The veteran cast album producer Thomas Z. Shepard on his proudest achievements, his battles in the studio, and his future projects.
The guru of cast album producers was Goddard Lieberson, who didn't quite create the process but who certainly honed and polished it during his years at Columbia Records. One of Lieberson's most successful successors, without a doubt, is Thomas Z. Shepard. Starting out at Columbia before moving on to work at RCA and then at MCA, Shepard amassed numerous credits; but he is particularly respected as a Sondheim specialist, having produced or co-produced terrific cast albums of the master's greatest shows. (Notable exception: he had nothing to do with the deplorably butchered Capitol recording of Follies). He is also famous--some might say infamous--for his dealings with Elaine Stritch during the recording of Sondheim's Company, a struggle preserved in D A Pennebaker's documentary film of those grueling sessions.
Shepard had another well-publicized clash with the prickly producer David Merrick while recording 42nd Street (see below). But none of this is meant to imply that he has a generally contentious nature. On the contrary, he was wonderfully mellow and in good humor for our TheaterMania interview, set up to coincide with the latest set of Sony/Columbia CD reissues of legendary cast albums.
THEATERMANIA: I saw A Class Act just recently. The show focuses on Ed Kleban's work as a composer and lyricist, but he was also a producer at Columbia Records, so I'm thinking that your paths must have crossed.
SHEPARD: I knew Ed for many, many years, since the BMI workshop. It's a sad story. I was at the opening of A Class Act. I think it's a good show about a guy who couldn't get out of his own way.
TM: Were you and Kleban at Columbia at the same time?
SHEPARD: Ed spent a lot of his years at Columbia on the West Coast; that doesn't come out in the show, but he was there more than he was in New York. I had already left the company by the time the Chorus Line album came around. Then I went to RCA, and then I founded a new division at MCA, a classical and Broadway line called MCA Classics. That lasted for three years, and then I went freelance.
TM: Remind me of some of the titles in the MCA series.
SHEPARD: Well, we did Me and My Girl. We did Romance Romance. We did a studio cast recording of Carousel with Barbara Cook, Samuel Ramey, and Sarah Brightman. Plus we did some instrumental albums and symphonic suites of Broadway shows.
TM: What's keeping you busy these days?
SHEPARD: I'm planning an upcoming recording of Three Mo' Tenors--a fabulous concert of three black tenors that's been presented in various places around the country. And I'm working with the composer Ed Thomas on a recording of his opera Desire Under the Elms; we have Jerry Hadley booked for that. I'm also absorbed in a highly personal endeavor: I'm giving a solo piano recital in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on May 8, so I've kind of blocked out a few months to try to get my fingers back in shape. I'll be doing Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, and Debussy. But I think what's exciting me the most right now is that I'm writing lyrics and music for Between the Lions, a children's show that's been on PBS-TV for about a year. There's a segment in it called "The Monkey Pop-Up Theater" for which I've been hired to write the songs, and that fills me with enormous pleasure.
TM: What was the first cast album you produced?
SHEPARD: My first Broadway cast album was Bajour, conducted by Lehman Engel, whom I had also known from the BMI workshop. Before that, I had worked on a few studio cast albums with Jim Foglesong; some of the things we did were Lady in the Dark with Risë Stevens and Adolph Green, Annie Get Your Gun with Doris Day and Robert Goulet, Show Boat with Barbara Cook, John Raitt, and William Warfield. After Jim left, I went on to do Oklahoma! with John Raitt and Florence Henderson, and The King and I with Barbara Cook and Theodore Bikel. All of those came before Bajour, so it wasn't as if I was thrust into a studio like a naked person into scalding water. I learned a lot from Jim; he was a wonderful guy.
TM: And what was the first, big, smash Broadway show for which you did the cast album?
SHEPARD: Company. I've seen the documentary on the recording sessions, of course, but not the new DVD version with the audio commentary [from Hal Prince, Elaine Stritch, and D A Pennebaker]. It's very hard for me to watch the Stritch section of the film. When we lived it, we were almost 18 hours into the recording session; nerves were raw and exhaustion was high. But when you see it on film, it's only about 40 minutes into the program, so you don't get it in context. I find it difficult to watch because I did not treat [Stritch] in a way that was supportive.
TM: One of the most amazing things about the film is that some of the singers and orchestra members are smoking during the recording.
SHEPARD: All of us. Constantly! We were a walking commercial for Kools, Camels, and Lucky Strikes.
