The original-cast album of The Book of Mormon, among the most popular new musicals to open on Broadway in recent seasons, reached the #3 slot on Billboard’s album-sales chart on June 16. It was the highest-charting record of its kind to be released since 1969, when the original-cast album of Hair was the top-selling album in America for 13 weeks. The last time any such record moved a comparable number of units was in 1992, when The Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running show in Broadway history, sold 54,000 copies in a week.
But The Book of Mormon’s freakish success was due not only to the Tonys it had won a few days earlier but also to the show’s having been written in large measure by the creators of the long-running cartoon series South Park. And even with the South Park imprimatur, the Book of Mormon album was released not by a major record label but by Ghostlight, an independent label that specializes in original-cast albums. Such specialty labels exist and thrive because most major labels no longer think Broadway shows are worth bothering with, even though the original-cast album was not only a mainstay of the record business for decades but one of the keys to popularizing the LP in the first place.
Big-selling major-label cast albums were not merely common but ubiquitous. South Pacific, released by Columbia in 1947, sold 980,000 copies by 1951. It was, incredibly, the best-selling album of 1949, 1950, and 1951. The 1956 recording of My Fair Lady, the most successful original-cast album ever recorded, spent 15 weeks in Billboard’s #1 slot and was on the charts for a total of nine years.
Such albums remained hugely popular well into the 60s, but Columbia and RCA had already started to scale back Broadway-related recording by the end of that decade, and the release in 1975 of A Chorus Line marked the end of an era. Original-cast albums continued to be made, but they would never again sell in the quantities that had turned them into a key element of the economics of major-label recording.
Most of the important cast albums recorded before 1975 are now available on CD, and Sony has announced plans to reissue most of the rest on its Masterworks Broadway label. Taken together, these cast albums compose a unique aural history of what is widely thought to be America’s most significant contribution to 20th-century theater—yet their story has yet to be told in the detail that it deserves.
It was not until the late 1930s that the score of a Broadway show was recorded in its entirety by its original cast. Prior to that time, individual songs were occasionally recorded by the artists who had first sung them, but albums devoted to specific musicals were few and far between, and none of them sought to recreate an original production.
Then, in 1938, an independent label called Musicraft recorded the score to the Orson Welles–John Houseman production of The Cradle Will Rock, Marc Blitzstein’s “play with music” about a steel strike, as performed by the entire original cast. The fact that the production was accompanied on the piano by Blitzstein rather than by a pit orchestra made the venture financially practicable, and the album, like such other politically themed releases of the period as Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads and Josh White’s Chain Gang, sold well in left-wing circles.
But The Cradle Will Rock was a small-scale show that ran for only 108 performances on Broadway. It was not until five years later that a major label recorded a popular Broadway musical not in fragments but as a unified whole. The show was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and the label was Decca, whose president, Jack Kapp, had already galvanized the record business by slashing prices and fielding a team of artists led by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong.
As Richard Rodgers recalled:
Jack Kapp…came to us with a revolutionary idea. He wanted to use our cast, our conductor, and our orchestra to reproduce on records the same musical program that people heard in the theatre. It was the most exciting recording concept we’d ever heard of, and naturally
Oklahoma! was recorded in October 1943, six months after it opened on Broadway, and the resulting album sold more than a million copies in its original 78 format (and as many more when it was reissued on LP and, later, CD). Decca subsequently recorded original-cast albums of such hit shows as Carousel (1945), Guys and Dolls (1950), and The King and I (1951), and the other major labels soon followed suit.
From the outset, original-cast albums were not exact reproductions of the shows they documented. The scores were almost always recorded in abridged form, omitting spoken dialogue and some of the secondary musical numbers. (Indeed, unabridged cast albums are as unusual today as they were in the 40s.) Further changes were necessitated by the technical limitations of 78-era recording. Jay Blackton, who conducted Oklahoma! in the theater and on record, explained these limitations as follows:
Sometimes a song we’d be recording would time out too long for the [four-minute] record side and Jack would come out of the control booth and say, “How about it, a little faster, maybe?” So I’d speed up the tempo a bit to fit the record. Take “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” I had to cut a whole chorus out of it so it would fit on one side.
Yet despite their imperfections, these albums had a powerful and lasting effect on the musical as a genre. They opened the way for listeners, and performers, to familiarize themselves with near-complete scores rather than just the hit numbers from successful Broadway shows. As well as adding to the fast-growing roster of “standard” show tunes, such albums also encouraged listeners to think of a musical as a total experience rather than a collection of individual songs.
Over time, this heightened awareness helped to develop an audience for revivals, both on Broadway and elsewhere, of outstanding musicals of the past, which had been extremely rare prior to 1943. In addition, the recording of cast albums of significant musicals such as Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1956), whose initial Broadway productions had been unsuccessful, gave these worthy shows a second chance.
Just as important, original-cast albums endowed that most evanescent of art forms, the theatrical production, with a limited measure of permanence. Much has been written about pre-1943 musicals and their star performers, but after Oklahoma! and the albums that succeeded it, later generations of listeners could hear (if not see) what the musicals of the past had been like instead of having to take their reputations on faith.
