Q&A: John Yap

A few weeks before his Whistle recording was released, JAY Records’ founder John Yap treated me to a socially distant listen of the full album at his home in Islington, London. Afterwards, over a Deliveroo’d order from Pizza Express and a few glasses of red, John spoke at length about his life as a graphic designer, a founder of what we now know as Dress Circle, his segue into album producing, the celebrity-packed nights at his North London home and, finally, the recording of this newly released two-CD set. I started off at the very beginning – “Who are you, John Yap?!”

John: Well, I’m John. I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and I came to school here in the UK. But when I was in Malaysia as a child, my mother used to love those MGM musicals. She used to take me to see all the MGM movies, and one that I really was very taken by was Kismet. And, of course, being gay, I fell in love with Vic Damone. I didn’t care about Ann Blyth, it was Vic Damone! I was just imagining [us] being “Strangers In Paradise”! So, anyway, that’s where my appreciation and love of musical theatre came from, from those MGM movies.

I know your love of musicals inspired the founding of That’s Entertainment [which morphed into Dress Circle] but how did you segue into record producing?
When I started the label, I didn’t start it to make money. Of course, I wanted the money, but money wasn’t the motivation. The quality and importance of the work was my main concern. That’s the philosophy and the policy that I hold to today. If I have an opportunity to do a commercial thing, I’ll do it. But I wouldn’t think: “Oh, this is not commercial so I won’t do it.” If it’s Anyone Can Whistle or Pacific Overtures, if it’s Sondheim, if it’s not commercial, I’ll do it anyway.

 

Over the years, you’ve got to meet all these incredible people. Hanging out with Sondheim, Kander and Ebb…
We were all friends. I mean, my life is blessed, OK? I’m a young guy in Malaysia who was looking at all these legends and they all became friends of mine. I mean, Sondheim sat there [indicating the piano in his lounge], Charles Strouse, Alan Jay Lerner, they’ve all been in this room. 

 

Did Sondheim play your piano?
No, but John Kander did. I had one dinner party and [singer] Elisabeth Welch was there. In the earlier part of my career, I was much more interesting, I guess, because I had to build my connections. I was always having dinner parties and drinks parties here… luminaries, you know? All the big guns and all the big names: Alan Jay Lerner and Stephen Schwartz and all those. At one dinner, suddenly John Kander got up and started tinkling the piano and then she [Elisabeth Welch] started singing the verse to “Bill”. By the time she got to the main part, John started improvising so he was accompanying her singing. I’m working with Sondheim at the moment and we’re corresponding with each other all the time.
 
When did Sondheim come into your life? 
I have to try to remember. Was it Merrily We Roll Along? Or was it A Little Night Music? Actually, it was Pacific Overtures in 1987. And before Whistle, the latest was Merrily We Roll Along – the Leicester Haymarket production with Maria Friedman and Evan Pappas – because I did that recording. Again, I did it complete; it’s a complete recording on two CDs. Of course, Sondheim and George Furth were very grateful because it was a completely new version. And they wanted that. I think that version is the one that’s published now. And Sondheim and I became friends.

The founder of JAY Records, John Yap, talks exclusively to The Stephen Sondheim Society's Chair Craig Glenday about the 1997 recording of Anyone Can Whistle, and how his plans to become an architect were jettisoned after discovering a talent for selling and producing albums.
*This is an abridged version of the Q&A - a full transcription will be made available shortly at this page
Stephen Sondheim
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Buy your copy of Anyone Can Whistle by visiting JAY Records. Also look out for other Sondheim recordings, including Pacific Overtures, A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along.

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This interview appears in the latest edition of Sondheim The Magazine, available exclusive to Society members.

 

And were you a fan of Sondheim by then?
Oh yes, yes. And because of that, we became friends. And then I had no problem doing a studio recording of A Little Night Music because he was fine with it. He just said to [agent] Flora Roberts: “Do it, give it to John”. 


