Host Luisa Lyons chats with writer, designer, and publisher Robert Sokol.
We chat about Robert’s extensive cast recording collection, collecting albums in languages other than English, Japanese takarazuka theatre, how changing the language affects a musical, the pros and cons of recordings going digital, watching theatre online, and more!
Robert Sokol is a writer, designer, publisher, and producer. Credits include leadership roles with the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, the TBA Awards program, and the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), as well as concerts, conferences, and other events from New York to Los Angeles. Robert and his husband Ron Willis own VIA MEDIA, which provides playbill publishing and other creative services as BAYSTAGES. A Munich native, he has been collecting musical cast recordings for half a century and specializes in translations of Broadway and West End musicals. You can follow Robert on Facebook.
Host Luisa Lyons is an Australian actor, writer, and musician. She holds a Masters in Music Theatre from London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and now lives, works, and plays in New York. Learn more at www.luisalyons.com or follow on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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Luisa Lyons: LL
Robert Sokol: RS
LL: [00:00:04] Welcome to the Filmed Live Musicals podcast, a podcast about stage musicals that have been legally filmed and publicly distributed. The Filmed Live Musicals website contains information on nearly 200 musicals that have been captured live. Check it out at www.filmedlivemusicals.com. And now, on with the show!
[00:00:24] Writer, designer, and publisher Robert Sokol is editor of San Francisco performing arts site Baystages and a regular contributor to the San Francisco Examiner. Robert is also an avid musical theatre collector and specializes in collecting international cast recordings. Welcome, Robert.
RS: [00:00:43] Thank you, Luisa.
LL: [00:00:44] I’m very excited to chat with you today.
RS: [00:00:46] It’s always fun to talk about musicals, and specifically about cast recordings.
LL: [00:00:50] Always. So can you give us an overview of your current collection?
RS: [00:00:56] It’s huge. I would guess that there are several thousand CDs and LPs and then a few cassettes and 8-tracks of things that never made it to another format. And I’m old, so I have covered all of the formats and all of the video formats, don’t even get me started on that, over the last 40+ years.
LL: [00:01:27] Wow. When did you start collecting?
RS: [00:01:29] I can tell you my very first recording of any kind goes back to 1967, and a lot of people wouldn’t admit this in public, but it was the soundtrack to Doctor Dolittle.
LL: [00:01:47] Oh, wow.
RS: [00:01:48] Yep.
LL: [00:01:48] The Rex Harrison?
RS: [00:01:50] Rex Harrison, Anthony Newley, with a Newley-Bricusse score, Leslie Bricusse, and Samantha Eggar was in it. And directed by Richard Attenborough, and it triggered something in my little forming eight-, nine-year-old brain at the time that said, “Hey, these musical things are cool. You should pay attention to these.” And it had this huge gatefold LP. Remember, LPs used to be these lovely 12.5-inch square things, but usually just front and back. Well, this one was what was called a gatefold, so it opened up, had a booklet inside with pictures from the movie. You could relive the whole thing all over again. And I wore that thing out.
LL: [00:02:35] And all the lyrics, too, right?
RS: [00:02:37] It did not have lyrics! It had behind-the-scenes… Some of the LPs had inserts with the lyrics. This one did not, but it had a lot of stories about Doctor Dolittle and the making of the motion picture and so on. So yeah, that was the first one that I bought, and it’s been financially downhill ever since.
LL: [00:02:59] I know this pain. Theatre tickets… It’s an expensive enterprise.
RS: [00:03:04] Yes. And the movie led me into live theatre and live musicals and so on and so forth down the line.
LL: [00:03:13] So how soon after that first purchase did you start thinking of yourself as a collector?
RS: [00:03:20] That’s a good question. I don’t know exactly. This was like 1968, so probably in the early 70s. I mean, albums that very specifically stand out in my mind that I bought in my early teen years were the soundtrack to Mame with Lucy, Lucille Ball, I remember buying the soundtrack to Live and Let Die, which then launched a whole James Bond thing, which is another podcast, and then West Side Story, the film soundtrack. And then somewhere in that mix, and this would have to be now like ‘72, ‘73, came A Little Night Music, the original Broadway cast recording of A Little Night Music. And that set off several different directions at once, including my lifelong obsession with the work of Stephen Sondheim, which is shared by many. So yeah, probably by the mid ‘70s I had started to build a shelf full of LPs and went on from there.
LL: [00:04:27] Was that the first album that you also purchased in a language other than English?
