Life is a little sweeter because of the catalog of albums released over the years by PS Classics, the indie label devoted to the heritage of musical theater and the American Songbook. If you love musicals, cabaret, Broadway stars, solo albums, studio recreations of classic shows, bewitching vocalists, and the composers and lyricists who made America sing between 1900 and 1964 — and beyond — you have got to check out what co-founders Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin have given the world as their legacy.
Following a hiatus, during which Krasker has been battling longterm health issues, the married business partners return to the business of releasing albums this fall with a disc called “Will He Like Me?,” a gorgeous concept album in which Chaffin sings songs usually associated with female vocalists or characters. Subtitled “A Love Story,” it follows the love life of a gay man from innocence to experience, from first love to inevitable loss.
There are no fewer than 26 songwriters — Michael John LaChiusa, Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, Kern, Berlin, Coleman and Fields, the Bergmans, Bock and Harnick, Arlen and Harburg and more — represented on 14 tracks (in 17 songs) that weave through the life of a man who lives and loves richly. (The album is produced by Krasker and Bart Migal. The songs are arranged by John Baxindine, the five-piece band is conducted by the busy Broadway and international conductor Richard Carsey, who is also on piano.)
Tommy and Philip were kind enough to allow me to reprint the album’s liner notes below. In their notes, they share the origin of the LGBTQ concept of the disc. In notes written by me, I’m honored to reflect on the disc and the label from the point of view of a longtime fan.
“Will He Like Me?” gets its official release Nov. 9. Listen to sound clips, see the songlist, buy the album, learn more about it on Philip’s page on the PS Classics website. Look for it at your favorite digital or streaming site (for example, iTunes), but there’s also a physical CD if you prefer, available at Amazon.com.
Let’s not neglect the fact that there are two more PS Classics releases in late 2018: A studio cast reconstruction of the Cole Porter hit Something for the Boys, featuring Danny Burstein, Elizabeth Stanley, Andréa Burns, Edward Hibbert, Sara Jean Ford and Chaffin, and Christine Andreas’ new “Piaf: No Regrets” disc featuring songs made popular by chanteuse Edith Piaf.
For now, here’s more about “Will He Like Me?,” which will make you see favorite songs in a fresh light.
Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin Reflect On “Will He Like Me?”
The idea for this album had been percolating for a while, but it was a chance remark by Steve Sondheim that gave us the final push. It was 2013, and Philip was in the midst of recording his fourth solo disc, “Somethin’ Real Special,” a tribute to lyricist Dorothy Fields. He very much wanted to include the song “Remind Me,” which she’d written with Jerome Kern, but there was a problem. The refrain began, “Remind me not to find you so attractive. Remind me that the world is full of men.” It was introduced in the film “One Night in the Tropics” by Peggy Moran, and clearly designed to be sung by a woman. Unlike most songs of the day written for a woman, there was no “alternate lyric” for a man to sing. And you couldn’t simply change “men” to “women,” because it had to rhyme later with “ten” and “again.”
So Tommy emailed Steve (for whom he’s produced a dozen cast albums), knowing he was a fan of Dorothy Fields’ work, and asked if he could supply an alternate lyric. And Steve was lovely and came up with two, equally wonderful, but he then said something to the effect of, “You know, it’s 2013. I think you should just sing the lyric.” And that got us thinking about an album where Philip would “just sing the lyric.”
It got us reflecting on all the songs that we’d loved over the years — some of which we’d considered for other albums, but rejected, because there wasn’t “a version for a man to sing.” It’s always been common practice – when you take on the Great American Songbook – that men sing to and about women, and vice versa, and you adjust the pronouns accordingly. Men sing “as long as she needs me” and “if she walked into my life.” But we thought, “What if we didn’t change the pronouns? What if we just sing the songs from a gay man’s perspective – from our perspective?” And suddenly a wealth of songs opened up to us. Songs Philip hadn’t been able to sing, because they were meant for a woman to sing about a man, or because the actions described — say, cleaning house or doing laundry — didn’t conform to standard gender stereotypes. Or simply because the lyric referred to “my husband,” and a male vocalist couldn’t have sung that just a decade ago. We knew we wanted to do more than just record a set of songs.
From the start, we saw the album as a song cycle, accompanied by one orchestral ensemble. We conceived it as a journey, one that began with a first date and first relationship and first break-up, and that culminated, years later, in the kind of true love that comes when you least expect it — the kind the two of us have been so fortunate to find with each other. Along the way there would be encounters shared, actions regretted and resolutions made and broken. And near the end, we wanted to go beyond the “true love at last” stage, to address the inevitable pain and loss that results when two people have spent a lifetime together. As we narrowed down the song list, we aimed for specificity and cohesiveness.
Philip found himself gravitating to songs about cooking, simply because he loves to cook, and suddenly otherwise innocuous lyrics (“Who is there to cook for? And what’s there to clean?”) gained unexpected relevance and resonance. As the character of the singer and the song cycle, and the arc of the journey, started to solidify, recurrent musical themes began to assert themselves — sometimes playfully, sometimes ironically — and we found ourselves viewing the CD as much like a cast album as a solo disc.
