Philip Chaffin is a performer and co-founder of PS Classics, a record label dedicated to celebrating the heritage of Broadway and the popular songbook. Philip has just released his fourth solo recording, Somethin' Real Special: The Songs of Dorothy Fields, the first ever all male recording of Dorothy Fields' songs.
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? I grew up in the Deep South -- Louisiana and Mississippi -- and when I was a small kid, I used to dream about going to Hollywood and being on The Carol Burnett Show, or The Lawrence Welk Show, or Heehaw. That was a Southern's boy's dream! I should mention I come from a large family: I have five brothers and sisters, and they're really outgoing, and as a result, I didn't speak much until I was in high school. I sort of lived in their shadow. So when my high school announced that it was doing West Side Story, and I told my family that I wanted to audition, they all laughed, because they'd never heard me speak much, let alone sing. But I auditioned, and won the role of "Tony," and from that point on, I was hooked.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? Well, I guessed I've missed my shot at being on The Lawrence Welk Show and Heehaw. Do you think there's a chance I could still work with Carol Burnett? When she did Putting It Together on Broadway in 1999, I think that playing "The Younger Man," the John Barrowman role, would have been my dream job.
3. You just released your new CD Somethin' Real Special: The Songs of Dorothy Fields, which is the first ever male solo recording of her lyrics. What made you want make this album? What do you identify most with about Dorothy's songs? I'd spoken with my husband Tommy Krasker, who runs PS Classics with me and has produced all my albums, about my doing an album devoted to the work of one songwriter, and we worked on it for a few years -- we tried Jerome Kern and we tried Johnny Mercer, but we couldn't find the right fit. But then Tommy, who's a huge Dorothy Fields fan (he has a huge collection of her songs: over 300), suggested her work, and it felt so right. There was such range to the material, because of course her career spanned almost fifty years, but also, I think, because she was a playwright as well as a lyricist, there's always something to "play" in her songs, and that really appealed to the actor in me. You know, in a lot of songs of the '20s and '30s, they're a lot of fun to sing, but there's nothing to sink your teeth into. Dorothy Fields' lyrics have so much personality: she really wrote for the actor as well as the singer.
4. What, if any, barriers do you feel you might help break with this album? Well, as you said, I'm the first male singer to devote an album to Dorothy Fields' work. So maybe more men will start doing her songs. You know, Stephen Sondheim, who loves Dorothy Fields' lyrics, wrote something in one of his books, noting that because when she started writing, musicals weren't "integrated," the lyricists pretty much wrote in their own voice. Which is what she did, so the early songs especially have a slightly female or feminine or earthy or urbane tone to them. Maybe that's scared away some male singers before, but now here we are in 2013, I don't think we worry about stuff like that anymore. A great song is a great song.
5. What do you hope listeners come away with after hearing this album? Well, I hope folks will come away with an appreciation of her work, but I also don't pretend this is a compendium of her whole catalog; I mean, she wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs, and these are just my favorite seventeen. Mostly, I hope the listener will come away with the real sense of joy that we had in putting the album together. I have never had a better time doing an album.
6. What was the best part about putting this album together? Working with the orchestrators and musicians. We knew we wanted a lot of orchestrators involved, and we went to a lot of our favorites -- many of whom are always busy scoring Broadway musicals, like Jonathan Tunick and Doug Besterman -- and they all said yes. They loved the idea of the album, and they loved the songs. So suddenly you have these Tony Award-winning arrangers taking your ideas, and doing their thing, and making them ten times better than you ever dreamed. And then the orchestra was amazing. 23 players, and we handpicked them, so it was being in a room with these great arrangers and incredible musicians. I was hearing the charts for the first time just minutes before we recorded them; I think you can hear the sense of excitement and wonder in my performances.
7. In addition to performing, you are the co-founder of PS Classics. What made you want to start your own record label? What do you enjoy most about running the label? It's funny, Tommy and I never wanted to start a record label. We did my first CD back in 2000, and then we reached out to our accountant, because we needed to know what we had to do to sell it. And he said, you need to form a company. And we formed PS Classics, and suddenly -- because Tommy has been producing music theatre albums since 1989 -- all these artists started coming to us and saying, "I hear you have a new label devoted to show music," and they came to us with ideas for albums, or albums that were half-completed. It was right around the time that a lot of the major labels were getting rid of their music theatre divisions, so we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And although occasionally I'm sad if I have to turn down an acting job because we're right in the middle of a big cast album and I can't get away, mostly I've been able to juggle the acting career and running the record label, and I love doing both. It's wonderful to see a Broadway show you love, and then get the opportunity to preserve it on disc.