When I went to New York one time, Assassins was on, at a tiny little theatre, Playwrights Horizons. It held 90 people and the limited run was completely sold out. Steve said, “You must see Assassins.” And I told him I wanted to but couldn’t because it was completely sold out. “OK. Leave it to me.” Half an hour later, he called to say that there were two tickets there for me. So I got to see Assassins in the original production in the little theatre, and that was wonderful. And then he asked me what I thought. I genuinely loved it.  

 

But he has had some very nasty reactions over the years!
Mainly from Americans, not over here. The British critics just love him to death, but the American critics are… you know… I thought it was so sad that Sondheim, who by then was already a legend, was complaining that they hated him.


He came here once, straight from the airport. I wanted to play him Pacific Overtures – I’d just received a copy of the recording – and I remember I was just building the conservatory. He was looking at it and said, “What a wonderful space!” I can remember him always saying that. He’s been here a couple of times, two or three times.

Remind me: what are your Sondheim recordings? Merrily, Into The Woods, Pacific Overtures…?
Into The Woods was BMG, but I got the project to them because, at the time, I knew I couldn’t afford to do it. My friend ran the theatrical division of BMG in New York. BMG was doing all the Sondheim, so I said to him: “You want to record Into The Woods? I think I can put it together for you quite cheaply”. I was using the Equity agreement and also the fact that we didn’t have to pay the re-use fee, which you have to pay in America for orchestrators and copyists. It would be a big budget, say $50,000. But in London, there’s no agreement between the musicians and the record companies to pay orchestrators re-use fees. We got the cast under the Equity agreement, which at that time was £90 per session.

What have you still to release?
I have Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man, 42nd Street, The Fantasticks and Brigadoon, all still in the can; recorded 25 to 30 years ago, paid for completely, just waiting for me to go and put it all together. Like Anyone Can Whistle – it was all paid for but still in the can after all these years. And then finally, this lockdown gave me the time to work on it. 

When you say “work on it” what are you actually doing to it? What’s the day to day work? Are you doing the mixing…?
Well, those were the days where I had to work from the studio and I hated it. Lots of people think it’s glamorous. I practically lived in Abbey Road almost every day from morning, noon and night. Sometimes I’d be there til 3 or 4 am.


Basically, I had to go to Abbey Road to mix in the studio with an engineer, paying £150 an hour. Then coming back home, listening to it and then going back again to do the fixes and everything. But now I use [the digital audio software] Pro Tools. I have two engineers who’ve been working with me for years, and they know exactly what I want. They know exactly how my life is. Now, for the initial mix, they come here to the house, they set up with their portable speakers and Pro Tools and everything, and then we do the initial edit and mix… a few days of that. After that, I send them notes and after they’ve done that, you have the first mix. Now, I listen to it and make notes. You know, “more woodwind”, “more drums”, “normal voice”, “nice voice”, “move the voice”. So I put it all together. It’s almost like me writing a novel because it’s pages and pages, and I just email them my notes because they have the master tapes. And then they put it up on FTP [a system for sending large files]. Sometimes it goes up to like 50, 60, 70, 80 passes. That’s how you get to that quality – it’s what you need to do. I mean, other producers do it differently, but I home-in on details of the orchestration. Sometimes even the one instrument can make a point; you have to make sure that that’s established.


My mixing bills used to be at £10,000–£15,000 per album but it’s now down to about £2,000 or £3,000. So that saves a lot of money. And of course, with the FTP, it’s a blessing – no more couriers from Hounslow to here and back; for me to just get the next mixing disk from the studio, I had to pay £40 or £50 to get it here.

Let’s get to Anyone Can Whistle. Why this show, and why has it taken 23 years? 
OK, why Anyone Can Whistle? As I said before at the very beginning, my decision to record something is based on quality and importance and the pedigree of the work. Obviously, I know I can be sure of this with Sondheim. And I guess anyone with any kind of sensibility or feeling for musical theatre would recognise that there’s something very special about Anyone Can Whistle. All these years, I’ve always thought Anyone Can Whistle was really special.
 
