Tale of the Tape
Trying to make a bootleg recording of a show didn't work out for some folks in The Audience. Did Filichia fare better in the '70s?
I also cherished Lee Tannen's "Four Old Jews," even though that isn't quite what I saw the night I attended. Let me explain: In my Playbill, there was a slip of paper unlike any I've seen in thousands of trips to the theater. The way it started, it didn't suggest anything new: "At this performance, the role of Murray in 'Four Old Jews,' usually played by John Braden, will instead be played by Lee Tannen." But what was under that made the slip of paper special: "Due to the age difference between Mr. Tannen and Mr. Braden, for tonight's performance only, 'Four Old Jews' is retitled 'Three Old Jews and One Young Jew.'"
But the song that caught my fancy more than any other was "The Obsessed Fans," by David Pittu. In it, Freddy (Joanna Parson), Caitlin (Michele Ragusa), and Dennis (Mark Aldrich) are attending this unnamed musical for the seventh and final time and are devastated that it will close without benefit of an original cast album. So Freddy brings a video camera to capture the performance from her first-row seat -- but an eagle-eyed performer spots it from the stage and alerts the management. Freddy is pulled from her seat, and her camera and tape are confiscated.
There's no question that this is the way it would happen -- and has happened -- at many a Broadway show. How sad! I don't feel that taping, be it video or audio, should be illegal in a situation where a show won't be recorded. Let me repeat that: In a situation where a show won't be recorded. If someone shows up with an audio recorder at The Phantom of the Opera in order to avoid spending a few bucks on the cast album, then sure, cut off his hands with a scimitar. But if someone adores Urban Cowboy, which went unrecorded -- well, really, what's the harm of his bringing in an audio recorder or a video camera that's placed on a seat? (I don't want him raising it to his eyes; that would disturb people.) You know that if a commercial CD or video of an unrecorded show were to be released, all those people who did tape it would be the first in line to buy it -- so no composer, lyricist, or record company would lose any money.
I'll confess that I've done some audio taping in my time, and I know plenty of other people who did the same. Old-timers like me who compare notes on in-theater taping often say the first show we recorded was Georgy, the 1970 musicalization of Georgy Girl with music by George Fischoff and lyrics by Carole Bayer (who hadn't yet married Mr. Sager). That so many of us wound up with this as our first taping was less by choice than by design: Georgy was the first musical of the 1970s, and we'd all received cassette recorders as holiday gifts in December. (We'd certainly requested them often enough when people had asked what we wanted as a gift.)
I could still bring you to the exact parking space I had that January night when I saw Georgy in its pre-Broadway tryout at the Colonial in Boston. For those of you who knew the town back then, the space was right on Tremont Street, in front of what was then the Astor movie theater. I almost ran from the Colonial the moment the show ended, for I couldn't wait to get in the car and hear the fruits of my labors. I rewound the tape and heard the overture, which sounded darned good. But then came the first song, which sounded horrible. What a sobering experience it was to learn that, with an in-theater taping, the orchestra sounds fine but the cast's voices are thin and echo-ridden.
I hoped that the tape would sound better on my home system -- but no! I sat there all night, straining to hear what the cast was singing, putting my ear close to the speaker and then pulling back in pain when the audience burst into laughter or applause. I'm sure that I lost a good percentage of my hearing for life. Even when the audience as a whole wasn't loud, one or two theatergoers could be heard giving out with the occasional laugh, comment, burp, or worse. I eventually came to believe that my tape of Georgy was better than nothing; that's because Bell Records, which had the cast album rights, didn't record the show when it turned out to be a four-performance flop. But how many times did I actually listen to the tape? As those folks say in Merrily We Roll Along, "Damn few."
Still, a month later, there I was back at the Colonial with my Norelco to tape Who to Love, which would soon be renamed Cry for Us All. Good thing! The show closed after nine performances, and I assumed that it would never yield a cast album. I was wrong about that -- yet I could still pat myself on the back, because the recording that was released contained only about 60% of the score. But how often did I listen to my tape? As Lily Garland said many times in On the Twentieth Century: "Never."
Regardless, a month after that, I brought my Norelco to New York's Broadway Theatre for the penultimate preview of Purlie. After all, this show was going to last a week and wouldn't get an album. Maybe the recording acoustics in the Broadway would be better than they were in the Colonial? Well, they weren't. Purlie did get an album (and ran for years), so I erased my tape -- and, in a way, I regret it. Believe me, Melba Moore's singing at the end of "I Got Love" that day was far more impressive than what she does on the cast album.
I can tell from the tapings I didn't do -- Minnie's Boys, Look to the Lilies, Applause, and Follies -- how disenchanted I was with the sound quality I was getting. I did tape two shows in 1971: the dress rehearsal of Prettybelle, for I didn't trust Metromedia Records (whatever that was) to make an album; and Lolita, My Love, once its closing was announced in Boston. But the tally sunk to one in 1972 (Sugar during its Toronto tryout, because I'd heard that the show was in terrible trouble, which it was) and to zero in 1973.
I made my very last in-theater tape in October 1974, when I went with my wife at the time to visit her parents in Baltimore just as The Wiz was trying out there. "Oh, you must tape that!" cried my buddy Richard Norton. "We'll never get a recording of it." Who knew that there'd not only be an original cast album but a soundtrack, too? As it turns out, I only returned with Act I of the show; my wife hated The Wiz so much that she insisted we leave. Richard was bitterly disappointed at first but was mollified when the cast album came out.
When Richard loaned me an in-theater taping of A Mother's Kisses -- a 1968 out-of-town closer that I missed -- I decided once and for all that I'd never again bother with such recordings. At least when I listened to a tape that I'd made, I could make heads or tails of it because I'd seen the show. But with a musical that I didn't see, I couldn't understand any of it. I was reminded of something that Max (How Now, Dow Jones) Shulman once wrote in one of his novels: A man had an authentic Robert Browning poem in the poet's own handwriting. Unfortunately, Browning's cat had spilled an inkpot on it, turning the precious page into a totally blue piece of paper on which not one word was discernible. "Still," said the proud owner, "It IS a genuine Robert Browning manuscript." While I might have been listening to a tape of A Mother's Kisses, to me it sounded more like the audio equivalent of a blue piece of paper.