8. You have received two Grammy nominations for producing the CDs of Follies and Sondheim on Sondheim. What did these nominations mean to you? As I said, Tommy's the record producer in the family, but anytime we're doing an album, he'll call me into his office all the time and ask me to listen to something, and he'll say, "Are the strings too loud," or "Is the acting too over-the-top," or "Does that note bother you?" So I started producing albums with him sort of behind the scenes. But on Follies and Sondheim on Sondheim, they were big productions, and two-disc sets, and Tommy said, "Can you do these with me," and I was there every step of the way, from recording to editing to mixing, and I realized how much I'd picked up from him over the years. I found I was good at it. So getting Grammy nominations for those two discs was just icing on the cake!
9. Whose album or cast recording would you like to have on PS Classics? I'd love to have a Bernadette Peters solo album on our label. I think I actually first saw her when she was a guest on The Carol Burnett Show, and I thought she was amazing. And then I bought one of her solo albums, and I played it and played it until it wouldn't play anymore. We worked with her on Follies, and she was not only so talented, of course, but so gracious. I would love us to put out a Bernadette Peters solo disc. Will she be reading this?
10. What have you learned about yourself from being a performer and running a record label? I've learned I can be tough when I need to be. When I moved to New York in 1997, I think I was in many ways still that shy boy from Louisiana. I would cower in front of casting directors -- they scared me! But when you run a label, you learn how to be strong, you learn when to say no, you learn to stand up for yourself. That's really helped me as a performer, both when auditioning and also when I land a role and I'm in rehearsals.
11. What's the best advice you've ever received? "Breathe. Just breathe." An acting coach told me that years ago. I was running PS Classics, and performing in a show, and there was so much to do, I wasn't enjoying any of it. I wasn't taking the time to enjoy it. She encouraged me to slow down, breathe and really enjoy the opportunities I've been given.
12. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? Can I be like Superman and break the time barrier, or whatever it's called? I'd love to go back to the 1930's or 1940's, and be one of those singers who sings with a big band.
13. Favorite way to stay in shape? I run several times a week. We live near a park, and I love running through it. For some reason, I can never get in to running at the gym, but give me some scenery, and I'm there! Again, I think that probably goes back to my Southern roots, and growing up on a farm.
14. Boxers or Briefs? Boxer Briefs.
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana –moved to New York in 1997, and within two weeks, was cast in his first concert (the Encores! revival of Sweet Adeline, in which he sang the solo "Pretty Jenny Lee") and his first Broadway musical, Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s King David. He continued to appear regularly in and around New York, then in 2000 founded the label PS Classics with his partner, album producer Tommy Krasker.
When his first solo disc, the big-band album Where Do I Go From You?, debuted that year, All Music Guide greeted the new artist as a "a singer with a highly engaging voice who clearly loves what he is doing. His mellifluous-toned tenor fits this music like a formfitting suede glove, and he does so seemingly without any effort at all, like honey running off the tongue." Show Business hailed his "flexible and soaring instrument. He is as comfortable swinging the beat as he is singing a ballad, and he has a clean, unpretentious sound that is both refreshing and sexy." His second album, Warm Spring Night, which celebrated a century of Broadway love songs, was released in 2005. Chaffin’s third album, When the Wind Blows South, was named one of Playbill.com’s "year’s best" in 2008. He is featured on recordings of Nonesuch Records’ Pardon My English, New World Records’ Tell Me More, and several PS Classics discs, including Sweet Little Devil, Sweet Bye and Bye and The Maury Yeston Songbook. Since 2000, Chaffin has divided his time between performing and running PS Classics; he has received two Grammy Awards nominations, for co-producing the Broadway cast recordings of Sondheim on Sondheim and Follies.
PS Classics, founded in 2000 by Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin, has received eight Grammy Award nominations (for its cast albums of Assassins, Nine: The Musical, Grey Gardens, Company, A Little Night Music, Sondheim on Sondheim, Follies and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess). The label’s rich and varied catalog includes award-winning cast recordings; solo albums by such artists as Victoria Clark, Maureen McGovern, Kate Baldwin, Jessica Molaskey, Steven Pasquale and Liz Callaway; and restorations of long-lost musicals, including Sweet Bye and Bye and Strike Up the Band.