Atlantic's Pete Ganbarg on 'Dear Evan Hansen' and Getting Into the Broadway Business: 'Music Is Music'

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Ben Platt and cast members attend curtain call during "Dear Evan Hansen" Broadway opening night at Music Box Theatre on Dec. 4, 2016 in New York City. 

Under A&R head Pete Ganbarg, Atlantic Records has recently emerged as the leading label when it comes to original Broadway cast recordings of groundbreaking musicals: namely, Hamilton, and now the season’s buzziest new show as well -- Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen. The Dear Evan Hansen cast recording just debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200, the highest chart debut for an original cast album since 1961 -- yes, even outpacing Hamilton, which started at No. 12 -- and one of only four cast albums to ever reach the chart’s top ten. (The other two: Rent and Hair).

Ganbarg, who co-produced the album (out now digitally), spoke to Billboard about Atlantic’s foray into OBCRs, and how he and has team are treating great new shows as they would any promising pop artist.

Was there a moment you can pinpoint when Atlantic took a serious interest in making original Broadway cast recordings?

Atlantic has a rich history in Broadway, whether it’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe, which used the Lieber and Stoller catalog that went through Atlantic (and Ahmet Ertegun was a producer on the show), or the deal [Atlantic CEO] Craig Kallman did in the early '90s with [composer] Frank Wildhorn to bring in Jekyll and Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s never been, “We’re in” or “We’re out.” It’s always project-dependent.

The fact that we’re literally on Broadway -- I can look out my window and see three marquees -- [means] we’re always paying attention to what’s going on. The project just needs to be compelling, in a way that we can actually add something to it, and it becomes mutually beneficial for the show and for the label. Obviously the big one a couple years ago was Hamilton, which kind of re-ignited the current iteration of our interest in theater.

So how did Hamilton end up at Atlantic?

Lin-Manuel Miranda is published by Warner Chappell, and they had given us a heads up about Hamilton when it was still pre-Public Theater. I actually went to an early, early workshop and I remember coming back to the office and saying, ‘This is so unique, so different -- this is something we should do.’ I had been a fan of Lin’s for a long time: I’d seen In the Heights and just fell in love with it, and him. I literally called Wesleyan, where we both went to college, and said they had to introduce me, and we met, and years later when we were courting him on Hamilton, he remembered.  

Once word started getting out about Hamilton, it became a competitive situation with two other labels that came in after we did. They went really, really hard and I realized at that point that I needed to bring in some heavy artillery to try to convince Lin and [producer] Jeffrey Seller that Atlantic was the right home. We all kind of huddled to try to figure out how we could up the ante, not so much financially but creatively. Without [Atlantic VP of A&R/artist development] Riggs Morales we probably wouldn’t have convinced Lin, because Riggs is as knowledgeable about hip-hop as Lin is. When they met, it was almost like they were long lost friends.

And it was [Morales’] idea to bring in the Roots. He was like, if we’re looking for the proper co-sign from a hip-hop perspective, we’ve gotta get Tariq and Ahmir to see the show off-Broadway. And as they’ve talked about since then, they went in a little hesitantly.  But we got really lucky.  It took a lot of people to get where we are now, with the album double platinum.  

Do you have specific memories of the Hamilton recording process?

We recorded part of it in our studios in our office. We’d go from Avatar for some of the larger sessions to our office for when you don’t need 35 strings. Usually cast albums are done very quick, very cheap, but we treat our cast albums like we would treat any priority artist. We’re not looking to chintz on the budget.

I do remember, though, that scene in the show when Hamilton meets Hercules Mulligan and Laurens and Lafayette at Fraunces Tavern, and they bang out percussion on the table --  we realized we didn’t have the table yet for the recording. So we actually found a table in our conference room, this really heavy table, and Quest played the table! Now if you’re ever in our conference room, there’s a plaque: “This is the table Questlove played on the Hamilton cast album.”

Atlantic also released the cast recording for the original production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, certainly a game-changing show in terms of bridging the pop and theater worlds. Was that a watershed moment for the label?

It’s always in the back of our minds, ‘Hey, there may be something special going on on Broadway,’ but it’s less about ‘We’re looking for the next Hedwig,’ and more about, hey, who’s really speaking to a new generation of theatergoers? I remember listening to A Chorus Line in my parents’ car when I was a kid. I loved “At the Ballet,” ”What I Did For Love.” I didn’t think of them differently from pop radio: Music is music. Now, post-Glee, post-Pitch Perfect, in a streaming world, kids are discovering a lot more of these shows, of these recordings, and it makes us as A&R people more aware that there’s a broader palate out there.

Did you take Hamilton as a model for how Atlantic should approach cast recordings, or is it too much of a unique animal as a show?

I think what Hamilton showed us is that there’s a market for a younger audience who are ready to embrace really compelling musical content, wherever it’s coming from. As a result, we’re always keeping our ear open to see hey, what’s the next thing kids who really embraced Hamilton would embrace in a comparable way? That kind of started the winding road to Dear Evan Hansen.

How did Dear Evan Hansen come across your desk, and why did it feel like a good bet for Atlantic?

Through Hamilton, we met [future Dear Evan Hansen musical supervisor] Alex Lacamoire. Making the Hamilton album with Lac, the ideas he had were so brilliant. Everyone talks about Lin as a genius, but so many of the people involved inside Hamilton-- you could apply the same term to them. Lac and I became friendly and a couple months later, he said “I’m working on a new show, I think you’d really like it.”

That’s when Dear Evan Hansen was running off-Broadway last spring. I went and saw it with my daughter, who’s a massive musical theater fan. The show was just really deep and unique, and the music was so compelling, telling this incredible story. It was similar to running back to the office the day after the reading of Hamilton -- I said, “We have to do another one.” When it opened in December, we got right back at Avatar and our Atlantic studio, recording.

How did this recording experience compare to doing Hamilton?

The big difference is on the Hamilton cast album there’s 46 songs. On Dear Evan Hansen there are 14, which is more traditional.  But again, we took our time on the recording, and I think you can hear the difference. From beginning to end, Dear Evan Hansen was probably a month.  We brought in an A-level mix engineer, which is also something you don’t see a lot with cast recordings -- Neal Avron [also] did Twenty One Pilots for me. The guy is as good as it gets, but he also produced the cast album of Waitress, he’s Sara Bareilles’ producer. Having Neal mix it really put the exclamation point on the album.

Any other upcoming shows you have plans to work with?

Not that I can specifically talk about now, but there will be more deals being announced in the [musical theater] space. We’re really excited and enthusiastic about what we’ve been able to do with both of these projects, and we’re hopeful they’ll lead to more. And not necessarily in the ways you’d think-- it’s thinking for the long term and making some strategic moves to just extend a mutually beneficial relationship between Atlantic and the new generation of the theater community.