The Naked Truth: An interview with Bruce Kimmel
Craig: Welcome Bruce Kimmel. Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) - tell us a little about where you came from and how you got into "the biz". In other words - who the heck are ya?
Bruce: This sounds like one of MY fershluganah interviews. Craig: They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
Bruce: Well. I come from Los Angeles, California, where I have basically lived all my life. I was always a little performer, whether it was doing death scenes at parties as a small child, or putting on shows for the neighborhood, or for family and friends. It's funny, because the story of when I truly got bitten by the performing bug is what I'm in the midst of writing about in the novel I'm working on (the third part of a trilogy about a young boy growing up in Los Angeles, California), so I shan't give away anything else, suffice to say that I got bitten and bitten badly. I took drama in high school but didn't get to do any comedies or musicals because my teacher was SERIOUS. We only did SERIOUS plays like The Crucible and The Glass Menagerie. All I wanted to do was sing and be funny.
Craig: You've pretty much been involved with every medium there is Can you share with us your experiences in television and film? Where and what might have we seen you in?
Bruce: Well, back in 1969 I moved to New York because I loved theater and because I thought with my looks that I would never ever work in television or film. So, I spent a year there doing absolutely nothing, could not get arrested (and I TRIED!) - I did one show in summer stock, Stop the World in Lake Swananoa, New Jersey. So, at the beginning of 1970 I moved back to LA with my then wife who was pregnant with my then and now daughter. At some point I went back to Los Angeles City College and did a show as an alumnus - Jimmy Shine it was. I got seen by an actress who was then in a TV series, and she loved me in the play and she introduced me to her agent, who signed me, and then she introduced me to a casting director named Shelly Ellison (now Rachelle Farberman) who worked for Columbia Television. Next thing you know I was testing for the lead in a TV series. I'd never been in front of a camera in my life, and I was petrified. I didn't get the part, but it was very close. A month later I got my first guest shot on a show called The Young Lawyers (more drama - when was I going to get to be funny?). From there, I got a co-starring role in a pilot for CBS called Young Love (a spin-off of The Doris Day Show) with Michael Burns and Meredith Baxter (pre Birney, and her first professional job). After that, I never stopped working - I did many Partridge Family shows (always playing some would-be suitor of Susan Dey), and all the usual stuff - Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Alice, MASH, quite a few pilots, none of which sold, and a ton of commercials - for example, did you know that I played Young Mr. Whipple in a Charmin commercial (and yes, Virginia, I got to say, "Please, don't squeeze the Charmin.") I did a CBS series called Dinah Shore and Her New Best Friends - we were a summer replacement show for Carol Burnett in 1975. It was possibly the worst variety show in the history of television, but I had fun, and my friend Diana Canova was also a regular as was Leland Palmer. I wrote, directed and acted in The First Nudie Musical, which was a low-budget independent film that got picked up by Paramount. I think I'm in The Apple Dumpling Gang briefly and, you know, all that kind of stuff. I wrote and directed another film called The Creature Wasn't Nice (sort of a musical version of Alien), in which I appeared with Cindy Williams, Leslie Nielsen, Gerrit Graham and Patrick MacNee. And lots of other guest shots and stuff, including a stint on the Playboy cable show, Playboy on the Air, as their intrepid sex news reporter (Hef LOVED Nudie Musical, it's one of his favorite movies and it has been shown more times at the mansion than any other film of its vintage). Whew, that was so long I fell asleep twice while I was saying it.
Craig: Wow, with all those roles, that whole Kevin Bacon game just got easier! So how did you then get involved in the recording industry? How did Bay Cities Records get created and how did you wind up at Varese?