RS: [00:04:33] No. No, actually, the… I hate saying “foreign language” because the language is not foreign to other people, so I try to say non-English, which is a little bit cumbersome, but it is what it is. No, that actually didn’t come until the early ‘80s. I was born in Munich, in Germany, actually then West Germany. I like to joke that I was born in a country that no longer exists. And on my first trip back there since I left, I was about five years old, I went into a record store. And this will make lots of people cringe, including my husband, but the very first non-English cast recording that I picked up and decided “I have to have this” was Cats in German.
LL: [00:05:25] Oh my god.
RS: [00:05:27] Cats in German. And… Go ahead. And not only that, but then I had to learn “Memory” in German so that I could sing it, because at that point I had discovered that I liked to sing, so…
LL: [00:05:44] Can you remember it?
RS: [00:05:45] Oh, yeah. You don’t want me to sing.
LL: [00:05:48] Can you speak a little bit of it? I’m really curious what it sounds like.
RS: [00:05:53] Mondlicht, schau hinauf in das Mondlicht, geh ins Land der Erinn'rung [inaudible 00:06:00] Bahn. Und wenn du dort erfahren hast, was Glück wirklich ist, fängt ein neues Leben an.
LL: [00:06:08] That was beautiful! Wow. Okay, so I want to dive into this idea of musicals recorded in languages other than English. Yes, we do need a shorter term for that, non-English musicals. How much of your collection is made up of non-English musicals?
RS: [00:06:31] Probably a third. Probably a third of it. Some scores have given themselves to many, many, many international recordings, and some are quite obscure, so it’s a mix of things. Yes, there are many other versions of Cats in my collection, French and Italian and Spanish and… Is there a Hebrew version of Cats? I don’t remember. Anyway, but then Evita, I do have a Hebrew version of Evita, and a Greek version of The Full Monty. So some shows lend themselves to a lot of international cast recordings, particularly Andrew Lloyd Webber, who’s something of a global phenomenon. And then others just you really have to… You’re lucky if you find one or two where it’s been translated and commercially recorded. A lot of musicals are translated and produced in other languages, but they’re not documented in any way other than bootleg recordings that you may have them on.
LL: [00:07:43] What is the appeal for you in listening to, say, Evita in Hebrew? Do you speak Hebrew?
RS: [00:07:50] No. No, the only languages other than English that I speak conversationally, the only other language is German. I have become intuitive about Spanish, living in California you’re exposed to a lot of Spanish. My husband speaks Spanish, we travel to Costa Rica frequently, so Spanish… I surprise him sometimes by the things that I actually can interpret. But that’s it.
[00:08:24] But the appeal, it’s two-pronged. One is that I’m really culturally curious, and so therefore I love to go to other countries, I love to travel, we both love to travel. I’m more of an urban traveler, he likes to experience el sabor de Pueblo a little bit more. So that piece, and of course because theatre’s such a big piece of my life, when I am in these other countries I like to see what’s there. I also like to shop for recordings, but that’s another story. So there’s that piece of it.
[00:09:00] I also love puzzles. I love puzzles and figuring out how things work, and because I’m also a writer, words really matter to me and I pay attention to words. And so, particularly when I have a libretto for a translation of a score, it’s fun for me to look at the Spanish or German or Italian words and go, “Oh, that’s the root for that in Latin, which means this, which… Oh, that’s how we got that word. That’s what that means.” And it helps that, at least, I have the English libretto in my head so that I can start to put those things together. We go to musicals when we travel, so we’ve seen… Easy ones that are easy to follow, so we’ve seen Chicago in Greek, in Athens, and in Dutch, in the Netherlands. We’ve gone to The Witches of Eastwick in northern Germany. Things like that. If there’s a musical happening, we try to go see it. We’ve actually developed a fondness for several international performers like Simone Kleinsma, Pia Douwes from the Netherlands.
LL: [00:10:18] The Netherlands are well-known for their Elphabas. They’re always… I’m blanking on her name. There’s one actress in particular who is…
RS: [00:10:27] Willemijn Verkaik?
LL: [00:10:28] That’s the one, yes, who is adored as an Elphaba.
RS: [00:10:32] Yeah. I just got an email about her starting a concert tour or something soon, so.
LL: [00:10:39] Ooh, fun.
RS: [00:10:40] Yep.
LL: [00:10:41] I’m curious, when you see these shows that are originally written in English performed in a different language, what changes?
RS: [00:10:49] Sometimes they acquire a subliminal intensity or a subliminal flavor that is very interesting. The one that comes most often to mind for me is, and I have not seen this performed in either language, but to listen to Evita in either German or Spanish, both of them add different kinds of flavors to the music and how it’s being sung, and make for a very different experience. Sometimes it’s hard. A lot of the Japanese recordings of musicals can be hard to listen to, not because Japanese isn’t an attractive language, cause, believe me, people think that German is one of the ugliest languages in the universe but I don’t take offense, but I never try to cast aspersions on other languages. But I think that particularly, I’ve noticed, for Japanese recordings or Asian language recordings more than others, the intonation and the enunciation and just the way… They’re speaking their own language, but they’re trying to put it within the musical theatre idiom. And it’s challenging. It doesn’t always click. Some things do. Elisabeth is very popular in Japan.
