Starting with Sondheim
A new musical theater CD label, Fynsworth Alley, launches with a terrific Stephen Sondheim compilation.
"I always think I'm the consumer," Bruce Kimmel says. "What am I going to like?" He's talking about both his new CD label, Fynsworth Alley, and its equally new website, fynsworthalley.com--a site where a line of CDs devoted to musicals, revues, singers, and straight plays is on sale exclusively, and where related news, interviews, live chats, contests, and giveaways may also be found.
Dyed-in-the-wool show tune enthusiast Kimmel didn't know of a site that filled that particular bill. Until now, that is. Fynsworthalley.com materialized September 1, and on October 1 came the first Fynsworth Alley CD release: The Stephen Sondheim Album, produced by Kimmel and featuring Dame Edna rendering "Losing My Mind," Lea DeLaria belting "Broadway Baby," Liz Callaway singing "Everybody Says Don't," Dorothy Loudon nailing "I'm Still Here," and more than a dozen others offering well-known and less-well-known selections.
According to Kimmel, early website hits and subsequent orders have been more than satisfying. Further satisfaction comes from the fact that he's just recorded Michael Frayn's Copenhagen with its Broadway stars: Philip Bosco, Michael Cumpsty and Blair Brown. Michael Blakemore, who directed Michael Frayn's prize-winning play, directed the recording. This seems to be the first recording of a play during its Broadway run since The Real Thing, with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close, was put on vinyl in 1983. (No release date has yet been announced.)
Kimmel's policy is that all Fynsworth Alley product, with the exception of cast albums, will only be available through fynsworthalley.com for the first three months after release. Only then will the recordings be distributed traditionally, with one catch: Items purchased in stores will not include the various bonus tracks included in the versions purchased online. The icing-on-top-of-the-cake track on the Sondheim release is Emily Skinner doing "I Must Be Dreaming" from All That Glitters, a show the songwriter wrote while still a Williams undergraduate. There's a bonus bonus as well: a McGuire Sisters-like arrangement of "Getting Married Today" from Company, chirruped by Eydie Alyson, Juliana A. Hansen, and Tami Tappan.
To some rabid show buffs, Kimmel's name is surely familiar: He's the guy who ran Varèse Sarabande's Spotlight Series until last October. During the six years he held that job, he put out 106 album that filled what he sees as a significant niche in the recording market. And he couldn't be more willing to talk about his past, present and future.
"When I started doing these albums six years ago, it was a different world," he says of his efforts in recording the musical theater repertoire. "Nobody else wanted to do these. A year later, a year and a half later, everybody was doing everything! I did 19 albums a year the first four years. We were getting a lot of notoriety and recognition." He confides that, despite good sales, the Varèse executives felt that the amount of profit they were making after advertising, promotion, distribution, etc., wasn't acceptable. Eventually, Kimmel's bosses decided to close down his division.
That's when he began to think about how he could make what he loved doing pay off more meaningfully. He remembers asking himself, " 'How is this not enough for Varèse, even though we're in the black at the end of the day? What's the problem here?' The problem is that after Universal [the distributor] takes its cut and after the Varèse people pay expenses, what are they talking home after all is said and done? Five dollars, maybe. Five dollars! On any album that has any kind of return, they have to sell eight or nine thousand, and some of the CDs don't do that. So, I thought: 'How can I get the 3,000 people who buy everything I ever produce--because I never sell less than that--how can I educate those people to come to the Internet? If I can get those people to buy on the Internet, I'm going to be clearing almost triple what I would clear through a distributor.' Once I thought of that, I started calling people and talking about it."
And, abracadabra! The Fynsworth Alley label and fynsworthalley.com were born. With Barbara Ann O'Connor as a backer and with Internet maven David Levy (22 and fresh out of Harvard) as his right-hand man, Kimmel is on his way. "The day the first press release came out," he notes with glee, "380 people came to the site and registered for a newsletter, which I thought was pretty heartening."
Eventually, those who hit the site will be offered a mouth-watering array of product. In the short term, following the Sondheim release, there will be a similar tribute to Richard Rodgers. "He wrote the most amazing tunes," Kimmel says, raising himself to the high level of excitement he reaches whenever he brings up a musical, a composer, a lyricist, or a play he truly loves.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Kimmel remembers that the first tuner he ever saw was The Unsinkable Molly Brown. "I just thought it was the best thing ever," he gushes, "and so I started going to every musical after that." The first musical he caught on Broadway was Promises, Promises. Of a year spent in Manhattan when he was just out of school, he says, "I used to hang out at the Shubert to hear the [Promises, Promises] overture--every matinee day. I couldn't afford to go in all the time."
Though cast albums won't be released by Fynsworth Alley during the label's first year--because of the advances needed to tie them down--Kimmel says that they will appear eventually. What he'll introduce right off are solo albums by Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, because their duet CDs were among his biggest Varèse Sarabande sellers. (Just to keep the fun going, Ripley and Skinner will show up on each other's CD for a duet or two.) And then there will a disc by Liz Callaway, another hot-selling Varèse artist, doing songs she loves from the 60's--both show tunes and not.
Kimmel cites as an early influence Goddard Lieberson, who ran Columbia Records in the '50s and '60s and believed in getting every successful and/or influential theatrical presentation on vinyl. "He was a god to me," says Kimmel of Lieberson. "There wouldn't be any of us if there wasn't him. The guy was a genius. Every album he produced, I bought." Thinking of Lieberson's recordings of My Fair Lady, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the like, Kimmel makes favorable predictions about his own ambitious, offbeat plans. And that includes his Copenhagen release. "I guarantee you," he says about signing dramas and comedies on the dotted line, "if we start doing this and it's successful, everybody will be suddenly going after plays. My other idea is to record some of the classics with really good actors. If I can reach one percent of the libraries and schools in the country that handle theater material, I won't ever have to sell another copy anywhere. That'll pay for the albums."