Philip Chaffin on Sondheim, making music, and falling in love

Philip Chaffin

Philip Chaffin

Philip Chaffin is a force to be reckoned with. The singer and music producer runs the record label PS Classics with his husband Tommy Krasker. He’s behind the solo albums of many a Broadway performer and the cast albums of Sondheim on SondheimGrey GardensA Little Night MusicFolliesCompany and countless others. These days, he’s celebrating the release of his 4th solo album, “Somethin’ Real Special – The Songs of Dorothy Fields.” He took some time to tell SDD about his musical style, working with Stephen Sondheim, and some of his favorite moments of his career.

SDD: What inspired you to create “Somethin’ Real Special”?

PC: For a long while I’ve wanted to do an album devoted to the work of one songwriter, but I knew from running my own record label that the “fit” had to be right. You want the match of singer and songwriter to be special: you want the feeling that the singer is bringing something to the material that others wouldn’t. I confess I thought of a lot of composers and lyricists, from Jerome Kern to Johnny Mercer, and ran through a lot of songs, but the fit never felt right. This went on for a couple of years. Then my husband Tommy Krasker, who runs PS Classics with me, suggested Dorothy Fields. He’s a huge fan of her lyrics, and had literally hundreds of her songs in his office, all catalogued and preserved; and I just fell in love with her songs. I loved the variety, because of course, she wrote for almost 50 years, but for me especially, she somehow wrote the way I speak and sing. She wrote very conversational lyrics, with a little bit of an impish quality to them, and I just keep feeling, “It’s like she got inside my head – this is how I think, this is how my mind works.” It was true whether we were doing older songs like “Don’t Blame Me” and “I’m in the Mood for Love” or much more recent material, like songs from Seesaw in 1973. I also felt that a lot of her songs have a real joyousness that mirrored how I feel when I’m in the recording studio in front of a mic. One of the folks reviewing the new album recently said I seemed to have the same twinkle in my eye singing that she must have had when she was writing the lyrics. I felt that as I was making the album.

SDD: Do you have a favorite song on the album?

PC: I think it’s the title song from Sweet Charity. I love it because it soars, but also because there’s so much to play as an actor. This man is finding himself in love for the first time, and suddenly his life has turned around, and he feels gratitude and hopefulness and disbelief, all at the same time. I love songs like that, where you can play several emotions at once.

SDD: What kind of responsibility (and creativity) is involved in running a label? What do you find most satisfying and most challenging about it? I feel that this is a perspective we rarely hear from – somebody who knows what it’s like to be both on the business side and the performance side.

PC: When Tommy and I started PS Classics back in 2000, we promised never to put out an album we didn’t believe in – we wanted to be able to hold up every new album and say, “We feel this is wonderful, and just as good as everything else on our label.” And it’s hard to hold to that. Sometimes you get offered projects that you know will make money, but you know that when you send out the press release saying, “This album is wonderful,” you won’t believe it. And so we’ve turned down some potentially lucrative albums because we just didn’t love the material, and especially in this economy, that’s hard to do! The flip side is that nothing is more satisfying than seeing a wonderful show – with a great score and brilliant performances – and then having the producers say, “Yes, we’d like you to be the ones to preserve it on disc,” and then actually getting to make that album. Preserving something of quality and substance is so gratifying, and for me as an actor, I know how much hard work goes into creating and sustaining a great performance on stage. So whenever I see an extraordinary performance, like Audra McDonald in Porgy and Bess or Michael Cerveris recently in Fun Home, or even a concert or cabaret like Rebecca Luker singing Jerome Kern, I always feel an obligation to try to preserve it. I know how much of themselves the actors have poured into that performance.  I think in great part because I’m an actor, we consider ourselves a very “artist-friendly” label; I know how I like to be treated when I’m performing, and we try to make sure our artists feel well taken care of.

SDD: If you were to name one singular thing you love most about musical theatre, what would it be?

PC: I’m not sure this is true of just musical theatre, and this is mostly about performing, but I love rehearsing. I know lots of actors who hate it; they like to get in front of an audience as soon as possible. But I love the rehearsal process: trying things out and experimenting and seeing what works and refining it. And then trying to make all that hard work look fresh on stage! I remember reading once about Lucille Ball, who would rehearse things over and over again, all in an effort to be so comfortable with them that she could then make them look totally spontaneous in front of an audience. That’s what I love about the theatre, and about performing.

SDD: What was it like to work so closely with some of Sondheim’s most famous and intricate pieces when you produced the cast albums for Follies and Sondheim On Sondheim?

