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Preserving Broadway Dramas of Record

It's going to take some adjustment for theatre fans who buy the first Broadway cast recording released by the new record label Fynsworth Alley. It won't have an overture. Or an entr'acte. Or any dance music, reprises, or, for that matter, songs.

The recording will be of "Copen-hagen," Michael Frayn's non-musical drama that won the Tony Award this year for Best Play. Record producer Bruce Kimmel, who founded Fynsworth Alley after six years of recording theatre discs at Varese Sarabande, will assemble the three performers in the Broadway cast—Blair Brown, Michael Cumpstey, and Philip Bosco—and make a permanent audio record of the talky, cerebral drama of ideas.

It's a dicey venture, but Kimmel is not terribly worried about its chances for success. "Yeah, it's a risk, but it's not a huge financial risk," he told Back Stage in a telephone interview this week. "Spoken word cast albums cost less to produce than musicals, normally about 10% of the budget for a musical. I hope this will just be the beginning and we'll do more after this." In fact, he is so taken by the idea of recording non-musicals that he plans to create a separate division for plays on disk; he'll call it "Plays on Disc."

And although some might wonder if the risk is worth taking, Kimmel believes an album of "Copenhagen" will find an audience large enough to justify its release.

"It's a different world now with Books On Tape," he pointed out. "Now that that market has opened up, spoken word dramas have real advantages over books. If I were going on a trip from Los Angeles to San Diego, which takes about three hours, I'd rather listen to a drama than somebody just reading a book."

Kimmel also acknowledges that skepticism about spoken word cast albums extends all the way to plays' creative staffs. "It was amazingly difficult to land this," he said. "Producers look at you like you're a wart when you say you want to record their plays. I tried to do 'Dinner with Friends' but the producers just didn't get it."

One thing about "Copenhagen" that makes it especially recordable is that "it's what I call a real talking play," he said. "It isn't dependent on visual style," unlike shows that depend on a lot of visual gags—for instance, Frayn's wild and wildly popular farce "Noises Off." Still, he said, sight gags aren't impossible to convey; a long-out-of-print (and frequently forgotten) record successfully translated Murray Schisgal's "Luv," using just a few additional lines of dialogue to get across the visual jokes.

A Life-Changing Experience

"Luv" is only one of several spoken word cast albums that Kimmel admires. "They opened a whole world to me as a kid," he recalled. "I didn't get to see 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' on Broadway, but I got the album and when I heard Uta Hagen delivering those lines, it was a life-changing experience. And to hear Burt Lahr and E.G. Marshall doing 'Waiting for Godot': wow!"

Other notable spoken word cast albums include "The Subject Was Roses," "The Boys in the Band," and, most recently, "The Real Thing" (with the original 1984 cast, not the revival that opened earlier this year).

Although few spoken word cast albums have been recorded in the last few decades, Actors' Equity has an official contract rider that deals with the subject. It stipulates that performers who record them are due at least one week's salary for every full recording day, plus the applicable AFTRA rate for sound recordings. Also, performers are entitled to share in the gross receipts of the album; in musicals with very large casts, the percentage paid to each actor may be relatively small, but in the case of "Copenhagen," with only three performers, it will be a minimum of 5% each. Some cynics may snicker that no amount of financial participation will make the "Copenhagen" actors wealthy, but those are probably the same people who predicted the play would never turn a profit. The reality is that "Copen-hagen" was the first Broadway show of last season (except for Dame Edna's act) to recoup its costs.

If the recording does become profitable (and, probably, even if it doesn't), Kimmel has already set his sights on future projects. "I'd like to do some older plays, like 'Deathtrap,' with great casts, since I didn't think the film really did it justice—it has a few visual effects that would need some additional dialogue, but I think it would be possible—and there are some things coming into New York that I'm excited about.

"I'm bringing back radio, baby!"

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