LL: [00:12:21] And in Korea, too.
RS: [00:12:23] And in Korea. And of course there’s the whole Takarazuka phenomenon, which… Mindblowing.
LL: [00:12:31] Can you tell us about that?
RS: [00:12:33] Takarazuka is a very, very old tradition of musical theatre. I don’t know how far back it goes and what its true roots were. But it’s musical theatre by women, and so they take… All the roles are played by women. All the roles.
LL: [00:12:56] This is in Japan?
RS: [00:12:57] This is in Japan. And all the roles are played by women, and they do everything. They take all of the Broadway shows and translate them and perform them there, everything from Guys and Dolls to Me and My Girl to… They create original musicals for themselves, there’s a Gone with the Wind musical from the Takarazuka troupe. They have fiercely, fiercely loyal… I mean, rabidly loyal fan followings. None of the Glinda/Elphaba arguments that you’ve ever heard come close to how passionate Takarazuka fans are about their individual… They call them troupes. There’s the star troupe and the moon troupe and the wolf troupe and the this troupe and the that troupe and they record more than any group that I know. So there are probably three dozen or more recordings of the German musical Elisabeth by different casts of Takarazuka performers and different troupes over and over and over again. And the interesting thing is that they sell like crazy, and they are incredibly hard to find and incredibly expensive. And they release videos as well. And you can spend 70, 80, 100, 150 dollars for a video of one of their productions of Elisabeth or of… I don’t know that they’ve tackled Les Miserables, but they’ve done Phantom, they’ve done… And it’s all women. It’s all women. And the pictures are just so interesting to look at, when I see things online. They’re all very slender women and they have on the mustaches for the male roles and the slicked-back hair. So they take it very, very seriously. I’ve never witnessed one of their performances, so I don’t know how well it plays, but…
LL: [00:15:12] I want to find videos now, you said there are videos.
RS: [00:15:15] Yeah, I’m sure they’ve released clips online where you can get a sense of it.
LL: [00:15:20] Wow. That is… I’m so glad you told me about that. I can’t wait to go research that. I love what you were saying, how a different language can inject a different flavor into a show. I really felt that watching Daddy Long Legs in Spanish. It was filmed live a couple weeks ago in Mexico, and they performed it to an empty theatre. And it was so beautiful. And it was very similar to the off-Broadway version, but there was something Spanish and Mexican about it, in the way that they performed and the different inflections that they had. And I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I can understand it, and so I could follow most of it. And I know that score very well, like you said, knowing the libretto in English in the back of your head. But it was really fascinating to see how just changing the language, nothing else was changed, how it can inject this flavor.
RS: [00:16:17] Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Every culture brings something to the art form. Obviously there are the native interpretations of the art form, whether it’s like the Takarazuka, which is a uniquely Japanese thing, there are European troupes that bring different qualities. There are different forms of musical theatre and theatre that are unique to each culture. And then they intersect those with the Broadway musical or the West End musical and take their particular aptitudes, their special skills, their essences, and inject those into the art form that you and I are so familiar with. It’s really wonderful to experience that. It gives you not only a renewed appreciation in some ways for the art form that drew you in the first place, but it also gives you different perspectives on how it can be, what the opportunities are.
LL: [00:17:36] In your collection, how much of the international stuff, the non-English musicals, are filmed, rather than recordings or CDs?
RS: [00:17:46] Not as much, because they tend to be much harder to find, at least up until maybe the ‘90s. Finding stuff from before the ‘90s is very unusual. It just wasn’t done. There was no sense of archiving or of legacy about it. There is documentary footage, there are archives, just like there’s the TOFT in New York, the Theatre on Film and Tape, but you can’t access them... You’re probably hard-pressed to access them as a resident of whichever country you’re in, but even harder to do that from afar, although with technology you’d think it would be easier now. So commercially-released video recordings of musicals are, prior to the late ‘90s, are rare.
[00:18:41] With the turn of the century, that changed a bit. A lot of the French pop musicals, le spectacle, they have become available on video, so there’s Cleopatra, and they love the historical ones. So there’s Cleopatra, and Ben-Hur, Adam and Eve, and 1789: The Lovers at the Barricade. So there are a lot of those. The Germans have done that. There’s a video of something called Tutankhamun, there is a video of a musical about Gustav Klimt, the artist. So there are those. Le Roi du Soleil has been recorded on video. So there are enough of them now, and now with the internet becoming more of a tool within the theatre community, it’s spreading. As you said, you got to see the Daddy Long Legs stream, which I missed. I was furious.