TM: Looking back, which of the albums that you produced do you consider to be the best?
SHEPARD: Certainly, that one: Company. Most of the Sondheim shows. I'm extremely proud of Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures--and, in many respects, Sunday in the Park With George, because it took a lot of planning and re-adapting. I think it really works on its own terms. Also the Follies concert that I produced with the New York Philharmonic, and Porgy and Bess with the Houston Grand Opera. In the last few years, Kiss of the Spider Woman with Vanessa Williams was wonderful, I think, and the English cast of Chicago.
TM: Would you mind talking about your conflict with David Merrick during the recording of the 42nd Street album?
SHEPARD: It was crazy. What it boiled down to was that, in an effort to make the taps louder in the opening sequence, Merrick told me to shut off the orchestra mikes. I wouldn't do that, for a lot of reasons; I believed that the interaction between the sound of the taps and the rhythm of the music was what made the number work. There was a clash of temperament and attitude right from the beginning. That show was very much Merrick's baby, and I think he felt even more proprietary about it than he might have otherwise--to such a degree that the composer, Harry Warren, wasn't even invited to the recording sessions. There was no gradation of emotion with Merrick; he was either civil or it appeared that he wanted to kill you. When we had our conflict over 42nd Street, he told the cast that the sessions were canceled and they should all go home. I got on the talkback mike and said, "You're being paid by RCA today, not by Mr. Merrick. The session is still on." So, under that kind of tension, the day proceeded. It was horrible.
TM: If I remember, the ultimate solution to the disagreement was that the taps were accompanied by a solo piano.
SHEPARD: That was a wonderful idea. Actually, it was Merrick's idea, to give the devil his due. But you see, after our conflict, he became impossible about everything else on the album. There are no winners when things get that ugly. There is only pain.
TM: You've recently been involved in remastered editions of albums that were made before your time at Columbia or that you didn't originally work on, for one reason or another. The latest releases from Sony/Columbia are the Broadway cast of Bells Are Ringing with Judy Holliday and the London cast of Fiddler on the Roof with Topol. In your opinion, what are some of the finest recordings that you didn't produce?
SHEPARD: Well, the two you just mentioned are wonderful. The [Goddard] Lieberson recording of A Little Night Music, which I assisted on but certainly wasn't my album, is enormously successful--and it's better-sounding than ever in its reissue. Also Lieberson's Cabaret and Mame--and, more than anything, Gypsy. I found so much wonderful stuff from the Gypsy sessions that hadn't been used. I've taken a little heat for choosing an alternate version of "All I Need is the Girl," but it just charmed me, with all of that enthusiasm at the end. It seemed a far more evocative performance.
TM: How have cast albums changed over the years?
SHEPARD: For one thing, Lieberson was impatient with dialogue, by and large. Remember, he came of age in the era when most songs on an album were two or three minute cuts, because they were recorded on 10-inch 78s and they were meant to be played on the radio. Even though he lived and worked long after those days, Lieberson's sensibility was attuned to distilling the spirit of the music and to getting a lot of airplay. Nowadays, forget airplay! Other than Jonathan Schwartz, who the hell is playing cast albums? As I get older and recordings have gotten potentially longer, I've started to think of these albums as having more of a dramatic spine, with an interspersion of dialogue and music. I think I went overboard when I did the album for the revival of Damn Yankees; I probably put in too much dialogue. But when I did that with Victor/Victoria, it helped, because Julie Andrews was often at her most charming in her dialogue and I wanted to capture that.
TM: What about shows that were outright flops or are perceived as having been less than successful. Do any memorable recordings of that type leap to mind?
SHEPARD: Jay David Saks did a wonderful job on Assassins. And, seeing Lonnie Price on stage in A Class Act, I couldn't help thinking about Merrily We Roll Along. That album played better than the show itself. We sunk a fortune into it. Our feeling was that, if we were going to do it, we would do it proudly--not like we were sneaking it out.
TM: Are there any cast albums in your future?
SHEPARD: I certainly hope so. I think they'll be fewer, because Disney does pretty much its own thing, and the people that I've worked with the most through the years are doing less. Wonderful things do pop up: I may be doing an album with Craig Bierko, though that's just in the talking stages. We used to do as many as four or five albums a year, but those days are gone. If I could do two or three a year now, that would be lovely. I feel strongly about what recordings can do to distill a show. It's something I give a lot of T.L.C. to, and something I would not want to stop doing.