Bruce: You want to know EVERYTHING! Craig: Of course! Hold nothing back Bruce: I got really burned out in the movie and TV world - I'd worked for fourteen years straight and I had every opportunity to go to the next level only it never seemed to happen. I finally said, "Someone is trying to tell you something." By the late eighties, I was pretty much just writing film scripts which weren't selling and I was fairly miserable. A couple of friends and I started up Bay Cities Records because I was offered a library of American classical music recordings. Bay Cities was really well loved - we eventually did show music reissues (we were the first to put the B'way cast albums of Funny Thing, Chicago, Golden Boy and Woman of the Year on CD) and we branched out into soundtracks as well. But, we never could get beyond our independent and not-very-good distribution. It was always an uphill battle getting them to pay us. I felt the company couldn't go where I wanted it to go (original recordings) and I was very frustrated about it. We'd done a handful of recordings that were original and that were the first albums I'd produced - a David Shire album, the show The Anastasia Affaire, a Joanie Sommers album, stuff like that. I had planned Liz Callaway's first album, Unsung Sondheim, and Michelle Nicastro's Toonful album as Bay Cities releases, but it became apparent that we would never be able to afford to do them. Around that time, Chris Kuchler, the head of Varese Sarabande, called me. He was not so thrilled that Bay Cities was into soundtracks, and he began to woo me, and he finally asked me to close down Bay Cities and come to Varese. Now, I'd helped start Varese, I got them into soundtracks (their very first soundtrack release was Nudie Musical), so it really was like family. Chris gave me carte blanche to start my own division, a show music division, and to do whatever I wanted within certain budget constraints. So, I said yes, and we shut down Bay Cities. We did Liz's album, Unsung Sondheim and Toonful, all in the first three months. And then, I just barreled on from there - the first year I did nineteen albums and I kept that pace for the entire time. At the beginning, we had the field to ourselves - no one was doing much show music recording back in 1993. After two years of our releases, everyone was back into it. It was sheer heaven getting to record shows, and doing my own concept albums and also working with the most amazing singers ever.
Craig: Ok so after Varese - then what?
Bruce: Well, in late 1999, Varese decided it didn't want to do any more Broadway albums. This came as quite a shock to me, since I was led to believe I could be there just as long as I wanted to be. It was very sudden and I was naturally not so happy about it. But, I began to formulate a plan to start up my own label. I thought that if I could tap into the Internet potential and couple that with brick and mortar sales, that that would make the difference between winners and losers, album-wise. So, I created this template for a label which would have an amazing website that people could come to all the time, a label would have a real personality (mine), and that would do albums that would be exclusively available on the net for a period of time (with bonus tracks on those copies only) before they went to the stores. I was originally going to start the label in conjunction with what was then theatre.com. We had deal memos and everything, then they got bought by The Broadway Television Network, and the new people didn't want to do the label. Needless to say, they're all out of business now. So, I discussed the label with an acquaintance of mine whose husband was very wealthy. I had many conversations, we did up a business plan and we decided to go ahead. That label was Fynsworth Alley (so named after the name I posted under on the Internet for many years), which, of course, was my brainchild and my idea, although you'd be hard pressed to figure that out now. The story did not end happily because I did not protect myself legally, and one should always protect oneself legally because frankly people can seem like they're your best friend and ally when, in fact, that is the furthest thing from the truth. Someday I will tell the whole sordid story - suffice it to say, it was unpleasant and difficult to have one's baby taken away, but that's the way it is sometimes, and you just move on.
Craig: Indeed. You've worked with so many people during your recording career. Can you share with us some stories of your favorite artists, recordings, etc?
Bruce: I am blessed to work with such people! I mean, I can't single out anyone because everyone is different and every experience is different and in one way or another I have cherished them all. I adore the Lost in Boston and Unsung Musicals series, and I'm very fond of a few albums which didn't do all that well, like Unsung Irving Berlin and Prime Time Musicals. I also think that the Peter Pan and Cinderella compilations are amongst my faves. Of the cast albums, I'm partial to The King and I, Play On!, and the revival albums of Whorehouse and Bells are Ringing. The funniest laugh-out-loud vocal ever was Dame Edna's Losing My Mind - I mean, we were all on the floor, including the Dame herself.
