(October 2010) We’ve been struggling to find a topic for a new About Us column. We typically do an update every six months or so, but our last post – in which we vowed to “tell it like it is” – resonated with so many customers, we didn’t know how to top it.
There were several possibilities.
A few weeks ago, we were submitting all our albums that hit stores between October 1, 2009 and September 30, 2010 for Grammy eligibility, and the list – which included solo albums by Rebecca Luker, Liz Callaway and Kate Baldwin, and cast recordings of Finian’s Rainbow, Sondheim on Sondheim, A Little Night Music, Kitty’s Kisses, Life Begins at 8:40 and La Cage aux Folles – made us really proud. And we thought that might be a departure point for a new column: that in spite of all those discouraging trends we’d referred to in our last column, we feel – in terms of quality, at least – we had a banner year. We could have woven in a really nice letter from a customer who wrote us in July, “Thank you for what your team at PS Classics do for lovers of musical theatre and fine vocalists. I hope that you hear this message from folks like myself often (and I have a feeling that, fortunately, you do), but I needed you to know that your preservation of vintage musicals, new musicals, and musical revivals is never taken for granted.” We thought that was, like, the nicest letter ever, although we were quick to point out that no, we actually don’t get messages like that a lot – that mostly we get mail that falls somewhere between curt and caustic.
And then we realized that could be a column: we could answer our mail. Publicly. It was around that time that Tommy was reading Pauline Kael’s collection of reviews entitled For Keeps, and upon chuckling over the chapter in which she answered her listeners (early in her career, while she was still reviewing for KPFA in Berkeley), we thought about devoting a column to answering our mail. That column could have been a hoot. When we started PS Classics, in 2000, the two of us vowed to answer all inquiries; now it’s become devilishly hard to address the snippets of ramblings that pass as e-mails. Now that so many folks seem to write from their iPhones or Blackberries, or some handheld device, they write us in shorthand, with little punctuation and less civility. “You've passed on so many great productions recently,” someone wrote us in early April, “I assume you passed up the opportunity [to record La Cage aux Folles] as well." (Note to Someone: you know what happens when you assume.) “Why did you wrek [sic] the Night Music album with all that dialog [sic]?” someone else asks, neglecting to leave us their name. (Note to Someone Else: if you want a response, leave us your name; if you have a question, own it.) “Can u send me a Sondheim for review?” a third man writes, neglecting to leave a name, address, or the name of his newspaper, column or blog. (Note to The Third Man: if you’re looking for product for review, give us your name and address, let us know for whom you write, and please, make it a real job.)
And that note reminded of us a whole new trend worth writing about: the I-love-your-product-and-don’t-want-to-pay-for-it sense of entitlement. We saw it in play on our second album, Windflowers, when someone from the Brooklyn Daily Mirror wrote requesting a review copy. (There is no Brooklyn Daily Mirror.) Now scarcely a week goes by that someone doesn’t write us requesting free product for a nonexistent newspaper or website. “I’m starting a blog devoted to all sort of topics, including theatre,” blogger Wendy writes us, “Would you send me a copy of La Cage?” We suppose it’s only a matter of time before someone writes, “I’m considering talking about Sondheim on Sondheim at Sunday dinner; would you send me a copy?” But of course, soon they won’t need to write us. The day after our 2-CD Original Broadway Cast Recording of Sondheim on Sondheim went on sale, we were directed to a theatre forum where someone had already posted a free, illegal download of the entire album. (We see illegal downloads pop up constantly, but we’d never seen someone post one the day after release; the twisted message, we guess, is “here’s something so wonderful, let’s put the record label out of business.”)
So many ideas for columns. Then something happened in the last two weeks that made them all seem trivial and callow: the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after two fellow students allegedly videotaped him in a sexual encounter and streamed it online. It horrified the nation, and rightly so.
And at that point, how do you write an About Us column? I mean, who cares? “Celebrating the heritage of Broadway and American Popular Song” – what does it matter?
And any thoughts of a new About Us column for 2010 came to a screeching halt.
A week or so passed. Tommy was sitting in the living room last Saturday morning, and he’d TiVo’d Silk Stockings on Turner Classic Movies the day before, because he remembers it fondly as the first film he saw as a kid that he not only enjoyed, but where he actually stepped back to admire the artistry behind it. And he started to watch, idly, out of curiosity, and found himself transfixed. Thirty-five years later, he still marveled. He marveled at director Rouben Mamoulian’s flair, his way with actors, and the seamless way he segued from dialogue into song. And he realized if he had to point to one work that most inspired him as a kid, and in fact, inspired his whole producorial sensibility to this day, it would be the film version of Silk Stockings.
For those of you with no knowledge of the film Silk Stockings, it’s based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn is based on the classic 1939 film Ninotchka. In all three, special envoy Nina Yaschenko is dispatched from the Soviet Union to rescue three foolish commissars who have been seduced by the pleasures of Paris. But the film Silk Stockings runs deeper. Tommy recalled a great essay he’d read on the film, ran upstairs and located it: Robin Wood’s “Art and Ideology: Notes on Silk Stockings.” Wood notes that Mamoulian’s film goes beyond the simplistic “Capitalism vs. Communism” conflict at the heart of the material by “proposing a third ideology,” one based on values of “freedom, self-expression, spontaneity.” In the film, Cyd Charisse’s Ninotchka is ultimately freed from all ideologies; her journey is one of self-discovery – and self-worth. She discovers her own gifts, they transform her – and by the end of the film, when she leads her comrades through the liberating “Red Blues,” she appears, in Wood's words, “more beautiful and more vital and unconstrained than [at any earlier point in the film].” And isn’t it kind of nice, Tommy thought, that the film that inspired a teen growing up in New Hampshire in the early 1970s – a teen who was bullied and beaten and harassed in great part because he liked showtunes – should be one where the message is that you can you endure – even rise above – the most hopeless of situations and nurture your own talents. That no matter how debilitating or depersonalizing your surroundings, there’s the potential for creativity, for self-expression, for individual achievement.
And maybe that’s what this column is all about. It’s hard to find your own voice right now; it’s hard to keep going. The internet is as much foe as friend. “Real life” rears its head 24/7. Somewhere along the way, it seems we’ve lost track of basic manners, of simple kindness, of what Dash Goff, the writer, called a time “when letter writing was an art, stationary was engraved, and dinner was an event.” It can be dispiriting, dehumanizing, and the truth is, we at PS Classics feel like giving up much of the time. Any time an album debuts to disappointing sales, or another key retailer shuts its doors, or a testy lawyer or agent writes us with abrasive derision, we think, “Well, maybe this album will be our last.” But then the possibility of self-expression draws us back in. It makes it worth it.
Tyler Clementi, by all accounts a gifted musician, barely had a chance to tap into his creative gifts before he died. We at PS Classics have been damned lucky to have had so many opportunities to tap into ours. From now through December 31, for all CDs purchased through the PS Classics website, we’ll be donating half the profits to The Trevor Project, the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. As Dan Savage assures us all, It Gets Better. Growing up in New Hampshire and Louisiana in the ’60s and ’70s as we did, if we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t be here.
— Tommy Krasker & Philip Chaffin, October 2010
Tommy Krasker, Executive Producer for PS Classics, can be reached at
email@example.com. Philip Chaffin, A&R Director, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.