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THEATER

The Show Must Go On

Theater music has found a champion in Varese Sarabande, the L.A.-based label for which no musical score (or concept album) is too obscure.

August 25, 1996|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

To paraphrase Nathan Lane, theater music occupies a space on the cultural food chain somewhere between folk singing and clog dancing. But to the ravenous and extremely opinionated group who loves it, theater music is a reason to get up in the morning and a reason to go out at night.

So, while the words "Varese Sarabande" may not mean anything to most people, they mean a great deal to the people--usually between 5,000 and 10,000 per disc--who buy the CDs the L.A.-based company puts out at a rate that might be characterized as alarming, even to a theater fan.

Until recently, people who could name Jerry Herman's entire discography had little to choose from in the way of new recordings or even re-releases. Cast albums that went out of print tended to stay out of print and were expensive and hard to find. In the early '80s, with the Golden Age of musicals long over, there were only a few new cast albums released a year, plus the dubious bonus of an additional interpretation of "My Fair Lady" from, say, Kiri Te Kanawa and Jeremy Irons.

Once the nation switched from vinyl and cassette to compact disc, everything changed. According to Pete Howard, editor and publisher of International CD Exchange, the nation's largest CD newsletter, the advent of CDs started a reissue craze when record companies realized there were much bigger niche markets out there than anyone had previously suspected. At first record companies reissued the most popular and obvious material, including some musicals. They soon discovered that even marginal recordings were finding a market in CD format. New lines sprang up to take advantage of the fact that the music-buying universe had expanded.

Which is where Varese Sarabande comes in. Formed in 1977, when the Varese and Sarabande labels merged, the company was initially known for reissuing classic film soundtracks, such as Miklos Rozsa's score for "Ben-Hur" and Burt Bacharach's for "Casino Royale." The company later added more contemporary soundtracks to its list: Its biggest seller, the 1990 "Ghost" soundtrack, has sold almost 2 million copies.

Three years ago, Varese created the Spotlight Series, which puts out a variety of theater-related discs. It has recorded and released new cast albums of recent off-Broadway shows that tend toward the marginal ("Bed and Sofa," "Lucky Stiff," "Ruthless!") or even submarginal (Varese picked up "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public" after MCA, which had recorded the miserably reviewed sequel to "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," abandoned it).

At the end of September, however, Varese is scheduled to release its highest-profile recording to date, the current Broadway version of "The King and I," starring Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips.

But even more than its cast albums, Varese Sarabande's Spotlight Series has become known for recordings that require more creativity and input from a producer--that is, compilations and collections of theater music themed in a variety of ways.

"Unsung Musicals," for instance, is a collection of songs from shows that never made it to Broadway, newly recorded by a number of different singers. Along the same lines, the CD "Unsung Sondheim" resurrects songs that were cut from Sondheim shows or featured in little-known or never-produced shows, or in films, also all newly recorded.

Another approach is to match a single vocalist with a single theater composer. The Spotlight Series has matched Rebecca Luker, best known for her Magnolia in the revived "Show Boat," with Cole Porter; Liz Callaway, from the original cast of "Baby," with Frank Loesser; and "Les Miserables' " Judy Kuhn with Jule Styne. Singing actresses of this caliber in the old days would have worked constantly; today there is not enough musical theater to employ them all and give them the exposure and the experience they need to become stars. Varese Sarabande is helping to supply that exposure and that experience.

Bruce Kimmel, the producer who joined Varese Sarabande in March 1993 to oversee the Spotlight Series, has produced an abundant amount of material in the time he's been there. By the end of this year, the Spotlight Series will include 64 titles, 62 1/2 of them produced by him (he was executive producer on the new Broadway recording of "She Loves Me").

*

In the conference room at Varese's pleasant, low-key offices on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, Kimmel, 48, looks exhausted. He seems to have brackets around his eyes like a stressed-out character in a Doonesbury cartoon. He's about to fly to New York to do pre-production on "The King and I," adding another 6,000 to the 50,000 miles he has flown so far this year. Most of Spotlight's recording is done in New York, but post-production and all the label's other business is headquartered in Los Angeles. I asked him why he has produced so much so quickly, whether it was a company mandate or whether, to borrow a phrase from contemporary psychotherapy, it came from within.

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