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Once Upon a Time in the Recording Studio : INTO THE WOODS

November 29, 1987|BARBARA ISENBERG

NEW YORK — What do you say to a woman who introduces herself as Cinderella's stepmother?

Then again, she probably feels right at home. Just across the room, Cinderella herself is chatting with Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf is reading Stendhal, while Jack and his mother talk beanstalks. Prince Charming is loading his camera.

But this is no ordinary meeting of fairy-tale fugitives. RCA is recording the original cast album for "Into the Woods," the new musical from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. So their emissaries from Fantasy Land are on hand to sing Sondheim's 22 songs about the pleasures and perils of getting what it is you think you want.

From the narrator's opening line of "Once Upon a Time"--for 13 hours one day, six hours the next--some of Broadway's best voices belt out some of Broadway's best music.

Sondheim is there every single minute, concerned about every single detail. Working out of RCA's cavernous Studio A, the same place that Sondheim and Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Sunday in the Park With George" was recorded, not to mention Sondheim's film score for "Reds," nearly 40 cast members and musicians are playing to posterity.

It starts on a cold Monday morning, less than a week after the show's Broadway opening. The first call is at 11:05 a.m., and aside from the Witch (star Bernadette Peters), who is scheduled for late afternoon, the other players take their places. Musical director Paul Gemignani is at the podium, while behind a glass window Sondheim, author-director Lapine, record producer Jay David Saks and assorted technical people are waiting to hear a score unaugmented by sets, lights, costumes and other theatrical magic.

At one end of the stage, Cinderella (Kim Crosby) and her rotten family sing about the Prince's festival while at the other end, the childless Baker (Chip Zien) and his wife (Joanna Gleason) lament their fate. At center-stage, sweet young Jack (18-year-old Ben Wright) and his mother (Barbara Bryne) discuss the kid's weird fondness for his cow.

Forget ball gowns and epaulets. These people are wearing sweat shirts and sneakers. The best-dressed person in the place is Jo Read, Wright's mother who is visiting from Indianapolis. Many of the others are wearing "Into the Woods" lavender sweat shirts. Their elixir is generally tap water, although usually from an Evian bottle, and Monday's dinner is the pick of the lot at Burger King.

While the stars spend most of their time waiting their turns--Cinderella planned to write thank you notes for opening night flowers--hired help get few breaks. Sitting at a long table near the back wall, three people are copying last-minute changes from one piece of sheet music to another. Two women from RCA are in the sound booth reviewing Sondheim's libretto, word by word, to make certain the singers sing what the master wrote.

Where It Happens

Studio A is on the fourth floor at RCA's offices at 44th and Avenue of the Americas, where an elevator empties onto a nondescript waiting area. Performers sit out here to read, sometimes to eat, sometimes to talk with the many reporters who stop by during the two-day session. Rooms off the hallway are being used to master cassettes and compact discs, so Christmas music, Elvis Presley and even Sondheim's "Side by Side" blare out at varying volumes all day long.

For the "Into the Woods" sessions, each song is first rehearsed, then recorded. People move continuously in and out of Studio A's double doors during rehearsal. Many also move about the studio itself, a huge hall stretching up 35 feet and out 60 feet wide, 100 deep.

Arguably New York's largest studio, this is the place "Oklahoma!," "The King and I" and "Porgy and Bess" were recorded, as well as Van Cliburn and Artur Rubinstein.

Chelsea Music Service's Mathilde Pincus and her copyists inhabit the back of the room, musicians fill the center and performers move on and off the raised stage up front. Boxes and trunks of extra microphones and wires are off to the side of the stage, near the percussion area; and behind the drums, triangles and bells is a sizable sound booth with a window to the recording studio. The room "has the sound of the theater," says Zein. "We're not tucked away in some booth."

(Actually, this booth is enormous, easily accommodating the 25 or more people who turn up during some playbacks. Engineers work at an MCI console--it is, for those who care about such things, the JH600 series, with 36 faders, accommodating 72 inputs--and there's a 24-track board. Sondheim is sitting back in the corner near two Sony 24-track digital tape machines.)

Co-engineer Anthony Salvatore, who won an engineering Grammy for "Sweeney Todd," considers the sessions a "kind of a challenge because when I saw the instrumentation, I didn't think there was enough string strength. That was before I started the recording. But it works. That's the challenge, trying to get it to sound as Sondheim and (orchestrator Jonathan) Tunick want it to sound."

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