I've also really enjoyed working with the legends I've had the pleasure of recording - Stritch, Dorothy Loudon, Lauren Bacall, etc. I mean, there's just nothing better than walking into a studio and working with the likes of Liz Callaway, Brent Barrett, the late and wonderful Laurie Beechman, Sally Mayes and on and on and on. It's the best.
Craig: Ok, now I'll turn the tables on that last question. Are there any albums or artists that were - how do I say this - ummm challenging?
Bruce: Yes. Oh, do you want me to name names? That would be unseemly. I will only say that of all the singers I've done solo albums with, only one was a bit unpleasant in the recording stage, and only one was unpleasant in the post-production stage. And one well-known star and legend of one of the Broadway cast albums I did was a piece of work - a true legend, yes, but one of the most unpleasant people I've ever had the displeasure of working with.
Craig: You've done a lot of compilation type albums. Can you tell us a little about that process (song selection, track order, who performs what)?
Bruce: The compilations are really fun to do. First of all, one has to come up with the idea for the album. Then one has to do all the research - gathering material and listening. Then one has to narrow down the songs, find which ones will work best with each other, and which will make the most satisfying and fascinating listening experience. Then I cast the album - I do like to work with the same people but I also love to work with new folks, ones I haven't worked with before and sometimes performers who haven't done any recording and who are just starting out. Then I usually work with whoever is musical directing on the arrangements for the songs. We then make sure the singers are comfortable with the arrangements, we set keys, etc. As to song order on an album, well, I think many people don't understand the importance of it. To me if you come up with the wrong order it hurts the CD, no matter how good the CD is. I take pride that people have written me and said they play CDs that I've produced over and over from beginning to end, and I think it's because the order of the songs works and the listening experience is always interesting and surprising if it's right. I've sometimes struggled for weeks trying to get the order right. Sometimes I get it right away. But I'm just amazed sometimes at the lack of thought behind song order on some CDs I hear. Luckily for me, early on I came up with a theory for song order and it's never really failed me - it may take awhile to get right, but the THEORY always works. But I shan't tell you that theory because why should I make other people's jobs easier?
Craig: Fair enough. Bruce, people might think that you've been on a "break" the past 2 years, but that's not exactly true, now is it?
Bruce: Well, if writing two novels, adapting my film The First Nudie Musical for the stage, writing a new movie, working on a Showtime TV show and occasionally jogging is being on a break, yes I've been on a break. Certainly I've been on a break from recording, but after 130 albums in eight years, I needed it. I only wish the break hadn't been imposed on me, hadn't been so negative and I can only say that no human being should have to be treated as I was treated. During my "break" I also learned what true evil is. But, that's all in the past now and I remain the positive sort that I've always been.
Craig: Ok so first let's talk about your first book, Benjamin Kritzer. I enjoyed it tremendously and thought it was one of the best coming of age stories. What prompted you to sit down and write this book? How would YOU describe what "Benjamin Kritzer" is all about? What was the process of writing like for you?
Bruce: I started writing Benjamin Kritzer before my "break". I had been threatening to write a novel of some sort for many years, and I always thought it would be fun to do a somewhat fictionalized account of my childhood in Los Angeles. But I could never do it - I'd think about it every year and just never have the discipline or the guts to sit down and try. But two years ago I said to myself, "Myself, you have never been a coward about anything, so either write the damn book or never think about it again." I wrote the damn book. It took about eight months all told. I was very lucky in that a close friend of mine was my sounding board and she was so positive about the writing that her support and kindness and warmth just kept me going, even when the "break" happened and things were truly awful. Everyone should have such a friend. The process was interesting, at least to me. I refused to do an outline or be bound by pre-conceived notions. I just started to write. It took me awhile to get the tone and the style right, but once I found it, things got easier. I had made a list of things I wanted to write about, anecdotal things from my childhood, but I had no idea what the actual story would be or even if there would be a conventional story. However, a story did present itself to me (I was led there by some wonderful guardian angel) and that's what the book became. So, it's sort of a love letter to a different more innocent era, it's a love letter to the city that used to be Los Angeles, and it's a love story between two nine-year-olds.