LL: [00:19:45] It’s coming back! They’re doing an encore screening!
RS: [00:19:48] Good, good. So I can see that.
LL: [00:19:50] There’s a calendar on Filmed Live Musicals, the calendar has the link.
RS: [00:19:54] Right! Your wonderful calendar. Thank you. A couple weeks before I missed that, I was able to see a Spanish musical called Mentiras, which is hysterical. It’s Desperate Housewives as a musical with a murder mystery. It’s just crazy and why somebody hasn’t translated it and brought it to the U.S. domestic market, I don’t understand. Cause the music is good, and it’s incredibly funny. It’s in that realm of Little Shop of Horrors and that, Beehive, and all of those, just that heightened reality, big, bright pop colors kind of presentation that I think would do really well.
LL: [00:20:39] I think that’s also having an encore screening. The tickets are available through Ticketmaster Mexico. But it may be one where it’s only available in Mexico. There are so many that I mix them up in my head. But there is an encore screening about to happen, or it’s just happened.
RS: [00:20:56] They also streamed a drag version of the show.
LL: [00:20:59] Yes!
RS: [00:21:00] Which makes total sense for that show. Total sense for that show.
LL: [00:21:04] I will have to check that one out. It keeps popping up on my radar, but now I have your recommendation, so there’s no excuse not to see it.
[00:21:11] So we’ve talked a little bit about how the internet has changed getting access to these productions. You mentioned earlier that the technology for your collection has changed, that you started out with LPs and now it’s all digital. Can you talk about that shift a little bit?
RS: [00:21:29] It’s a blessing and a curse. I’m very old-school, and so my introduction to it all was that big 12+-inch square gatefold with the pictures and so on. So I had a long period of mourning when LPs went away and CDs came in. But thanks to some really dedicated CD companies, releasing companies like PS Classics, like Broadway Records, like Ghostlight and its former companion Chickaboom, they made the CD experience, in terms of the physical packaging, cause I’m also a graphic designer, so I look at all of that, really revel in that, made the transition easier. And of course the sound quality, there are purists who say that vinyl will always be superior to digital. I don’t hear that. I’m not one of the people that hears that. So for me, not having the crackle and pop, unless it’s there for effect, of an LP that you’ve played several hundred times, that, to me, was a bonus in making that transition.
[00:22:44] Moving into the digital realm, again, it’s a little bit of a sense of loss. It’s getting to the point now where people aren’t even generating some sort of insert, some sort of booklet. You get a folder with maybe cover art and your 1392k bit rate downloads, MP3 files, and you’re done. And that, to me, I think is starting to do a disservice to things. First because there is diminished audio quality after a point, particularly if you’re doing headphone listening, from an AIFF file to an MP3 file. You just do lose something in terms of the texture and the tone of the sound. So seeing that go that way is disappointing. If the companies, I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with some of the people in the cast recording industry, and I’ve suggested, “If you’re gonna go digital, make it as exciting as possible. You’re gonna save some money on the physical production of CDs and booklets and cases and shipping and all of that stuff, so reinvest that money into more liner notes, more background, more interactive, things like that, and make that digital experience more engaging, make it richer.” So that’s one part of the digital transition.
[00:24:22] On the plus side of digital is that it’s a lot easier to acquire some obscure stuff that was either released commercially but is so hard to find or that… And particularly in my realm, in the international language musicals realm, as we said, a lot of times they weren’t recorded at all, but if they were recorded, frequently they were only sold at the theatre, so therefore yes, it’s been released on CD, but maybe they pressed a thousand copies or two thousand copies or something like that, so then you have to go chasing. And maybe you connect with somebody, because now we are this big global village, you connect with somebody who has that, who might be willing to at least share so that you can hear it. There’s an old joke in collecting memorabilia that says that having a cassette copy of a rare recording was like kissing your sister. The mechanics were the same, but it wasn’t really the same experience. No offense to sisters world round. But there was that… The actual having of the CD or having of the LP or something. But so one of the benefits of the digital world is that no, you can’t have that, but you can at least hear it. You can at least have an MP3 file of it that you can hear, you can experience what it was like on at least a reduced level.
LL: [00:26:03] How does having digital affect your physical collection?
