadway divisions altogether," said Krasker, remembering the impetus behind his decision to become his own boss. "I came to a crossroads where I figured if I was going to make the kind of albums that I cared about, I'd probably have to not only make the albums, which I was used to doing, but learn the back end of the business."



In their geneses, Sh-K-Boom and PS Classics have a lot in common. Both producers initially operated out of their homes. (Krasker, who lives in Bronxville, still does.) And neither expected to get the original-cast-album business. "Cast albums weren't part of the picture," said Deutsch. His mission in founding Sh-K-Boom was to bridge the gap between theatre and rock and roll, producing albums by stage stars singing material other than show tunes. He recruited his wife, Tony Award nominee Sherie Rene Scott, as well as friends like Adam Pascal and Alice Ripley, as recording artists. "They are the new generation of Broadway," said Deutsch. "With them, we could maybe build a community of artists." Of the public reaction to the project, Deutsch said, "There were the purists that wanted musical theatre artists to stick with their Broadway stuff. 'Don't do rock 'n' roll.' And then there were people who really follow these people and encourage them to stretch."

A turning point came when Scott was cast in the Jason Robert Brown musical The Last Five Years. Deutsch had built up a relationship with the show's producers, Arielle Tepper and Marty Bell, and decided to approach them with a new business model. "I said if we do this ourselves," he recalled, "and put the money up together and partner together, we'll all stand to make some money." Tepper and Bell agreed and the CD enjoyed greater sales and distribution than anything Sh-K-Boom had put out before. Deutsch and the producers now co-own the master recordings of The Last Five Years.

That business model has been applied to most of the cast albums Sk-K-Boom, and its sister label Ghostlight, have released since then, including the Scott shows Debbie Does Dallas and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. (It's an open question whether Deutsch would allow any show starring his wife to be recorded by a rival label.) The set-up appears to have paid off. Scoundrels, along with Spelling Bee and Chaperone have sold between 50,000 to 60,000 copies each for Sk-K-Boom. "Some of the producers just want the record paid for and don't care about it being an asset in the future," he observed. "But others see the potential and believe in their shows and see it as a revenue stream."

PS Classics-issued CDs.
Kimmel has also seen an alteration in producers' attitude toward the handling of cast albums. "That whole world has changed in the last two years," he said. "It used to be that producers would rather have died than pay for their own cast album, but that's exactly what's happened in the last couple of years. Now the label paying for a cast album is the exception rather than the rule."

PS Classics' first cast album was the 2003 Broadway revival of Nine, and its connection to the show was its composer, Maury Yeston. An early PS project has been "The Maury Yeston Songbook." "I've known Maury for 30 years," said Krasker. "I was rehearsal pianist on the original production of Nine. We had just finished 'The Maury Yeston Songbook' and Maury was so happy. He said, 'We're getting ready to mount this revival of Nine. You should really bid on it.' Philip and I were so green, I didn't even know what 'bid on it' means." But they did bid, and their bid was accepted.

The album proved a good seller. "We went from going to projects costing 'X' amount to projects costing four times that amount, and realizing we could fund those things." Cast albums of Fiddler on the Roof, The Frogs, Pacific Overtures, Assassins and the recent London revival of Sunday in the Park With George followed. Recently, PS continued its relationship with Stephen Sondheim, entering into an unusual partnership with Nonesuch to co-produce the new Broadway revival of Company.

Fiddler and Assassins are PS Classics' best selling cast albums. Though Krasker declined to reveal specific sales figures, he said "with a Broadway cast album, we look to move anywhere from 30,000 units to 60,000 units in the first 18 months… With Off-Broadway cast albums, we look to sell anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 units in a similar period of time."

Needless to say, the days of debt and obscurity are in the past for Sh-K-Boom and PS Classics. Both labels are profitable, thanks to growing catalogues; PS has more than 50 albums to its credit, Sh-K-Boom more than 40. "I can finally start paying myself a salary," joked Deutsch.

Deutsch knows the music business will continue to change, but he believes, whatever comes, there will be a place in the theatre world for "mom and pop" operations like his. "The way that we listen to music is changing, but cast albums are a vital part of the way you market a show and a part of its future life. And, ultimately, preservation is the most important thing. Because they're really pieces of history and without cast albums these shows would probably be forgotten."

Adds Kimmel, "I think we keep musical theatre alive."

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For more information, Playbill.com suggests the websites of independent labels devoted to cast albums, including:

  • www.psclassics.com

  • www.sh-k-boom.com

  • www.kritzerland.com

  • www.jayrecords.com

  • www.originalcastrecords.com

  • www.drgrecords.com