Craig: And now there is Kritzerland. Was the process any different this time around? What challenges did you face with the sequel?
Bruce: The biggest challenge was not wanting it to be exactly the same as the first book - that's always the tendency. Also, I sort of got off on the wrong foot and it took me six weeks to finally figure out how to begin the book. Once that had happened, it took the same amount of time that the first book had taken to write. Kritzerland has a slightly different feel to it, which I'm happy about. And again, I only had incidents that I wanted to write about, no outline, and once again the writing just led me to what became the story - it just took me by the hand and showed me the way. I love when that happens. I hope I'm not being too long-winded, but I found such joy in doing these books, as difficult as it got at times.
Craig: Should we expect another book by Bruce Kimmel?
Bruce: I'm half-way through what will be the final volume in the Kritzer saga, and again, it's a slightly different feel, a slightly different tone - which is as it should be as the character grows up. The final book will take Benjamin through high school. After that, I don't want to know.
Craig: Now about this CD you are producing. Tell us all about it. How did you get involved, who is on it, how was the material decided...what's it all about, Alfie?
Bruce: I'm doing it with Richard Valley and Tom Amorosi, the brains behind the wonderful genre magazine Scarlet Street. We'd actually talked about doing this album way back in the Varese days, but we just never got serious about it. Richard and I discussed it about six months ago, and I felt that the time was right, that I was finally ready to go back into the studio. So, we spent the next few months choosing the songs (they are quite good, some very surprising choices), and then Grant Geissman and I did the arrangements, and then I cast it with my usual wonderful and merry troupe of performers.
We've got the likes of Judy Kaye, Rebecca Luker, Brent Barrett, Jason Graae, Katherine Helmond, Alison Fraser, Lynnette Perry, Theresa Finamore, Juliana A. Hansen, Sharon McNight, Michelle Nicastro, Christiane Noll, Susan Gordon, Tami Tappan, Guy Haines, Remy Zaken and a few surprises.
Craig: That's some cast. So after 2 years, you were back in a recording studio. Can you tell us any juicy stories about the session?
Bruce: The sessions in New York were dreamy, maybe the easiest vocal date I've ever had. Everyone knew their stuff, and we were all on the same page and it just went swimmingly. I don't recall anyone being juicy, although Alison Fraser was fairly madcap.
Craig: I can only imagine. So should we expect more CDs in the future produced by Bruce Kimmel?
Bruce: Oh, I think it's safe to say there will be more CDs in the future, along with a new label.
Craig: Well that will be good news to everyone I am sure. We've covered your books and your new CD. Let's get a little down and dirty - tell us more about The First Nudie Musical.
Bruce: For those who don't know, The First Nudie Musical is a little cult film I wrote and directed back in 1975. It's attained quite a following (it was just shown by the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood as part of their tribute of the musicals of the seventies and eighties) and last year we put out a 26th Anniversary Special Edition DVD, complete with commentaries, cut songs and scenes and a retrospective (emphasis on the retro) documentary about the making of the film. We got most of the cast back for it, including Cindy Williams, Stephen Nathan and Diana Canova. Anyway, I've adapted it for the stage and we're currently in the process of trying to find a space in which to try it out before bringing it in to New York.
Craig: This past year you also did some cable television work on a show called "Bulls". Can you tell us more about that?
Bruce: Yes, you have your fingers on the pulse of ME, Mr. Brockman. The show is actually callEd Penn and Teller's Bulls, and it was produced by Showtime. I was a writer, a segment director and oversaw the editing of the pieces I was involved in. It was pretty grueling work, very long hours, but some of the shows were really quite funny.