RS: [00:26:07] I know lots of folks who have ripped all of their CDs and LPs to digital files and have big terabyte drives and have gotten rid of the rest, have gotten rid of their CDs, gotten rid of their LPs, given them away, sold them. And they’re fine with that and they feel like they have sufficient redundant backup, which is crucial, cause I don’t want to talk about the number of sob stories I’ve heard about, “Oh, I had a hard disc crash and I lost all of that!” It’s like, “Ooh…”
LL: [00:26:39] Devastating.
RS: [00:26:40] Yeah. So what does that do? For the size of my collection, the digital component just makes it worse, cause there is so much that you can have that is digital only. Terabytes and terabytes of data. I truly have more music than I will ever listen to in the rest of my life. But you start to acquire things, and I’m using air quotes that your listeners won’t be able to see here, but for the collection. Oh, I should have that. “For the collection.” And so you start to acquire things, and maybe it’s a show that you’ve listened to it once in English and you really don’t ever want to listen to it again, but I have that collector’s gene that says, “Oh, in Spanish! Sure, I’ll take it. Yeah, I’ll get that.” So yeah, I have terabytes and terabytes and terabytes of data, and I’ve never gotten rid of an LP or CD that I acquired along the way, so I have a lot of stuff.
LL: [00:27:54] How do you store it all?
RS: [00:27:55] The LPs are in the proverbial cool, dry place, in a storage facility. So I don’t have those at hand. They’re in the building where I live, but they’re not here in my apartment. The CDs are here. I did have to make a concession at some point along the way that plastic had to go, and so I got rid of all the plastic jewel cases, just boxes and boxes and boxes of them, and migrated the booklets and the undertray liners and put the CDs in sleeves. And I acquired, and they have since discontinued it so I’m very glad I bought as many as I did at the time, but IKEA used to have these storage units called MAKI, M-A-K-I, and they were two drawers in a little beech wood box frame, and it was excruciatingly simple, very easy, and you’d get a unit for $9.99 or something like that, and so I have a wall in my apartment. It’s, let’s see, one, two, three, four, five… It’s 160 of these units. It’s 160 of these units, floor to ceiling, and it’s CDs plus DVDs, not just musical stuff, but also just Hollywood films and whatever, cause I’m also a movie junkie. And so there’s that. The LPs are offsite, so to speak, and the CDs are here, because I’m constantly referring to them. I’m constantly referring to them. It’s how I spend more time than I probably should.
LL: [00:29:45] You said you probably have more music than you will have time in your lifetime to listen to, so what are your listening habits? How often are you listening to the stuff that you have or the new stuff that you’re acquiring?
RS: [00:29:57] I try… I get backlogged. I have a business to run, so I have to focus on that, although right now it’s a little on the slow side because theatres are closed. But I tend to queue stuff up to listen to while I’m working. When new material, when new CDs come in, I will rip them to my hard drive so I have them available. I don’t spin CDs past the first time. I rip them at a high bit rate and store them on my hard drive and that’s sufficient for listening while I work or something like that. So my queue stacks up pretty quickly. Some people I know listen to them as they go to sleep at night. They just pop in headphones and listen. I’m not able to do that, because I will never sleep. It will not lull me into sleepiness, it will, like, “Oh, I like this new score!” So, yeah...
LL: [00:31:08] “What else did they write? What other languages is this available in?”
RS: [00:31:11] Exactly. It’s not relaxing. It is stimulating, which is not the purpose at 12, 1 o’clock in the morning.
LL: [00:31:19] Yes, I quite agree. What happens to your collections and other collectors who are out there when you’re no longer on this mortal coil? What happens to all of this content?
RS: [00:31:31] That’s a very good question, and one that gets discussed within collectors’ circles fairly regularly, and it keeps shifting. Used to be that if you didn’t choose to sell it, you would donate your collection to a library. Now, libraries don’t want them anymore. Unless your collection is extremely unique, libraries don’t really want those kinds of donations because of the cost of incorporating them. The onboarding costs of cataloging them and bringing them into their system and making them fit within their framework, and also because of duplication. It’s like, pretty much every musical theatre collection is gonna have Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly and A Chorus Line and the original London Les Mis. So there’s a lot of duplication, and I think some people have this fantasy that everything will stay together. And if you’re going to try to donate to a library or a museum or something like that, you have to accept the fact that they’re probably gonna break it up. If they even accept it, they’re gonna go through it and say, “Okay, of these hundred CDs or two hundred CDs, this 175 we already have. We’re putting these in our secondhand shop or in our fundraising auction or whatever. And then these 25 that we don’t have, we will incorporate those into our archive.” So that’s one way to go.
