Vol. 10, No. 4 Spring 2004
Sondheim talks about The Frogs
TSR at ten
It's Monday, November 10, 2003, and unless your name is on the approved list, you cannot pass the formidable security officers guarding the entrance to Studio 4-A at National Public Radio's headquarters in Washington, D.C. The studio has been rented for two days by Nonesuch Records for the recording of Bounce. The Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical will end its run at the Kennedy Center the following Sunday and, with no signs of moving to New York, it is crucial to preserve the score.
Although this is the most capacious studio at NPR, space is tight. Up to twenty people crowd around the control room at any given time. Sondheim, Weidman and Arielle Tepper, one of the show's producers, are on the rear viewing platform. Sitting at a modest counter in the middle of the room are orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and Bob Hurwitz, the president of Nonesuch, who is also functioning as producer for this recording. Between them is an intercom for giving notes to the conductor, David Caddick, who is in the studio.
Nonesuch engineer Tom Lazarus sits at the front console (forty-eight tracks), assisted by board engineers from NPR.
In the studio are the pit musicians from Bounce, with the addition of twelve string players just for the recording—two violins are now ten, one viola is now four, and one cello is now two. Tunick says this increase makes the orchestra "modest, not lavish."
In addition, a second percussionist has been added, not to double or add to the orchestration but to make the playing of the various percussion instruments more practical for the recording in which numbers that are interrupted by dialogue in the show are now performed straight through. The percussionists are in a glass isolation booth to the side. Foam walls have been placed around certain groupings of instruments to prevent sound from bleeding.
Tommy Krasker had planned to produce the recording session, but fell ill on the preceding Saturday. The full scores on which he had marked his edits, dialogue trims and mike assignments have been expressed to Washington and sit on the table between Tunick and Hurwitz. They use the scores to follow each number being recorded and to mark what is good and what is bad about each take. As a song is recorded, if an error is made at any point, one of them marks that measure with a negative sign and the take number. So, if in the second take of "You," the strings play a wrong note in the thirtieth measure, Tunick writes on that measure "-2". Similarly, if there is something particularly nice about the playing of the fiftieth measure in the fourth take, he notates it "+4."
Tunick and Hurwitz make sure that all measures with negative markings have at least one take in which that measure has been well covered before they move on to the next number. These marked scores will go back to Krasker (now recovered), who will use them as a guide while editing and mixing the recording.
The songs are recorded not in show order but based on a schedule that uses the cast's time most efficiently. Before each is recorded, the orchestra plays it through once without the singers. A number of the musicians are performing the score for the first time. What's revealed in these run-throughs are the subtleties of Sondheim's accompaniments and Tunick's breathtaking orchestrations.
On average, each number is recorded three or four times; though some takes are not complete, they will serve as inserts to correct mistakes or to try a section in a slightly different way. Some of these changes are Tunick's requests—things like asking Caddick to have the percussionists use mallets instead of sticks or asking that the strings enter down-bowing rather than up-bowing.
Sondheim sometimes goes into the studio to confer with the performers or to use the intercom to tell Caddick, "A little more rallentando before bar nine." For "The Game" Sondheim dictates a new final cadence to Tunick, who translates it to his orchestral score and communicates it to Caddick, who then relays it to the musicians. Weidman and Tepper follow scripts to make sure that the lyrics and dialogue are correct—especially since the latter was edited for the recording.
The actors are on top of their game and giving spectacular performances. Howard McGillin, who had been out of the show with the flu for the last few days, still looks weak, but his voice seems impossibly powerful and rich. Richard Kind is a bundle of nervous energy when he's in the control room, but when he goes into the studio to record, all the intensity is focused on his performance. For a bonus track, Kind records the cut song "A Little House for Momma," which Tunick had orchestrated for Sondheim's 70th -birthday concert at the Library of Congress.
What quickly becomes clear is that this recording is very likely to become a classic. Prediction: People will listen to the CD and, knowing the show only from the score, wonder about the tepid reviews and why Bounce did not transfer immediately to Broadway.
Mark Eden Horowitz is a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress and the author of Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions.
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