This is all the more important because most of the film adaptations of the classic musicals made in Hollywood in the 50s and 60s were innocuously cast, theatrically inert, wide-screen productions that gave little sense of how the shows they were based on worked in the theater. A case in point is Gypsy. Although next to none of Jerome Robbins’s legendary staging found its way into the misbegotten film of that great musical, the original-cast album recorded by Columbia at least lets us hear how Ethel Merman sang the score in 1959, proving that when Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times that “her personal magnetism electrifies the whole theater,” he was telling nothing but the truth.
Despite the success of Oklahoma! and the recordings that followed it, the original-cast album did not come into its own until the introduction of the long-playing record, which made it possible to listen to a show straight through rather than pausing at four-minute intervals to change records. No sooner did Columbia release Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific on LP in 1949 than it became the album that virtually all early adopters of the new playback format owned.
The success of South Pacific cemented the reputation of Goddard Lieberson, the most important producer of original-cast albums and the man who almost singlehandedly defined how such albums would thereafter be made. Lieberson, a classical composer turned record-company executive who worked closely with such classical-music giants as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, was equally interested in musicals (in part because his second wife, the ballerina Vera Zorina, had been a Broadway star) and held strong opinions about how they should be recorded.
As he explained in a 1961 essay:
Without scenery, costumes, lighting effects, dancing, dialogue, jokes, facial expressions of actors making (or missing) a point—without any number of minuscule elements which contribute to the existence of the theatrical production—the full responsibility for the success of the show suddenly falls heavily and entirely onto the performance of the words and music of the score.
In order to “suggest for the ears what was formerly supplemented by the eyes,” Lieberson customarily increased the size of the pit orchestra and invariably pared dialogue lead-ins to songs and spoken interludes to a minimum, believing that they would grow irritating on repeat listening.
As shrewd a businessman as he was a producer, Lieberson encouraged Columbia’s parent company, CBS, to invest in the musicals that he recorded. In his most celebrated coup, he persuaded CBS to advance the entire production cost of My Fair Lady, $360,000, in return for a 40 percent share of the box-office take and the right to record the original-cast album. This investment paid off beyond even Lieberson’s wildest dreams: not only did My Fair Lady run for 2,717 performances on Broadway, but the cast album, which cost Columbia $22,000 to record, sold six million copies.
As late as 1964, the year of Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof, original-cast albums were still a solid investment. But 1964 was also the year when the Beatles made their U.S. debut, and even though Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly!” briefly knocked “Can’t Buy Me Love” out of the #1 slot on Billboard’s Hot 100, he was the last artist ever to record a traditional show tune that topped the American charts.
Younger record-company executives understood at once that a generational shift in musical taste was underway. As Clive Davis, the pop-oriented producer who headed Columbia from 1967 to 1973, later wrote:
We could no longer duplicate the sales successes of South Pacific, My Fair Lady, or Camelot. The most popular radio stations didn’t play their songs….It was as if Columbia had collected a vast vault of gold and then the country disavowed the gold standard.
Not so, Goddard Lieberson and his contemporaries, who were unable—or unwilling—to accept that a new musical language was supplanting the golden-age songwriting on which they had been raised. Confronted with so mild a departure from musical-comedy norms as the rock-flavored score for Promises, Promises, the 1968 Burt Bacharach, Hal David, and Neil Simon stage version of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Lieberson responded with bemused distaste, asking a friend, “Isn’t the music for Promises, Promises worthless or am I just an old grouch?”
In truth, Lieberson was right. The scores of Promises, Promises and the other pop-rock musicals of the late 60s and early 70s were for the most part hopelessly untheatrical and in many cases musically amateurish as well. Even today, the synthetic rock heard on Broadway is almost always as untheatrical as it is unidiomatic. But the failure of the American theatrical establishment to come to grips with the emergence of rock as the lingua franca of American popular music had the inevitable effect of relegating musical comedy—and the original-cast album with it—to cultural backwaters. A Chorus Line ran for 15 years on Broadway, but it spent just 49 weeks on the pop charts, while the cast album of Les Misérables, which opened a decade later and ran a year longer, charted for a mere 10 weeks.
Today the Broadway musical is in a state of creative torpor. Though the form itself remains perennially popular, most of the new musicals that have opened in the past decade are “jukebox” shows with recycled scores or pastiche musicals whose songs are pallid evocations of the past. Small wonder, then, that the original-cast album has itself become a minority taste, recorded by boutique labels for purchase by fanatical collectors. The days when cast albums routinely climbed to the top of the charts are as remote as the common culture that spawned the shows those albums documented.
Yet the albums remain, and the best ones allow listeners born long after the passing of Broadway’s golden age to know how remarkable it was. They also allow performers and directors who care about great musicals to revive them with textual fidelity and stylistic sensitivity. To see a first-rate staging like the current Broadway revival of Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is to learn how much we owe to the existence of such priceless documents as the 1961 original-cast album of that show, in which the performances of Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee (and the orchestrations of Robert Ginzler) were preserved for posterity. No matter what directions the musical may take in the future, such albums will always remind us of how good it used to be.