[00:33:21] Because of my unique interest, I’m looking at trying to create some sort of repository for it, to build a relationship with an institution, and I haven’t figured out who that is yet. But I really am interested in finding an institution, whether it’s a performing arts museum or a school or a language institute or something, some sort of organization that would at least be initially intrigued, and then building a partnership with them, because I’m still relatively young, so I plan to be doing this for quite some time still, so that I can fine-tune my collection to what they will be interested in having, and maybe work with other collectors to pull things together, to sort of become a clearing house for these sorts of things. There are recordings I don’t have which I know other people do, and that ultimately some sort of universal musical archive might be formed that then would make these recordings available for study or just pleasure. So it’s something, as I approach retirement, that I hope will be a project that I can successfully see through and then derive a great deal of satisfaction from that. If I have any concept of legacy, that might be it.
LL: [00:35:10] I know we have the New York Public Library, the performing arts library, and the TOFT, the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, but is there a dedicated musical theatre library?
RS: [00:35:21] I’m not aware of one at this time. I have not really researched. There are certain kinds of musical archives and libraries, Michael Feinstein runs an archive for the American songbook. We have an organization here in San Francisco that used to be called SF PALM, P-A-L-M, Performing Arts Library and Museum. They changed their name a few years back to the Museum of Performance and Design. And in their earlier incarnation, I did some consulting work for them, which included the onboarding of a musical theatre archive. It was a very traditional musical theatre collection, primarily LP-based. But it was a big deal about this renowned collector donating his entire collection to the library. And so I’m going to approach them, see what kind of interest they have in continuing that sort of resource, and if it doesn’t exist there, then I have to start looking to another resource. The blessing of the internet is that it’s pretty easy to get out into the world and see what’s out there.
LL: [00:36:42] Yeah. It’s quite incredible. And with COVID now, it has changed the way the theatre industry has made things available online, where for the database, I was adding two or three musicals a year, it was very, “Oh, yay, an event is happening” once every six months kind of excitement. And now it’s like six or seven a week. There’s just an explosion of material available.
RS: [00:37:10] I’ve actually hit periods of streaming fatigue. And it’s weird because it’s a different experience from watching television. It engages different parts of my brain to sit and binge a series, whether it’s just a silly guilty pleasure trashy series or something lofty as Downton Abbey. It’s one thing to do that for four, five, six hours. It’s another thing, for my brain at least, to spend a lot of time in Zooming kind of streaming things where I think subconsciously I’m always feeling the part that’s missing. The content is clearly not a film or a television production, and so what I’m missing is that sense of being in the room and experiencing it live.
LL: [00:38:27] So I totally agree. I can spend four hours watching Great British Bake Off, but then I couldn’t spend four hours streaming live performance. And so I’m curious, the fatigue that you’re feeling, is that watching, I call them Zoomsicals, where it’s people performing on Zoom and edited together, or is it when you’re watching, say, the Broadway Into the Woods that was filmed with a live audience? Are you dividing between those two?
RS: [00:38:59] A little bit. Cause I accessed a lot of the NT Live stuff that was being streamed, which was extraordinary quality, and it’s not “Hi, I’ve got my little circle light and I’m talking to you on my phone and I’m going to sing for you now” kind of thing. It’s obviously very different quality material. So I guess a little bit of… I empathize with creative people’s innate need to create, and so I try not to judge, even though I’ve been a reviewer for… I try not to judge harshly. I try not to judge indiscriminately. But at a certain point, it’s like, “Okay, maybe you need to do that for you.” And there is always an audience, but I don’t know that I can participate all the time. I can’t be the audience all the time.
LL: [00:40:05] I feel that way with every time I add another event to the calendar. It’s like, “Well, I can’t see everything.” It’s like being back in New York during when Broadway was open. I can’t see eight shows a week anymore!
RS: [00:40:20] That I could still do. I think my record is probably nine or ten in a week because of some funky matinee situations. But I could go from theatre to theatre to theatre still and do that.
LL: [00:40:35] Yeah, in person. But online, it takes a different energy. I read that when we’re chatting on camera, on Zoom, that the physical cues that we could pick up in person, we can’t pick those up on camera, even though we can see each other, so our brain has to work overtime because we’re overcompensating for the fact that we can’t pick up on the cues that we think we can see, but we can’t actually pick them up.
RS: [00:41:05] I think that’s very true. To be totally fair across the board, I can’t do just Zoom calls with friends for too long. It’s exhausting in certain ways. And it’s different, particularly with the video element, it’s one thing to talk on the phone for an hour. You can lie down on the couch, you can be more relaxed in a lot of different ways. With the video component, with the visual… And different, also, in the theatre, because in the theatre, unless you’re an actor, you’re in the dark. You’re in the house, in the dark, nobody notices whether you scratch your nose or something like that.
