It’s Thomas with a Z., Not Thomas with a 2 By Peter Filichia
So did you know that when the original cast album of Bajour was recorded that one singer didn’t finish her song?
At the end of the show’s big romantic ballad “Must It Be Love?” Nancy Dussault gave way on the final phrase to another singer.
No, I didn’t know it, either. But that’s the type of thing you learn when you take Thomas Z. Shepard to lunch.
By the way, Shepard did not order shepherd’s pie – not even one that wasn’t peppered with actual shepherd on top.
I didn’t say that to him, though, because I’m sure Shepard has heard the “joke” more times than Sweeney Todd has played performances on Broadway (and that includes revivals). I also refrained from asking, “How did you get to be you, Mr. Shepard?”
Shepard is, of course, the record producer who’s given us dozens of cast albums – including Sweeney Todd — and has won Grammys for seven of them — first for Columbia (Company and Raisin) and then for RCA Victor (Porgy and Bess, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George and Follies in Concert). Add in his classical work, and he’s got an even dozen Grammys.
And while I’m sure that his Grammy-winning recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E Minor is spectacular, it was not another piece of Mahler’s about which I wanted to speak. It was a day for Broadway and the work accomplished by Thomas Z. Shepard.
“The ‘Z’ is for ‘Zachary,’ as you might have guessed,” he said. “Not everyone sees it as a ‘Z,’ though. One year when Liza Minnelli was announcing the Grammy nominations, she said Thomas 2 Shepard – yes, the number instead of the initial.”
(Are you as surprised as I? Wouldn’t you think that a woman who made a big deal of the “Z” in her name would be sensitive to someone else’s “Z?”)
Anyway, back to Nancy Dussault. “She was really hoarse on the day Bajour was recorded,” said Shepard.
Well, how could she not have been after recording “Where Is the Tribe for Me?” It will never be surpassed as Broadway’s Most Eccentric Song.
“So,” said Shepard, “Urylee Leonardos did the final phrase.”
I didn’t recognize the name, but my buddy Josh Ellis immediately did. “She was in Billy Noname,” he said, citing the short-lived 1970 off-Broadway musical about a black playwright who feels he needs to return to his roots in order to truly write about the African-American experience.
I suspect I’ve listened to the original cast album of Bajour many more times than it played on Broadway (232 performances), but I never caught the switch, obviously because I wasn’t looking for it. But after Shepard had pointed it out, another spin on the CD player did indeed reveal that there is a difference, however slight.
“Lehman Engel,” said Shepard, citing Bajour’s musical director, “called the substitution ‘black magic.’”
Do you think you know everything about the Company recording session because of that marvelous D.A. Pennebaker documentary? Shepard has more to say about it: “We used different takes on ‘Getting Married Today’ that allowed us to make it even more rushed than it was on stage. Steve (Sondheim, as if you didn’t know) is great about things like that. He fully understands that a show is a show and a record is a record. They don’t all have to be the same, and sometimes it’s better when they’re not. That’s why Sunday in the Park with George begins with music. On stage, George just talks but I thought it would be more effective if we started with that little bit of music. Steve heartily agreed.”
Danny Kaye became notorious for his nefarious ad-libbing and disrespect for Two by Two, but that came later in the run. During the recording session, done six days after opening, he’d only spent about fourteen days and forty nights playing Noah (of Ark fame) in New Haven and Boston, so he was still interested in the show and on his good behavior.
The session perhaps did indicate a preview of coming misbehavior. “Danny didn’t like when I said he resembled Leonard Bernstein. And when I placed my order for lunch, he made fun of what I’d ordered. Anyway, the album came out very well. I loved the stereo effect we got on ‘Put Him Away.’”
It is good. The song has Noah’s sons – Shem, Ham and Japheth – each independently walking over to his daddy to ask what he’s doing. Noah tells each, one at a time, that he’s building an ark to accommodate pairs of animals before the flood comes. We then hear each son stomp across the stage – uh, speakers – to recount the information to the other sons and their wives. (It’s a good song, too, with a trademark Richard Rodgers thump-thump sound with perfectly-in-character Martin Charnin lyrics.)
Anthony Quinn had a reputation for being very difficult. Did some of that ire come through when he recorded “Goodbye, Canavaro” on the revival cast album of Zorba? “I thought that he got angry much too early in the song,” said Shepard, “and had to tell him to pace himself and not get angry too soon, because that would give him nowhere to go. I wasn’t looking forward to this conversation, because Quinn was well-known for his temper. But he matter-of-factly said, ‘Let me hear it,’ and after he did, he agreed with me – which was such a relief.”
Ironically, the musical that Shepard recorded that lasted the longest – 42nd Street at 3,486 performances – was followed by the show that ran the shortest of his career: Merrily We Roll Along’s mere sixteen.
“We didn’t have to do it,” he recalled, “because the contract said we could bow out if it didn’t run three weeks – and it ran two. But Bob Summer (then president of RCA Victor) said ‘We’re going to treat this as if it’s a big hit.’ That’s why the original long-playing album even had an expensive cut-out that revealed Sondheim’s face on the inside jacket.”
Ah, jackets! That’s a whole new kettle of information. “I always hated when we printed jackets in advance and then they didn’t wind up giving the songs’ correct running order,” Shepard said. “La Cage aux Folles was said to be frozen in Boston where they promised us that they wouldn’t change anything. So we printed the jackets in order to get the album out as quickly as possible of what was clearly going to be a smash-hit. That was one time when it all worked out, and they kept to their word not to change anything.” He lets out a big sigh. “Worse was printing the name of a song on a jacket and then finding out a few days before opening it had been dropped.”
Indeed. The original long-playing record of Here’s Love promised that we’d hear “The Plastic Alligator.” But it was nowhere to be found on the actual disc – unless you know that the melody (sung a cappella by Fred Gwynne) was one that Meredith Willson expanded into a full-blown number just before the Detroit opening: “That Man over There (Is Santa Claus).”
“I thought I had a great idea when I saw Candide at Chelsea,” Shepard said, meaning the Brooklyn theater center where the ‘70s revisal originated with its all-over-the-place environmental staging. “I said to everyone, ‘This will be great in Quadraphonic sound.’”
Indeed it was, but the medium — in which four channels’ worth of sound came from speakers positioned in the four corners of a room – didn’t catch on.
What worked out much better was Follies in Concert. Shepard is quick to give credit to Ted Chapin, the president and executive director of Rodgers & Hammerstein, who started the ball rolling on the project.
“Like all of us,” said Shepard, “Ted felt that Follies deserved a complete recording, so he came to me with the idea. I thought we’d never get all these people together for a recording session but maybe they’d come for an event. So I brought it to the New York Philharmonic, with whom I’d had a relationship, and while they said, ‘We’ve never done anything like this before,’ they also said, ‘But let’s do it.’”
And let’s do another lunch, Mr. Shepard. We didn’t even get to Dames at Sea, Dear World or George M!
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.