Craig: Now I have to ask some James Lipton style questions here:
a) What do you consider to be the 5 best Broadway musicals of all time and why
b) What do you consider the 5 best movies to be and why
c) Keeping with the top 5 theme - what about composers (Broadway and/or film)
Bruce: Oh, these questions are always so hard because the answers change depending on one's mood, but today my answers are:
a) Gypsy (because it's perfect); Follies (a brilliant show in its original incarnation - before the dreaded book revisions). I have loved this show since the day I heard the cast album, and seeing the original production will remain the greatest theater experience of my life (although I'm ever hopeful something will knock it off its pedestal); Li'l Abner (okay, I can't help it - I LOVE this show - I love the score, I love the characters and I love the jokes); A Chorus Line (I know it's fashionable to not care for this show at this particular point, but I really think it achieves every single thing it set out to achieve, and achieves it quite movingly); Sweeney Todd (well, you see, I was determined not to put two Sondheims on this list but I can't help it, at least for today - Sweeney is magnificent in every way). But tomorrow at least two titles would probably change.
b) Movies are even harder, damn your eyes! Sullivan's Travels, Rear Window, Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby and Once Upon a Time in the West. I know that is a very strange list and I know they are not the finest films in cinema history or even the finest films of their respective directors (well, the Polanskis are), but they are five films that I can watch over and over again and I never tire of them. But tomorrow I might have to include Double Indemnity, The Court Jester, North by Northwest, Psycho (well, the whole damn list could be Hitchcock), The Searchers, The White Sheik, etc.
c) Favorite Broadway composer/lyricists - too hard, damn your eyes! Okay, Mr. Sondheim, Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Jones, Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Hammerstein (especially Flower Drum Song - shoot me), Mr. Styne and anyone (especially Comden and Green), and Mr. Coleman. That list would also probably change tomorrow, too, in one way or another. Film composers, much easier, undamn your eyes - Bernard Herrmann, Hugo Friedhofer, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith (up until the mid-eighties), and I'll throw in one atypical choice, Laurence Rosenthal, if only for his three masterpieces, three of the finest ever, The Miracle Worker, Requiem for a Heavyweight and Raisin in the Sun.
Craig: Enough Lipton! Tell us - what do you think of the state of Broadway today? And what do you think of the whole readings, workshop, out of town tryouts scenarios?
Bruce: I think we're in a revival mode today. Not enough new musicals, not enough adventuresome producers. I hate to sound like a fuddy-duddy, or even a duddy-fuddy, but in the old days seasons had ten to twenty new musicals (sometimes more) - there were big Broadway musicals opening all the time. Some were great, some were awful, some were somewhere in the middle, but it was always exciting and there was always something new to see. Now, we're lucky if we have five new musicals to fill out the Best Musical category. That doesn't mean there aren't wonderful new musicals being written, there just aren't enough that are coming in. And the ones that are coming in, the stakes are so high that there is a certain sameness to them - some of the ones I've seen already seem like revivals. I miss producers like Merrick and Feuer and Martin - those guys who would take chances and do interesting material and if it failed it failed and they moved on. Now you get producers (or corporations) that are basically out of their minds. There is so much ego involved now that a producer would rather die than admit defeat and close a show. In fact, I'm always astonished when a producer actually does the fiscally responsible thing and close. It's the exception rather than the rule. I know all the reasonings behind trying to eke out a few months, but I truly believe those reasonings are basically meaningless and result in millions of more dollars being lost. I think the whole reading/workshop thing has totally been subverted from what it started out to be. I think workshops can, in fact, cause more harm than good, because they tend to give the creators a false sense of security because they invite people in the business, and their friends, and everybody cheers and screams and says this is the greatest thing ever, and then they actually put the thing in front of an audience and many times they sit there and scratch their collective heads and say, "Why is the audience not responding - they loved the workshop!" That was a very long sentence - couldn't you throw in a period there somewhere? In any case, there's no other way to explain how a show like Seussical or Sweet Smell of Success, two shows that had incredible buzz coming out of the workshops - beyond incredible buzz - could open to such problematic tryouts. That's not what happened in the original workshops of the seventies. A Chorus Line was really the first that went through that process, but it was very very different than today. Or, maybe workshops are great and I don't know what the HELL I'm talking about. That's always a strong possibility.