LL: [00:41:57] The ushers notice! We see everything. The ushers see you. And I tell you, I have seen some things.
RS: [00:42:08] That’s another podcast. But again, being an audience member at a live event is a lot more relaxed than being engaged in a Zoom process, particularly if it’s interactive. It’s another thing, too, if it’s like, “Well, I’m just gonna airdrop it up to the television and let it run.” But I wouldn’t do that to a live performance. I wouldn’t wander in and out and not pay attention. So yeah, I get the desire to create, or the need to create, which I think is very real for some people, but it’s too much content. Because the other factor is with the globalization, with the internet, it’s like, “Oh, I not only have the opportunity to keep up on all of the productions that are happening in the San Francisco Bay area with its 300 theatre companies, but I could keep up on what the Goodman is doing in Chicago, and what Alliance Theatre is doing, and what National Theatre Live at Home is doing!”
LL: [00:43:29] And the Southwark Playhouse, and…
RS: [00:43:30] Yes! And it’s just overwhelming at a certain point. So, end of rant.
LL: [00:43:39] I both love it and hate it. My husband has asked me to stop complaining about adding more shows to the database, cause he’s like, “You chose this!” I just need it to pause for a second so I can catch up!
RS: [00:43:54] Yeah, yeah.
LL: [00:43:56] So going back to your collection. Do you have countries that are more represented than others, or languages that are more represented than others?
RS: [00:44:05] Yes. Yes, for sure. German, Japanese, Dutch, French, Spanish. Those are probably the most represented… I have tried to extend my vision. There’s actually a wonderful online database that your listeners, if they are at all interested in this topic, will want to explore, and it is castalbums.org. And it allows you to actually search for recordings by language. It has filters built into it so that you can search for recordings by language. You can also search on myriad other criteria. It’s a crowdsourced database, so therefore it’s, as all crowdsourced databases are, it’s subject to certain whims. But it is a hugely helpful thing to look for things and to become aware of the outer parameters. I’m looking at the screen for it now, and it starts with Afrikaans and Arabic and Basque, and ends with Welsh, Yiddish, and Zulu. And there are recordings in all of these languages that are available.
[00:45:57] And so I endeavour to try and get as many different kinds of languages as I can represented within the collection, so I have things in Turkish and Icelandic and Korean and Russian. I’ve covered most of the primary languages, the top-tier 30, 40 languages that are spoken. And the other thing, maybe I’m jumping one of your questions or not, but one of the other aspects is not just to listen to the Japanese or the French or the German cast recording of Les Mis or The Phantom of the Opera, to pick some easy titles, but to listen to original musicals not sourced in English.
LL: [00:46:56] Yeah, I did want to ask about that.
RS: [00:46:59] Yeah, there’s a lot of that. And it’s fun to discover those things. It’s challenging, because if you’re not fluent in the language or even conversant in the language, then you have to intuit a lot, you have to research. If you’re fortunate enough to, either because the recording comes with it or because you found it online, to look at a libretto and maybe translate that, there are tools through Google now where you can clumsily translate things to at least get a gist of an idea, if it’s not a historical, epic, or famous novel, like the Russian musical Anna Karenina, or…
LL: [00:47:48] Count Orlov.
RS: [00:47:50] Count Orlov, Cleopatra, those things, where you kind of know the story going in, like Jesus Christ Superstar, you know the story going in. Then you have to research some and you have to try and figure out, “Well, what’s going on here?” And ideally there’ll be reviews or liner notes in addition to maybe a libretto that you can access where you can get a better sense. Like Mentiras, the one I was talking about earlier. Beforehand, I really had no idea what, before I saw it, what it was about, other than it was kind of this woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown-ish energy going on amongst this bunch of women, and now that I’ve seen it, all the music that I’ve heard from it over the years makes total sense and it all fits and it’s like, “Oh, that character does this kind of thing.” So the videos that we were talking about earlier really help with that, too. It’s a lot easier to see it, even if you don’t understand the words, to get a sense, to pick up on those signals that you were talking about and to intuit from that.
LL: [00:48:56] Yeah. Which musical do you have, a singular title, in the most languages?
RS: [00:49:04] Hm. That’s a good question. Grease is certainly up there.
LL: [00:49:11] Oh, wow.
RS: [00:49:13] Grease in many languages. Rocky Horror Show in many languages. There are the heavy hitters, like Les Mis, The Phantom of the Opera. Among older titles, My Fair Lady is one that has received a lot of translation activity.
LL: [00:49:35] That’s interesting given its focus on the English language.
