SPOTLIGHT ON: John Yap – Master Of Musicals

Brian Butler March 11, 2023

As a 6 or 7 year old boy in Malaysia, John Yap dug deep into the imaginative world of books by Enid Blyton and later Agatha Christie, but his other great childhood passion which never left him came from his mother’s love of the classic MGM movie musicals, like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.

“I was weaned on them and then moved on to stage musicals,” he told me. Moving to England for school he quickly immersed himself in both London shows and their cast albums. It’s led to a glittering and unparalleled career. “I was meant to be an architect, but studied for a degree course in Graphic Design,” he told me.

He had an auspicious start in what could have been a great design career, responsible for a worldwide poster campaign for British Airways. But he also started to amass a huge collection of original cast recordings. Needing the space at home, he eventually decided to sell them. And soon he realised that what he had was highly sought-after – selling one album of the show Clown Around for a cool £1000.

With some swift footwork he started swapping or part exchanging vinyl and realised record selling was something he could develop into a business. Records he was buying for 50p in second-hand shops he was able to resell for £100. “ My home rapidly became a second-hand record shop”, he said. And so the company That’s Entertainment was born- first with premises at No 2 Drury Lane and then in the newly developed Covent Garden piazza.

The shop- which I remember well- had comfy chairs, coffee and wine and became a hub for conversation and swapping information on past, present and future recordings of musicals, becoming a magnet for performers, directors and TV executives looking for soundtracks. It was only natural That’s Entertainment should become a record label – TER, followed later by another company JAY Records.

“It’s not a mass audience so you have to be careful how you promote and sell recordings – it’s done through contacts and influence,” he says. “ The quality of the sound was always the thing”. His first album was Nashville New York – a show being staged at Islington’s pub theatre the King’s Head, with music by Kurt Weill and words by Ogden Nash. He recorded it live at the venue.

He was soon commissioned by theatre mogul Harold Fielding – to record the musical Biograph Girl: his first original West End cast recording. It got his photo on the front of the Evening Standard. And so it went on, including Pal Joey with Sian Phillips and Denis Lawson and then for the launch of Channel 4 tv the cast album of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s fantastic epic production of Nicholas Nickleby, of which TER sold thousands of copies.

Fast forward and Hollywood came a-calling. “ Major record labels were not interested in producing film musicals soundtracks, but the film companies were. They gave me their soundtracks to release and I could manipulate their raw recordings”. 1983 found John in New York dealing with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation, and seeing Broadway’s best shows. “One show I didn’t want to see, because it had been slated by the critics, I was persuaded to see”.

That show was the marvellous On Your Toes. “I was knocked out by it – there were the original orchestrations from its 1936 production- fresh and wonderful”. But no cast album had been made. Yap said he would do it, but it was to cost $400,000. The solution was to co-finance it, but with John holding the rights to the masters. “ It’s an iconic recording”.

And that decision to use original orchestrations is at the heart of what John produces. Kander and Ebb’s The Rink followed, and then Baby. “I never looked back”. So far over 44 years he has released 750 albums, and over 10,000 songs. Check out the catalogue here: 

He says he has no favourites; “ they’re all my babies,” but he thinks West Side Story to be outstanding. “ every note, every bar – it’s a work of genius”, and of course he’s made a complete recording of it with Bernstein’s original orchestrations and the maestro’s blessing.

One of his latest projects is the re-mastering of a 1990’s studio recording of the King and I – the only one to include all the incidental music. It stars horror film king Christopher Lee and opera star Valerie Masterson. I’ve heard it and the dynamic of the full-blooded sound is truly gripping.

And the catalogue goes on and on – including the first ever complete recording of Guys and Dolls  and Bernstein’s On The Town, Wonderful Town and Candide. And then for the late great Stephen Sondheim, John produced the first compete recording of Pacific Overtures. Its huge projected cost was offset by the sales of Yap’s recording of the soundtrack to Rambo – a fact that much amused Sondheim.

John’s philosophy is that it’s important to preserve and promote the legacy of musical theatre and the original recordings are also important to scholars of the genre.

And we better leave the final words to Mr Sondheim. When John sent him his complete recording of Steve’s Anyone Can Whistle, the Broadway giant wrote back: “ the brilliance of this recording gives the show more energy and sparkle than it’s ever had, It made me proud of it”.

Look out for my review of The King and I. More information on John’s recordings at