Hugh Fordin, a versatile behind-the-scenes show business figure who wrote detail-filled books, including a biography of Oscar Hammerstein II, and founded a record company specializing in cast albums and other recordings related to film and theater, died on Feb. 26 at his home in Titusville, New Jersey. He was 83.
Hannah Fordin, his grandniece, said the cause was cardiac arrest.
As a record producer and executive, Hugh Fordin, working in an era when the business was increasingly geared toward youth, made sure that music from the great American songbook and from stage and movie musicals had a chance to be heard.
DRG Records, which he founded in 1976 and was still presiding over at his death, released cast albums for shows like the 21st-century revivals of “Wonderful Town” and “Sweet Charity” as well as albums by singers like Barbara Cook and KT Sullivan, the “Forbidden Broadway” parody series and reissues of notable recordings from the past.
His albums were nominated for numerous Grammy Awards, and he and others won a 2001 Grammy for best musical theater album for the cast recording of “The Producers,” which he made for Sony.
Fordin “relentlessly sought the performers who interpreted the great American songbook best,” Cynthia Daniels, his engineer from 1985 until his death, said by email. “No other record company or producer filled this particular space for the recorded version of these timeless songs.” (DRG later became part of Entertainment One, a Toronto-based company involved in music distribution.)
Fordin’s interests were also evident in his books, which included “The World of Entertainment!: Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals” (1975), later reissued as “M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit,” and “Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II” (1977).
Both were sharply observed studies of their subjects. The first examined great musicals made under the auspices of producer Arthur Freed, beginning with “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Fordin reproduces interoffice memos, production notes, art-department blueprints and hundreds of rare photos,” Walter Clemons wrote in a review in Newsweek in 1975. “The result is one of the liveliest records of the day-by-day process of filmmaking ever published.”
The Hammerstein biography was similarly rich in anecdotes.
“Mr. Fordin is careful about not crediting the sentimental Mr. Hammerstein with wit and sophistication,” Mel Gussow wrote in his 1977 review in The New York Times, “but he does acknowledge his humor. When corn grew too slowly for the location filming of ‘Oklahoma!,’ Mr. Hammerstein suggested that he might have to change his lyric to ‘as low as an elephant’s toe.’”
Hugh Grant Fordin was born on Dec. 17, 1935, in Brooklyn. His father, Leon, owned a luggage store in Manhattan, and his mother, Annette (Bernstein) Fordin, was a homemaker.
After graduating from James Madison High School, Fordin attended Syracuse University, though he left before graduating to begin working as a theater and music producer. Among his early producing credits was “Together With Music,” a 1955 album of music from a television special starring Noël Coward and Mary Martin. That same year he produced the cast album for “Silk Stockings,” a musical comedy that starred Don Ameche and ran on Broadway for more than a year.
Fordin also produced some live shows in this period, including the final concert tour of Édith Piaf in 1962 and 1963.
In the late 1960s Fordin spent three years as casting director for David Merrick, the prolific and famously difficult-to-work-with Broadway producer, helping on shows like “Play It Again, Sam.”
“Every one of his employees down to the switchboard operator walked on eggshells,” Fordin wrote in a letter to The Times upon Merrick’s death in 2000, “but we knew we were working for the greatest Broadway producer of our time.”
As a record producer and executive, Fordin took particular joy in reissuing titles from the past, whether from the French label Disques Swing or artists like Judy Garland and Peggy Lee.
And he issued new music, some of it recorded live in concert, by artists like Karen Akers, Julie Wilson, Eartha Kitt and Cook, who was a favorite.
“Judy Holliday had a special singing voice, and she did an album,” he said in 2003. “And the album died. Why? Because the Judy Hollidays and the Larry Kerts and the John Raitts — they’re doing performances like what they do in the theater. It lacks intimacy. But Barbara sings as if to one or two people in their living room.”
Fordin, Daniels noted, was an early adapter of CD technology, for both new work and reissues.
“Hugh tried to modernize the production and availability of Broadway and off-Broadway recordings in this new format,” she said, “while maintaining the arrangements and musical integrity of the times they were born into.”
In addition to his grandniece, Fordin is survived by a niece, Lynn Fordin; a nephew, Scott Fordin; and a cousin, Damon Brandt.
Daniels said that Fordin was a first-class storyteller, drawing on his deep knowledge of film and theater history to put artists at ease in recording sessions.
“As I worked,” she said, “usually editing and mixing, I would inevitably hear chuckling and then everyone in the room break into laughter.”