RS: [00:49:38] Yes, yes. And when you start diving down into that to analyze, well, when they produce it somewhere where Cockney is meaningless, is there another dialect that makes sense for the story? So there’s High German, Low German, and how they incorporate that into telling the story in a German production. There are other language equivalents of, maybe, Castilian Spanish versus another dialect of Spanish to make it work. So yes, those are some of the more popular musicals. But it’s as much fun to have those as it is to discover things that you didn’t expect. And the last point that I would put, add into this mix, is shopping.
LL: [00:50:37] Shopping?
RS: [00:50:39] Shopping, shopping. Because when we travel, we shop. And I have spent more hours in secondhand music stores, LP and CD stores in Stockholm and Helsinki and Amsterdam and Istanbul than my husband would like to… But in those moments, and I seem to have an eye for it, you discover the most amazing things. I was in a store in Istanbul trying desperately, hoping against hope that I would find something, and I tripped over the original Turkish musical version of Casablanca!
LL: [00:51:21] Oh, wow!
RS: [00:51:24] The original Turkish musical version of Casablanca. By the same token, and this starts to get very esoteric and can see the eyerolling already, I was in a store in Copenhagen and found a copy of Godspell in Danish that I’d always wanted. I’d known about it from the database and wanted it, but then I found a different version of Godspell in Danish.
LL: [00:51:50] Two Danish Godspells!
RS: [00:51:52] Two Danish cast recordings of Godspell in one trip. I was in heaven.
LL: [00:51:58] Declaring that at customs.
RS: [00:52:01] Oh, yes. The cruelty now with how vicious they are about weight limits on what you can carry back. LPs are a really tough slog.
LL: [00:52:12] I bet. That’s the beauty of digital, you rip it before you come home.
[00:52:17] So to finish up, I have a series of quick questions. You don’t need to think about it too much, whatever comes to mind is good, and there are no wrong answers.
RS: [00:52:25] That’s dangerous, but go ahead.
LL: [00:52:27] What is your favorite musical?
RS: [00:52:30] There isn’t one.
LL: [00:52:32] Okay. Do you have a favorite filmed live musical?
RS: [00:52:37] My heart belongs to Doctor Dolittle.
LL: [00:52:41] That’s beautiful.
RS: [00:52:42] I’m loyal.
LL: [00:52:45] We talked about this a little bit before. A filmed live musical is not exactly theatre and it’s not exactly a film, so what should we call it?
RS: [00:52:57] A video.
LL: [00:53:00] Where do you stand on bootlegs?
RS: [00:53:02] I am grateful for their existence in many, many ways. I am appalled and repulsed and infuriated by the people who try to make money off them. I think so many wonderful things have been documented by people who have illicitly recorded something, whether it’s Liza Minelli stepping into Chicago for Gwen Verdon or footage of Ethel Merman in the original run of Gypsy. Just all sorts of things like that. I’m grateful that those things exist. Footage of the original Follies! But when I get an email from somebody saying, “I’ve got the November 12th, 2017 performance of Wicked with so-and-so understudying for so-and-so and it’ll be $20 if enough people say they’re interested, otherwise I’m not releasing it,” those people I just want to reach through the screen and smack. I had a conversation with Stephen Sondheim once about this, and he says, “Yeah, we all have bootlegs. We all have bootlegs.” He said, “And that’s fine, but don’t sell them. Because if you’re selling bootlegs of my work, I want my cut.”
LL: [00:54:31] And fairly so!
RS: [00:54:33] And fairly so.
LL: [00:54:35] What do you wish had been recorded?
RS: [00:54:37] I’ll go back to Follies. I wish there was a really good full video of Follies that was accessible. There’s footage in TOFT, but you have to jump through unbelievable hurdles to try and get there.
LL: [00:54:52] And what would you like to see filmed or recorded in the future?
RS: [00:54:56] The next Stephen Sondheim musical.
LL: [00:55:00] Yeah. Yes, please.
RS: [00:55:03] Give us more to see!
LL: [00:55:04] Oh, that is a perfect note to finish on. Sunday in the Park is one of my favorites, and that makes me very emotional.
RS: [00:55:14] Sorry!
LL: [00:55:15] In a good way! Robert, thank you so much. This has been such a wonderful conversation.
RS: [00:55:20] Thank you, Luisa! I hope I haven’t rambled too far, made people scratch their heads a lot.
LL: [00:55:24] Not at all. Before we wrap up, where can people find you online?
RS: [00:55:30] Probably the easiest way is to seek me out on Facebook. That’s Robert Sokol on Facebook. There was a Robert Sokol before me, so I had to be Robert Sokol Showbiz, which kind of makes sense.
LL: [00:55:44] Oh, I like that. Meant to be. Thank you again, Robert.
RS: [00:55:50] All right. Take care, Luisa.
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