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Our Boy Bill

A talk with Bill Rosenfield, senior vice president of Shows & Soundtracks for RCA Victor.

Bill Rosenfield
The door to Bill Rosenfield's RCA Victor office is adorned with flyers from the current musicals for which he has acquired cast recording rights: Contact, Cabaret, The Rocky Horror Show, Blast!, Chicago, The Full Monty, Fosse, Bat Boy and Urinetown. (Rosenfield has taken down A Class Act, which closed as a no-Tony victim.)

An impressive grouping, yes? Rosenfield, senior vice president of Shows & Soundtracks at RCA, thinks so: "I've got the best job in the world," he proclaims. Sitting in his workspace, with its show-biz paraphernalia and its view of Broadway north and south, he says, "My job is based on opportunity. And, as Stephen Sondheim has written, opportunity is not a lengthy visitor."

Recent developments would belie that observation: Rosenfield and RCA have put out almost one Broadway or Off-Broadway-oriented CD a month since last August. He's been "wildly" busy, to the point where he says he's worked on "too many" projects. Explaining the recent flurry of discs, he notes: "There's a whole band of young writers who love the musical comedy form, and their stuff is getting done."

Rosenfield diplomatically points out that Stephen Sondheim has not had a new show done in seven years, and so that great artist's influence on new composers and lyricists in the area of dark subject matter has been waning. The same, he judges, can be said of Andrew Lloyd Webber and what Rosenfield calls "the British mega-musical." He mentions that Urinetown, whose RCA cast album will soon be available, deals with sober topics but is also "just as funny as you can possibly get."

In Rosenfield's view, the scores he's signed up for audio preservation reflect how rich new musicals can be in theme and treatment. Behind the material, he hears "the voices of what is really pop music today." Ask him to whom he refers, and he says, "The usual list"--Michael John La Chiusa, Jeanine Tesori, Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty, and William Finn, whose Infinite Joy revue is a recent addition to the RCA catalogue. Rosenfield also likes the work of lyricist Mark Waldrop and clearly respects Bat Boy composer/lyricist Laurence O'Keefe, as well as Urinetown creators Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis.

Although he waxes enthusiastic about the product he's accumulated in collaboration with such album producers as Jay Saks and Jeffrey Lesser, Rosenfield says that company policy keeps him from talking about bottom-line sales figures. But he reveals that cast recordings cost anywhere between $100,000 and $400,000 to make--and, when they're released, they have nothing like the clout they had back in the days when, for

example, RCA's original cast album of Hello, Dolly leapt to the top of the charts. Now, it's a lucky day when a show album cracks the top 100 and an even luckier day when one of them "goes gold" (which means 500,000 units sold).

A longtime scene scanner, Rosenfield talks bluntly about the prospects for songs stepping out of Broadway scores and onto the pop charts. This was a routine occurrence 50 or 40 years ago, but hasn't been since the advent of rock and roll and the singer-songwriter. Almost with awe, Rosenfield brings up Bette Midler's recording of the Mark Waldrop-Dick Gallagher song "Laughing Matters" from When Pigs Fly and Stevie Wonder's cover of "Seasons of Love" from Jonathan Larson's Rent; he insists that these are the only ditties from recent shows that have attracted any attention from pop artists. "A theater song is infinitely more intelligent than a pop song," he points out. "Most pop artists today can't craft the delivery of the story of a song, or they choose not to do so."

While the music business has changed greatly over the last few decades, Rosenfield notes, there's one thing that hasn't changed about getting a show down for the record: It's still done in one day. "I wish we didn't have to do it that way, but we do," he says. "It's a miserable, exhilarating, and fantastic day."

Rosenfield traces his love for musical comedy back to seeing Mary Martin in Jenny when he was a 9-year-old Columbus, Ohio lad. "It changed my life," he recalls. And that, he laughingly points out, was a bad musical--one which Martin herself is said to have balked at doing. So it's somewhat ironic that he's running the RCA division through which the Jenny cast album was issued. "It proves that even a flop show is valuable, and it'll stay in the catalog until they fire me," he promises.

By now, Rosenfield has made himself a fixture on the theater scene, keeping very much abreast of new shows. "It's organic to the way I live," he declares. "I live in the theater community." He attends workshops, stays in touch with writers, listens to the scuttlebutt. "I heard about Urinetown a year and a half ago," he says. "Then Michael David of Dodger Theatricals called me up and invited me to a run-through. I saw Bat Boy as a workshop and told them, 'I really want to record it.' " His peregrinations are all in a day's work--and a night's. He claims that he went to the theater 210 times in the past year alone. And, at the time of our interview, he was preparing to head off to London "to play catch up."

Rosenfield has set his sights on which of next season's shows he wants to record, but won't get specific. Is Sweet Smell of Success, with its Craig Carnelia-Marvin Hamlisch score, among them? Rosenfield shuts his mouth and mimes locking it and throwing away the key. Will the long-awaited Broadway transfer of the smash-hit London revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! be recorded by RCA? Maybe--now that it seems that most of the London cast members will not be reprising their roles here. (An album of the British production is available on the First Night label.)

In reminiscing about his career, Rosenfield can verge on giddy. He remembers seeing a revival of The Most Happy Fella in the company of Frank Loesser's widow, Jo Sullivan, and calls the experience of sitting through that musical with the original Rosabella at his side "every show queen's dream." But he remains hard-nosed about other

subjects. He describes record business interest in shows and show albums as "cyclical." And he says that, when company bottom-liners now ask if a prospective acquisition is "going to be as big as The Producers," he has to tell them that years may go by before anything comparable to Mel Brooks' monster hit surfaces. (The cast album of that blockbuster, incidentally, is a Sony CD.)

Rosenfield also knows company history well enough to relate that RCA had no investment in David Merrick's Hello, Dolly! and that company execs in place at the time decided to make up for the oversight by giving Merrick $1 million for his next several shows--which turned out to include the flops How Now, Dow Jones, Mata Hari, and Hot Spot." In light of his predecessors' misstep, Rosenfield believes that issuing a cast album is investment enough in any show.

Whatever the popularity of any individual recording, nothing seems likely to sour Bill Rosenfield's outlook on musical theater CDs. "I have to take the long view," he says. "I tend to see their shelf life as forever."

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