What did you see in it that no one else did, given that it was a flop? 
Just that it’s so unusual, so funny and so kooky. I mean, just “Simple”. And “The Cookie Chase”, just those two numbers [were so different from] a Broadway musical at that time. They have these two big extended numbers that just don’t fit anywhere in the traditional musical of that period, and they were so fun and so kooky and so unusual; that drew me to do it, really, those, and of course, the title number and “With So Little To Be Sure Of”… And things like “Me And My Town”… But it’s those two big numbers that really make me go ”wow!”

Yet the chaos of “Simple” and “The Cookie Chase” probably put a lot of people originally…
I know. I’ve been reading up on some of the original reviews. They’re terrible, but a lot of them mostly mention the choreography of “The Cookie Chase”; that it was so exceptional. So even then, they must have been wonderful. I’d loved to have seen it on stage way back then because there must have been all sorts of wonderful things happening on the stage. 


So, that was mainly why I did it. It’s like my decision to do a complete recording of 110 in the Shade. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt were shocked when I said I wanted to do that, but it was because I saw it during the days when I used to skive off from boarding school on Saturday mornings. I loved it and I just wanted to do it. But I didn’t know I could end up doing a recording of it. When I was in a position to do it, I did it. And the same thing with Anyone Can Whistle – when I was in that situation, financially, to be able to do it, I decided to go for it.

Is it a sound commercial choice?


I’m never going to make money from Anyone Can Whistle. I might recoup quite a lot. I think of all of them, I’ll probably recoup quite a lot more than a lot of the others. The Most Happy Fella cost me £800,000 to record. It’s expensive, you know? Abbey Road and all these other things? That’s why you get this wonderful sound.

Did you talk to Sondheim beforehand? 
Now, this is very interesting. By the time I got to Anyone Can Whistle, I was already friends with Sondheim because I’d done several of his other shows: Into the Woods, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Pacific Overtures. And West Side Story and Candide. So when I decided to do this, I rang Sondheim. 


I also knew Arthur Laurents then because I’d done a couple of his things, one of which was under very great duress, which was not my fault. It was the musical Nick and Nora with Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby, but Arthur was at loggerheads with Charles and Richard, and didn’t want to do the show. So we had a kind of rapport because I promised him something, I can’t remember what. Anyway, so when I rang up Sondheim and Laurents, they were both totally 100% co-operative and supportive and gung ho about it. 

When did you start discussing Whistle with them?
Wow. 27 years ago? 26 years and a half ago? It was just before that recording. I guess they felt that it was another chance for their baby. So basically, it was amazing. Suddenly, Flora Roberts, who was a dragon, who used to be [Sondheim’s] agent and Shirley Bernstein, another dragon, and all the people from the publishers and MTI and Warner Chappell… all these doors were opened for me. I got everything I needed. No problem. I got the word from Sondheim and Arthur Laurents; they said “Do it!” 

Who made the cast decisions?
Well, it was mutual. I knew that Julia and Maria were great friends with Sondheim, and he loved them because they did a lot of his stuff. When I mentioned them, he said, “Yes, that’s exactly whom I would have cast”. So it’s basically mutual; they were perfect. It’s such a shame that this wasn’t 25 years ago so that at least that there could have been a performance or maybe a production mounted for them. 

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And John Barrowman was next?
Well, the original thought was a Broadway name. In fact, I was looking through my files and I was quite shocked to see that his name was actually bandied about in my correspondence. I was really good friends with Janet Glass – John Barrowman’s agent – and she convinced me to give John a chance to record Hapgood. I did a few recordings with him; he was on the rise at that time, becoming well-known. And then at the time of casting, I had a phone call from Sondheim at about 11 or 11.30 at night. “John, I’ve got the perfect Hapgood for you. I’ve just seen The Fix, and the star, John Barrowman, he’ll be perfect for you”. “Oh, good. I’ve already asked him!” “Oh, okay. Good!” So it was funny and it was again mutual. But yes, we’d met, so he and I had the same casting ideas.

