Thursday, July 11, 2013

The not-so-lost art of great cast recordings

Like many kids whose families were too poor or far from New York to make trips to Broadway, I first fell in love with musical theater by listening to cast albums. Through the 1970s, either the Columbia or RCA labels could usually be relied on to capture significant new musicals in performances by the original casts.

With my friends, I listened to The Beatles and the Rolling Stones; alone, I soaked up "West Side Story" and "Damn Yankees." When forced to choose a school club in ninth grade (I wasn't much of a joiner), I picked Musical Theater Club, thinking we'd be performing. Instead, dour Mr. Walsh, the Latin teacher with the taped-together eyeglasses, played cast albums of obscurities such as "The Happy Time" or "Milk and Honey" and gave us context for the songs. The magic still worked.

So I was delighted when four newly recorded cast albums, two from Broadway hits and two from lesser-known off-Broadway shows, arrived unsolicited from Ghostlight Records. (Check out for the complete catalog). While bigger labels may still record huge shows (such as Sony's cast album for "Kinky Boots"), Ghostlight has faithfully chronicled productions both notorious ("Book of Mormon") and neglected ("Hands on a Hardbody").

By coincidence, the four releases that hit my desk this month each reveal a different reason why cast albums are crucial. Here's a quick run-down:

The new "Pippin" won Tonys for best musical revival, actress (Patina Miller as the nameless Leading Player) and Andrea Martin as the aged Berthe. The circus atmosphere of this version comes through in the extended (and re-orchestrated) wordless portions, and Miller (a Pageland, S.C., native) leaps out of your speakers with sexual allure and sardonic humor. Most importantly, this recording preserves the lyrics Stephen Schwartz rewrote over time, plus the darker ending. (The egotistical cunning of Pippin's father, played by UNC School of the Arts grad Terrence Mann, seems crueler, and a third generation picks up the illusions Pippin leaves behind.) Here's a look from the 2013 Tony Awards:

"Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" had never been done on Broadway until this year, so the Ghostlight recording serves a different purpose: It introduces us to a score we don't know, especially as multiple songs have been added to the lineup from the 1957 TV version. The booklet's photos reveal the Tony-winning costumes by Rock Hill's William Ivey Long in their sumptuous glory, and a long introductory essay and plot synopsis help us feel we know the show intimately, even if we haven't seen it. The engineering (which is excellent on all four albums) makes every word effective, though you have to go online for a copy of the libretto. Here's a Tony night excerpt from that show:

“Dogfight” ran five weeks off-Broadway last summer; it’s too small and unknown to tour or, probably, ever get done locally. So this recording preserves a show that left after its short planned run but deserves a hearing. It’s taken from a 1991 film about a Marine en route to Vietnam and a waitress he takes to a “dogfight,” where the soldier who brings the homeliest girl wins a cash prize. Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul earned a Tony nomination for “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” but this less gaudy story of two clumsy young people finding love stays longer in memory.

“Giant” also preserves a 2012 show, one newly licensed by the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization. Still, I’d guess it’s not well-known enough to tour here and too large to be done locally: 22 singing roles, most impossible to double, and a running time over 3 hours plus two intermissions. Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa and librettist Sybille Pearson also adapted a film – the 1956 drama about life in the Texas ranching and oil country from 1925 through 1952 – but stressed modern themes about immigration and discrimination. LaChiusa’s remarkable score ranges from Mexican folk influences to jazz to western ballads, including a faux state song for Texas. This may be your only chance to hear it.