PS Classics’ debut release featured co-founderPhilip Chaffin singing classic film songs
PS Classics’ debut release featured co-founder
Philip Chaffin singing classic film songs
Old-timers know that RCA Victor used to use a dog as part of its logo, but Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin have gone that pooch one better with their record label. For PS Classics takes its name not from the 1934 Johnny Mercer-Gordon Jenkins standard, "P.S., I Love You" (though that's exactly the type of song the two are interested in recording) but from the life partners' two dogs, named Please and Sumner.

Said Krasker, when he and I got together for coffee last week, "Please is a female Australian cattle dog who looks like a dingo, and Sumner is a male bull terrier. They adore each other" -- just as we adore the recordings that Krasker and Chaffin have given us, including Chaffin's own album Where Do I Go from You, which concentrates on movie songs of yesteryear. There's also Windflowers: The Songs of Jerome Moross, which is a golden apple of a disc. Christine Andreas's Here's to the Ladies has one of our great divas celebrating other great divas, while Darius de Haas's Day Dream makes us take notice of the underappreciated Billy Strayhorn. And while Mary McCarthy may not have liked Lillian Hellman's Pentimento, she might very well have swooned over Jessica Molaskey's disc of the same name.

But of all the albums that Krasker and Chaffin have produced, the studio cast recording of Through the Years is the best metaphor for their intentions. For, as Krasker told me, "My criterion on whether or not I'll do a record is, would I want to listen to it more than just once and tell everyone about it?" In other words, is it one we'd care to hear "through the years" and not just one we want on our shelves for the same of completion?

Thus, PS Classics wants to give vintage shows the chance to be recorded and to attract people who aren't interested in such current hits as "Gangsta Lovin'" or "Thugz Mansion." Said Krasker, with real emotion in his voice, "It's harder and harder for our great contemporary singers to find record labels who'll do the classic American music that they want to do." That's why he and Chaffin have stepped up to the plate. "We're not becoming independently wealthy," he conceded, "but, so far, we're making a profit." So Please and Sumner (the latter named for a Knots Landing character) probably won't go hungry.

Before spring is here, Krasker and Chaffin hope to be in the studio with Spring Is Here, the 1929 Rodgers and Hart show from which "Spring Is Here" does not come. They had planned to record the musical with two pianos in the style of Arden and Ohman, the pair of keyboard wizards who graced many a Broadway pit during the roaring '20s and who, in fact, worked on Spring Is Here. "Actually," said Krasker, "all we could find were piano parts. But when you announce you're doing something, people come forward to tell you things like the Warner Archives at USC have the materials from the film version. We found about 80% of the original orchestrations there, so now it can be a lavishly recorded album."

Maury Yeston
Maury Yeston
Also on the list are Lauren Kennedy's Songs of Jason Robert Brown; Michael John La Chiusa's First Lady Suite, as done by the Blank Theatre Company of Los Angeles; and The Maury Yeston Songbook, which Krasker is co-producing with former Rosie O'Donnell musical director John McDaniel. In creating that last-named compilation, Krasker got a pleasant surprise. "John and I made a list of the 15 singers we'd most like to have," he said. "We figured maybe eight would say yes, but all 15 said yes." So look for Christine Andreas, Brent Barrett, Laura Benanti, Betty Buckley, Liz Callaway, Christine Ebersole, Sutton Foster, Brian D'Arcy James, Howard McGillin, and Alice Ripley among others on the disc.

It's only fair that Krasker should record the work of Yeston, given that the two-time Tony-winning composer-lyricist sure helped him once upon a time. When Krasker was studying at Yale in the late '70s, Yeston was head of the university's music department. "He was never my teacher," Krasker reported, "but I'd go to him and ask, 'I want to do a Harold Arlen revue; will you give me course credit for it?' He said yes, so I'd arrange the music and direct three people in a squash court that had been converted into a theater. Maury would come to see it and I'd get my credit." Krasker estimates that he staged 30 musicals in New Haven, mostly revues and concert versions -- even a concert of On the Twentieth Century, despite the fact that the amateur rights for that show hadn't yet been released.

Meanwhile, Yeston was becoming impressed by this young man who had an intense interest in the art form he loved. So, when Yeston's Nine was set for its workshop, he invited Krasker to come and work as rehearsal pianist. "While I was getting to know him," reported Krasker, "he'd play me other things he'd written along the way. Things from The Queen of Basin Street -- his musical version of La Cage aux Folles -- and One Two Three Four Five, which musicalized the first five books of the Bible. By the time he got around to playing me things from his Phantom of the Opera musical, I said to him casually, 'Someone ought to do a an album of your stuff,' without realizing that, someday, I'd be the one to do it."

Before that happened, Krasker found himself working as vocal director for the Broadway production of Nine at age 22 -- and not liking it. "I didn't have the stomach to work on Broadway," he admitted. "One day you're doing this workshop on the rooftop of an abandoned theater, having no idea that, six months later, you'll be doing a Tony-winning musical -- that people will take you to lunch to hit you up for work, and that you'll be responsible for maintaining a show and putting a tour together. Shows are complicated and offer plenty of headaches on a daily basis."

So Krasker started vocal and audition coaching -- even though he expected, when he moved to New York, that he'd be doing what he did at Yale: Directing musicals. "It's like that line in Wonderful Town," he remarked, "where Bob sings about coming to New York to be a writer and he finally has to admit, 'I haven't written a word.' I never directed anything from the time I got to New York."

Philip Chaffin and Tommy Krasker
Philip Chaffin and Tommy Krasker
But, in Krasker's case, it wasn't a waste. His next offer came from eminent Robert Kimball, eminent musicologist at the National Institute for Musical Theatre. "That," he said, "gave me the opportunity to dig through material from vintage shows. I'd wind up saying, 'Wow, these are great songs! Wouldn't it be great if someone would record them?'" He wasn't the only one: In 1989, Leonore Gershwin (Ira's wife) decided to record some of her husband's work. "She believed it's not enough to collect the revenues, but you have to plow the money back," Krasker said. "She felt that, since so many years went into cataloguing the material, it would be a shame for people not to hear it. So she started a label called Roxbury (named after the street where she lived in Los Angeles). I was the archivist for the estate but I didn't know I'd be producing studio cast albums of Girl Crazy, Strike up the Band, Lady Be Good, Pardon My English, Oh, Kay! and Tell Me More." (None followed after those, because Mrs. Gershwin died and the heirs to the estate didn't have her passion for funding records that didn't rack up amazing numbers.)

So, what exactly does a record producer do? "Actually," Krasker said with a big smile, "I don't know why the record industry calls it 'producing.' In most other show business enterprises, the producer is the one who raises the money for the project. Here, the money usually comes from the record company itself, or maybe from someone you'd call an executive producer. When I'm making a record, I'm in charge of preparing a performing edition of what's to be recorded. I work with the artists. I make sure to get the exact sound I consider right for the recording. I guess what I really am," he concluded after a pause for a little gulp, "is a director!"

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]