And Arthur Laurents as the narrator!
I asked Steve: “Would you be the narrator?” And he said “No, but you should ask Arthur”. I was thrilled that he suggested Arthur. But if Sondheim had done it, it would also have been great.

So you had your cast. You had your orchestrations. And your orchestra was…?

The National Symphony Orchestra. They are on all my studio recordings. And one of the reasons is that the National Symphony Orchestra is unlike the London Symphony or the Philharmonic in that they’re “floating”. They’re not the same players, not regularly employed by them. They’re floating but mostly regular: floating, trusted regulars. They play in West End shows and so on. So [orchestra fixer] Anne Collis – poor thing, she’s dead now – we became great friends. And I gave her a lot of business and a lot of money; for this, she got me the best: the best brass players, the best woodwind, the best drummers.

How many percussionists did you have? It sounds like maybe four of them?
Quite a lot. Anne always gave me the best because she knew that for a Broadway cast score we really needed great brass players and great percussionists. She always tried to get the best for me and I had the best seven brass players. Also, the interesting thing with the scoring is that there’s no violins. There’s a lot of strings but no violins; it’s all violas, cellos and basses. They make a rich, lovely sound.


The two numbers, “Anyone Can Whistle” and “With So Little To Be Sure Of”… didn’t they sound beautiful? If you listen to the Broadway recording, it’s crude. For this, they had real feelings.

 

How long did it take to lay all the tracks? And then for the rest of the people to come in? 
No, we did it live, actually. 

And you didn’t film it?!
No, it’s much more complicated than that because if I’d had a video person in there, I’d have had to pay the musicians a video rate. I did film A Little Night Music, but I did pay them the video rate. Because, for the record, I knew I had a very interesting cast from the opera world and Siân Phillips and Susan Hampshire.

Did you have a director or someone who was the equivalent of a director? 
Yes, me! I guess after all these years, I would have some instincts and some ideas of what the songs are supposed to do, to convey.

Did they get much rehearsal and work through time with you?
Yes, they got rehearsed. They came here. I’ve had a lot of stars here. Even Judi Dench came here. 

Do you play the piano?
No, I don’t. That piano belonged to Siân Phillips. I bought it from her. I have a wonderful story to tell you about. I’ll tell you another time!

How many days did it take to record?
We did it over eight days, I think. I thought that was quite excessive. I think you should be able to do it in about three or four days, but this was eight days. And everyone’s together at once: the chorus, the principals, the orchestra. 

Sounds expensive!
Expensive and complicated. I mean, just look at “The Cookie Chase” and think how complicated that would be. The rhythms… getting the syncopated sound… very difficult. And getting them all to come in together! Hoping that all those different parts – the Cookies and the Pilgrims, all saying different things – come together. And you’ve got to make sure that they come through, you know? Can be heard? That’s the secret, that the key lines come through. They can’t all come through at the same time, but as long as you get the key lines, the important bits, that’s what matters. 

 

How do you get the balance so right in your recordings?
Well, this is my way, and I’ve done it for years. And the only way I do this is to not allow the singers free rein as to how close or how far they go from the microphone; I always have that as a set distance. I have a mark on the floor for them all, even for the principals. I always measure the distance because, as I tell them, “I have to balance you with all the other people.” They love it. Those who get it, love it. When they hear it, they love it!

 

Sometimes when one gets too close [to the mic], it doesn’t mean that the voice is better recorded. It means that the voice gets a booming quality. And if one gets too far from the mic, then the voice spins out and we won’t be able to match the singers. I want to put them all on the same stage in the same room. I want to eliminate the microphone. When you listen to some recordings, you can “hear” the microphone, that it’s a recording. With my recordings, I want it more like a performance. 