PC: It would be terrifying if you actually stepped back to look at the enormity of what you were doing, preserving Sondheim for posterity, and all of it while he’s sitting there watching you! But of course, most of making cast albums is getting down to the nitty-gritty of the work itself: getting the best performances in the studio, then carefully editing and mixing them to make them shine as much as possible. There’s not a lot of time for reflection. And I will say it would be scarier recording Sondheim if he weren’t the nicest man in the world in the recording studio. I mean, he’s always there at the sessions, and he’s always upbeat and supportive. I think because Tommy and I have produced or released over a dozen of his cast albums on PS Classics now, he’s very comfortable with us, and we’re very comfortable with him. There’s a great trust factor.

Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin

Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin

SDD: Do you have a favorite Sondheim song?

PC: I think it’s “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” from Road Show – I sing it in auditions – and now that I think about it, it’s got a lot of qualities similar to Sweet Charity: that simultaneous rush and astonishment when you find yourself unexpectedly falling in love.

SDD: Each of your solo albums seems to have a specific focus and style. Would you say they reflect different phases within your creative life?

PC: I think they definitely reflect different passions of mine. I think one thing I learned from running a label is that you never make an album just for the sake of making an album – there’s always got to be an impulse behind it. When I was in my twenties, I sang with Ray Conniff and his orchestra – we toured for years, and I always loved being the singer with the band – so that turned into my first CD. My second disc was a celebration of almost a century of Broadway love songs, and that was about me looking back at the first 20 years of my performing career, and seeing what had given me the most pleasure, and I discovered it was the big sweeping ballads. And then Tommy and I were on vacation in Savannah in 2006, and I got to thinking about my Southern roots, and how they’d influenced me as a person and as a singer, and that became my third album: really trying to fuse the sounds of my childhood with the music I live with now.

SDD: What’s the first thing that runs through your head when you find out you are a Grammy nominee? How are people informed that they’re nominees? I’ve always been curious about this!

PC: You actually find out by going to Grammy.com and seeing if your name is there on the list of nominees, so the first thing that goes through your head is astonishment – “am I reading this right?” You keep refreshing the page, thinking you’ve made a mistake. For the big pop categories, of course, they announce the nominees on TV, but in the smaller categories like “Best Musical Show Album,” it’s nothing glamorous. No phone calls go out from the Recording Academy: there’s no Ed McMahon moment like, “Congratulations, you have just won…” The day the nominations are announced, you check the Grammy.com website in your category and see if your name is there. And when it is, it’s the nicest feeling in the world. It’s just like a lovely pat on the back from the other members of the Recording Academy: “you did good work.”

SDD: What do you consider your most satisfying accomplishment so far as an artist?

PC: You know, it really is this new album. I think with every album, with every year that goes by that I’m performing, I keep trying to dig deeper: to really infuse my performances with all the joy and wonder that I feel getting to perform this amazing material, and especially getting to preserve it on disc. And I’ve learned so much watching other artists in the studio; that’s one of the great joys of being a singer and running your own record label. Also, with “Somethin’ Real Special,” we had this incredible full-size orchestra and some of greatest Tony Award-winning orchestrators, and it was like a wonderful party. I would hear these amazing charts for the first time just moments before we recorded them, and I would be so excited to launch into my first take: I think you can hear that sense of wonder and anticipation in some of my performances.

SDD: Stage or screen?

PC: Screen. (I’ve never done film, but always wanted to!)

SDD: If you could delete any song from existence, which song would it be?

PC: I’m not sure it’s a song, maybe it’s a jingle: it’s that 1-877-CARS 4 KIDS commercial that you hear on the radio. I can never get it out of my head!

SDD: What is your current obsession?

PC: Gourmet cheese. They just opened up a new cheese shop downtown, and I visit it way too much.

SDD: What is the last great show you saw on Broadway?

PC: Well, it was off-Broadway, I hope that’s OK, and it was Fun Home at the Public [Theater]. Amazing to watch and amazing to record. I’m so excited to have that show on our label.

SDD: Do you have a favorite word?

PC: Sunshine.

SDD: Who is the last person to make you feel starstruck?

PC: Bernadette Peters, at the Follies sessions.

SDD: Do you have a life motto?

PC: Say yes to life.

SDD: Which Broadway star would you most want to get a drink with? 

PC: Euan Morton. We did Sondheim on Sondheim and Noel and Cole with him, and he seemed like a really interesting guy.

SDD: Describe yourself in 5 words or less.

PC: “On my own planet.” One of my best friends, back in 1993, when he was setting me and Tommy up on our first date, described me that way to Tommy: “Philip’s on his own planet.” I think I’m good with that!

About Claire H.

Writer, performer, picture-taker, New Yorker. Find me on Twitter at @Claire_Hannum.

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