Ultimately, we tried to approach the album as we’ve approached the other hundred discs on our label: with a measure of grace and integrity and restraint, and — most of all — with a deep love for the Great American Songbook, and its ability to move hearts. We were particularly pleased, being a gay-owned record label, that we could be the ones to tell this sort of story on disc: the life and loves of a gay man, told through the enduring compositions and traditions of Broadway and American popular song. We obviously imagine the album will have special appeal to the LGBTQ community, but we hope its themes — love and loss, hope and heartbreak — will resonate with everyone. After all, that’s the glory of the Great American Songbook: that’s why these songs have endured — because the emotions speak to us all.
—Philip Chaffin & Tommy Krasker
PS Classics and “Will He Like Me?”: An Appreciation By Kenneth Jones
I first contacted album producer Tommy Krasker in the early 90s when I was a young theater journalist in suburban Detroit. Babes in Arms was being produced locally and I wanted to talk to someone who knew about vintage shows; I was an admirer of Tommy’s album of the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, so I tracked him down, and we talked a lot about the heritage of musical theater. The interview was “on background,” as they say. I was gathering knowledge and context.
I followed (and wrote about) Tommy’s freelance producing work for the rest of my career in Detroit, to 1998, and then became his champion and advocate when I was hired as a writer and later managing editor at Playbill.com in New York City. In 2000, Tommy and his partner (now husband) Philip Chaffin announced plans to create a new label devoted to the heritage of Broadway and American song; the larger labels were downsizing their Broadway division, and Tommy realized that if he wanted to continue to record and preserve the kind of music he cared deeply about, he’d have to start his own label. Their first album was Philip’s big-band tribute, “Where Do I Go From You?,” and I was the first to write a feature about the new label: their pedigree and their aspirations. No Broadway label revered the heritage of American popular song like PS Classics — Krasker, after all, had begun as a musical theatre archivist, first for the Cole Porter Trusts, then the Gershwin Trusts. And he was always the first to note that Philip’s guiding hand — his taste and decisiveness, and shared affection for the Great American Songbook — was crucial to the success of the label; long before theirs was a legal marriage, it was a merger made in musical theater heaven.
Their first three albums were that big-band tribute, a songbook devoted to the works of composer Jerome Moross, and a reconstruction of the famed Vincent Youmans flop Through the Years. I was a boy who danced to show tunes in his basement in Michigan, singing both the boy and girl roles. Is it any wonder that I fell in love with the mission of PS Classics? And it’s no surprise that I’m in love with the variety of songs, songwriters and emotions that shimmer on Philip’s “Will He Like Me?,” a thoughtfully curated album that features a man singing songs representing emotions or sentiments traditionally reserved for female characters and voices. I love the album’s goals and execution, and how it picks up on PS Classics’ heritage and legacy. Where might you find Rodgers, Hammerstein, the Sherman brothers, Arlen, Harburg, Coleman, Fields, Martin, Blane, LaChiusa and others all on one album? Where else but PS Classics?
The PS Classics label grew enormously after those early years; by 2003, they were producing Broadway cast recordings, and soon big Broadway stars like Victoria Clark, Rebecca Luker and Steven Pasquale were coming to them with projects. But they never lost track of their mission: to showcase the Great American Songbook, and amazing vocalists with a gift for interpreting it. And they always had an affinity for LGBTQ artists and, in particular, LGBTQ-themed works, from Yank! to Fun Home, from La Cage Aux Folles to A New Brain. How fitting is it that they should be the ones to remold the Great American Songbook as they do here, so that a century of American popular song speaks to LGBTQ audiences in a way it never quite has before — as they reimagine the Great American Songbook, as they put it, for the post-marriage-equality era. As always, their approach is earnest, loving, detailed and altogether winning.
No one puts out cast albums that are as moving as PS Classics. That’s their specialty; their best discs bring you to tears. (Listen to Angela Lansbury’s “wooden ring” monologue laced into the revival cast album of A Little Night Music and you’ll get my meaning.) Tommy and Philip freely admit that those are the shows they’re most attracted to — the ones that leave them shaken — and in the studio, they endeavor to mine every emotion, to ensure that, as an audio-only experience, the production is just as affecting as it was in the theatre. In some ways, every PS Classics album plays a bit like a cast album, and that’s especially true of Philip’s “Will He Like Me?” Tommy and Philip call it a song-cycle, but it feels to me like a cast album. Philip is quite wonderful on this; you feel the serious progression that he is a boy at the top of the album and very much a man with history at the end. The arrangements and orchestrations are full of delicacy and feeling. Songs are paired imaginatively and evocatively — as when the recollection of a first date (“It’s a Nice Face”) blends into a reverie of a shared future (“Mr. Snow”), or when themes from “Lovely, Lonely Man” and “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” reappear in the track that follows, reasserting themselves just enough that those two characters become the unseen but frequently referenced “husband” and “lover” in “Tom.”
And the final three numbers — which go beyond the happy endings that we all associate with musical comedy to a more realistic and dramatic kind of truth-telling — are simply heartbreaking. In their own quiet but unassuming way, Philip and Tommy — by presenting common themes in an uncommon fashion — make a larger statement: that for the LGBTQ community, “equality” means embracing responsibility and heartbreak as much as it does freedom and joy. Philip’s fifth solo album is as rich as it is satisfying, as provocative as it is enjoyable. It’s an album to savor.