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Tony Nominees Give Indie Label PS Classics a Reason to Take a Bow

“On the 20th Century,” starring Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher
Joan Marcus

“On the 20th Century,” starring Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher, is one of three Tony-nominated musicals this year with cast albums recorded by PS Classics.

Capturing a musical theater performance for a studio album is rife with challenges: the time and budget pressures of working with a full orchestra; the demands on a cast to deliver that definitive performance, fit for history. In his 1970 documentary Original Cast Album: Company, about the recording of that disc, director D.A. Pennebaker depicted a late-night, cigarette-smoke-filled pressure cooker with a young composer, Stephen Sondheim, brooding in a black turtleneck.

But that’s not how it goes at a recording session with producer Tommy Krasker, co-founder of PS Classics, the independent label that specializes in cast albums and vocalists.

“I am not someone who thrives on drama,” says the 56-year-old matter-of-factly. “When I did my first album for Sondheim [in 2000], Steve came up to me and told me how much he liked my producing style, because I made everyone feel relaxed.”

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During the past 15 years, Krasker and husband Philip Chaffin (they married in 2012) have produced more than 130 theater recordings -- including 13 Sondheim works -- for PS Classics. Their work has earned eight Grammy Award nominations. Playbill editor-in-chief Blake Ross credits PS Classics with helping “to keep cast albums alive. [They] have proven to be a very valuable asset to the entire industry.”

This theater season, musicals with cast albums recorded by PS Classics have received 21 Tony Award nominations, the most ever for shows recorded by the label, including 12 alone for the breakthrough musical Fun Home. PS Classics also has released the cast albums for this year’s Tony-nominated revivals of On the Town and On the 20th Century. (The Tonys air June 7 on CBS.)

But Krasker still doesn’t see himself as a Broadway power player, nor does PS Classics target commercial blockbusters. You won’t find a jukebox musical -- Broadway’s way to trade on established pop hits (see Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys) -- in the label’s catalog. PS Classics releases cast albums and collections from singers trained in the standards. And Krasker, who studied music at Yale University, says he only picks repertoire that he genuinely likes, and manages his business with similar heart.

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“It’s me, and it’s Philip, and it’s five part-time people who are the most kind and generous and talented people we could imagine working with,” says Krasker of his team. “Frankly, they could all do a hell of a lot better financially elsewhere. But they love the projects we do; they love our passion for our work, and they share it.”

The couple even eschews matinee mingling in the Theater District, preferring to stick close to their home in suburban Westchester, north of Manhattan. “Going to one of those crowded spaces where everyone’s schmoozing and making deals, I’d rather gouge my eyes out,” says Krasker. “More and more, we take meetings in our offices in Bronxville, and people are always very kind about coming to us.”

A short train ride is a small tradeoff for what PS Classics can do for a show: no less than make a performance immortal. Nowadays, a cast album -- sometimes the only dynamic document of a show’s existence once it has closed -- is no longer a given. Orchestral and cast sessions became prohibitively expensive for the major labels (as evidenced by the closing of their midtown studios and the shuttering of cast-album divisions at the labels).

After working for the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts through 1994, Krasker first noticed the shift away from the cast album while working as a freelance producer for major labels in the late 1990s.

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“The labels started to downsize or demolish their music-theater divisions,” says Krasker. “So Philip and I thought, ‘Well, maybe we can release [things] ourselves. We already know how to make albums; we can just learn the back end of the business: the packaging, the manufacturing, the distribution, the marketing.’ ” He jokes: “God, we were idiots!”

PS Classics, which has put out releases by vocalists in addition to its cast albums, debuted in 1999 with a vocal set by Chaffin, an accomplished baritone trained in musical theater. The CD lacked a catalog number or barcode. But it was enough to get the attention of the theater community, which started to reach out with projects and offers.

“We were still thinking, ‘This is something we’ll do for small albums that can’t get a ‘real’ label,’ ” recalls Krasker. “We still figured the big Broadway cast albums would find a home at the major labels.” Three years later, PS released the cast recording of the Broadway revival of Nine, featuring Antonio Banderas. The majors had passed on it.

Still, a movie-star-led cast album doesn’t break sales records (Nine has sold 34,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music), and PS Classics is very much a labor of love, says Krasker. “My favorite emails are ones that say, ‘I won’t get to see this show on Broadway, but thanks to your album, I feel like I have.” 

This story originally appeared in the June 13 issue of Billboard.

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