 

It does sound very natural. It sounds like they’re performing the show, not just recording a cast album. There’s real chemistry; I really felt it. 
And Bill Nolte [in the role of Schub], whom I recorded in New York 13 years later, you wouldn’t know if I didn’t tell you. He’s talking to them and he’s part of the company with Cora, Magruder and Detmold. You just can’t tell that he wasn’t there at the same time. 

Your choice of soprano is also inspired…
Yes, Tinuke Olafimihan, she was the soprano voice for this recording. She was lovely. She had the most beautiful and clear voice. She recorded Eliza Doolittle for me, and was Maria in West Side Story, Tuptim in the King and I, and Miss Turnstile in On The Town. I first saw her in Trevor Nunn’s production of Porgy and Bess at the Royal Opera House. At that time, I was looking for Maria and I wanted a beautiful lyrical soprano. Paulette Ivory had played her at Leicester Haymarket but she had the wrong voice; she was a belter. She won the Olivier Award for The Lion King later on. So when I went to see Porgy and Bess at Covent Garden, the first voice I heard was Tinuke as Serena singing “Summertime”. It was the most wonderful, clearest, beautiful voice I’d heard singing “Summertime”. So I thought, “That’s my Maria.” After the performance, I went backstage and said, “I love your voice; I want to talk to you about recording Maria in West Side Story”. And then we became friends. 

So why the 23-year wait?!
Well, I was too busy! I was recording other cast albums. I was flying off to New York. I was doing West End albums. I was doing solo albums. I was doing such a lot. There was One Touch of Venus, The Dancing Years and others. All this was stuck in there until recently. The thing is, I knew I wanted these studio recordings to be so good that no one could say, “Oh, they’re just studio cast recordings.” When you listen to The Dancing Years and One Touch of Venus, they sound as good as if they were from a stage performance. John Owen Edwards is also a very good conductor. In fact, he’s a wonderful conductor. He worked very well with me in the studio. But a lot of it has also to do with the mixing. Like, for example, “With So Little To Be Sure Of”: I don’t know if you heard it but celeste notes come through every now and then. You never hear this on the other recordings, but it’s a wonderful part. And the accordion. Did you hear the accordion? 

Oh, I’ll need another listen. I did hear some lovely vibes…
And did you feel the dynamic pulses in “With So Little To Be Sure Of”? In the climax, with those two or three points in the lyric where the orchestra surges with him? That’s helped by the mixing. Of course, if the orchestra didn’t do it during the session, we couldn’t help it much, but thanks to John [Owen Edwards, conductor] it’s already in there.
 
So, why now? Have lockdowns just given you the time to work on it?
Yeah, it’s always been bubbling away, because I knew that I had this wonderful record, but the delay has worked out, in a way – a blessing in disguise. This is the perfect opportunity, the perfect time to release it. If I had released this two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, it would have been just another release of a new recording of Anyone Can Whistle. But now it’s so relevant to what’s happening socially and politically in America. The general public other than Sondheim fans can find the uncanny parallels interesting and fascinating. And that’s why the mainstream press are interested and want to cover it. It was 56 years ahead of its time. The time is now. This is now a contemporary and relevant political satire.

A few years ago, Michael Strassen was trying to stage Anyone Can Whistle with a Sarah Palin look-alike as Fay…
Well, now Cora can have a blonde wig and very orange skin! And wear more masculine clothing. A blue power suit and red tie!

What’s Steve’s reaction been?
I know that he is absolutely smitten with this recording – and so he should be! I’ve never heard more positiveness! Well, I’ve always had positiveness from him, but the fact is that he’s playing it to all his friends, including Scott Rudin and Cameron Mackintosh. His endorsement says it all: “The brilliance of this recording gives the show more energy and sparkle than it’s ever had. It made me proud of it.” 

At this point, the clock chimes three times – it’s 3 am! – so we wrap up, knowing that John has many more anecdotes and memories to be tapped. Another time...