Craig: That was a pretty comprehensive answer. Since people are reading this interview on the internet, and since you have your own site as well - how do you think Broadway has been affected by the internet.
Bruce: I don't necessarily think the Internet has been a good thing for Broadway or films. I think you get a lot of opinionated young people who suddenly have a place to voice those opinions in a very public forum -sometimes they voice them okay, and sometimes they don't - some are articulate and some incredibly stupid - but they're all printed and print gives these comments some kind of weird validity, whereas if you were just hearing someone spout off at the mouth you wouldn't pay any attention to it at all. Sometimes people with agendas post and try to either cause harm or conversely, shill for friends. But the ultimate joke, of course, is that there are really only about twenty people who do this. Twenty regulars. But the press has bought into it - so they'll report "Oh, the buzz is bad over at so and so." Well, the buzz of twenty people might be bad, but so what? That isn't going to affect the outcome of anything. But they act as if it is. And the ego of these people is astonishing really - I've literally had my breath taken away reading some of this stuff. The same thing happens with films. Recently, on a Usenet film group, everyone who posted was predicting that Little Nemo would be Pixar's first huge flop - the buzz created by these cretins was incredibly negative and bad and had you been reading this stuff you would have thought "Boy are they in trouble". Well, they weren't in trouble, and Little Nemo had one of the biggest openings in film history. And do you know not ONE of those creeps came back and said, "Oops, I was mistaken." My point is, if the show is not finding an audience, no amount of Internet buzz or hoopla is going to make one iota of difference - you couldn't have had more hoopla than Side Show had - didn't help because the audiences didn't come. When Urban Cowboy didn't close, one suddenly saw tons of posts about how entertaining it really was, and how people should go - didn't matter, didn't help. Right now there's a lot of stuff about how the LA production of The Producers is not all it was cracked up to be - many people posting that the show just isn't very good and trying to create all this negative energy. Doesn't matter - people are going because they're having a good time. If the press would just stop being so stupid, none of this Internet stuff would even be noticed. Then again, the Internet could be a wonderful and positive thing and I might not know what the HELL I'm talking about. That's always a strong possibility.
Craig: Well anything is possible. You can't think the internet is ALL bad you've been writing a daily journal on www.haineshisway.com. Can you tell us how and why the website started, what goes on there and all that jazz?
Bruce: I started the website to basically counteract a good deal of, how shall I put it, spurious and incorrect information that was being written about the "break". I thought it would be a good way to keep people abreast of what I was doing or, at the very least, athigh of what I was doing. I had no idea that I would end up doing it every single day (I have yet to miss a day) for close to two years. It's a great way to wake up my brain in the morning and I thoroughly enjoy doing it.
It started out quite small, but in the last year we have grown really popular, we have a wonderful family of regular visitors who post every day (we have different topics of discussion), we have tons of lurkers and visitors, we have our own wonderful weekly Broadway Radio Show hosted by the lovely Donald Feltham, and we do weekly Unseemly Live Chats - we also have done quite a few Unseemly Interviews on the site with the likes of Kerry Butler, Melissa Errico, Kevin Chamberlin, Brent Barrett, Alison Fraser and on and on. It's all meant to be fun, and we have none of the negativity that plagues most other boards where people post (not that we're that kind of board). It's all feel-good and everyone respects everyone and we all really like each other, we really do. New people show up regularly and really appreciate the fun of the site and the fact that no one is going to come down on them if they say something others might not agree with. It's all respectful and light and we have a blast and a half.
Craig: Thank you Bruce for taking the time to answer my questions. Do you have any parting words for everyone out there on the net?
Bruce: Have you ever parted words? They look strange. For example, if you part the word "word" it looks like wo rd. That's just downright strange in my book (Chapter Twelve - Parting Words is Downright Strange). What was the question? Oh, come and visit haineshisway.com, and please, for heaven's sake, go buy Benjamin Kritzer and Kritzerland!