For the overwhelming majority of musical theater fans worldwide, the cast recording will be their first exposure to any given show. For many of them, it will be the only exposure they get to the show.
Maybe this seems obvious to you. Certainly it does to me, and yet I see far too many people consistently fail to internalize precisely what this means, which is a problem because the cast album has enormous marketing significance; and marketing, like it or not (and for the record, I broadly do not), is life or death for a work in a medium as financially tenuous as musical theater.
Cast albums often have wildly different approaches to the shows they seek to present an aspect of. Some are bald recitations of the show’s greatest hits, some basically constitute a radio drama adaptation of the whole show, others just scramble to put their best foot forward for posterity, trying to carve their Ozymandias inscription into the fickle and ephemeral landscape of the art form.
The relative merits of these approaches matter little to me in isolation, at least when compared to the larger and more pressing criterion at play; as we look at the most successful and pivotal cast recordings, we will find they all have one thing in common: they form a parallel but nonetheless complete experience for the listener. Note that I do not say they form an experience equivalent to seeing the show, that is self-evidently impossible. And yet the experience must be complete and satisfying on its own terms.
Fortunately, there are multiple ways to achieve this. For example, let’s look at the latest cast album to become a smash crossover hit, Hamilton. Let’s leave aside for a moment its other advantages – the show’s buzz, the weird but serendipitous cultural confluence point at which it sat, its chosen genre letting it produce headlines like “Hamilton tops hip-hop album charts” – and look at it as a self-standing experience. It’s a terrific record of a terrific score. In fact, it basically is the entire score, absent a few lines of interstitial dialogue omitted by Lin-Manuel Miranda ostensibly as a bonus for those seeing the show live (a peculiar choice on a few levels, but that’s for another day).
But its comprehensiveness isn’t really the point – the point is that, listening to the record, we can track the full arc of Hamilton’s life in the show from beginning to end. Listening to the score is only somewhat like seeing the show live – Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography serves as a far better incentive than any withheld scene for seeing a live production – but as its own entity it is totally satisfying. This may reflect its origins as a concept album, of course, in that at a certain point it was intended to stand on audio alone. Whatever its provenance, however, the results are undeniable.
The same goes, to a large extent, for one of Hamilton’s most obvious influences: Jesus Christ Superstar. The success of JCS on the record charts was not without precedent, obviously; Hair had been a big hit on record, its plotlessness allowing its diffuse collection of songs to blend in nicely with the more conventional rock and folk albums surrounding it, but JCS was something a little different. It stands apart even from the most famous rock operas by actual rock musicians. Tommy, for example, has a narrative, but its deliberate obfuscation of specific details is a technique that owes far more to the rock than to the opera part of its remit (for a sideways demonstration of this point, look at the weird and sometimes nonsensical leaps that the movie adaptation had to take in trying to literalize the songs). Pink Floyd’s The Wall is somewhat more literal-minded but still takes very song-y flights of fancy that defy staging either in the theatre or at the cinema.
But Jesus Christ Superstar, even on record, feels like a complete story rather than a gesture towards one. Again, the experience of seeing the show live is its own electrifying experience, but that doesn’t mean the cast recording of JCS (or the concept album recording, my personal favorite) ought to be merely a truncated version of that experience. It feels different, certainly, but nonetheless complete.
Which brings me to a trend in cast recordings that has been increasingly popular of late, and which I would very much like to encourage – the practice of including selected snippets of book scenes in between songs.
My reasons for liking this can be aptly summarized with the word “context.” Again, remember how many fans will have their first or only encounter with a score through the cast album, and then think how impenetrable the wall of songs an album presents can be (especially since the switch from physical to digital and then to streaming music has removed even the sop of liner notes). The purpose of including the scene snippets, when done correctly, is not to replace or even simulate the full show but to give shape to the album and the experience of listening to it.
For example, I maintain that the second act of A Little Night Music, whatever you might think of the performances or orchestrations, is better served by the Broadway revival cast recording than the OBC recording, at least dramatically. The songs from that second act, taken in isolation, can seem oddly anticlimactic after the incredible batting average of the first act. This is not a flaw of the show, particularly, merely a consequence of its structure as a farce; the second act is, by necessity, much more book-heavy than the first as it rushes to pay off all the meticulous setup of its forerunner.
Here’s what’s worth noting about the second act in the revival recording: it still omits a good deal of the plot. It’s not trying to replicate the full show, its aim is strictly to serve the songs, and it does so by including just enough book material to lend circumstantial or thematic context to the songs. Few things testify to the effectiveness of this approach so well as the contrast between the two recordings’ renditions of the reprise of “Send In The Clowns,” specifically the huge orchestral swell at the end of it. However lusher the OBC orchestrations might be, the revival recording packs a significantly bigger emotional wallop by including just a few lines of dialogue that serve to tell the listener, in effect, why there was even an orchestral swell there in the first place.
Some shows don’t need this approach, of course. Even looking just at the miracle year that was 2003, Avenue Q and Wicked neither included nor, frankly, needed much in the way of spoken connective tissue – in Avenue Q, this is by virtue of its loose, vignette-y structure, while with Wicked it’s because the songs and the major dramatic beats tend to line up satisfyingly well.
(Sidebar: the traditional reason for not including scenes in cast recordings was very straightforward: space on gramophone records was so tight that sometimes even the music didn’t all make it onto the discs, as infamously happened with Follies.)
Ultimately, though, it’s not a question of nailing down a single technique that will guarantee a great cast recording, it’s a matter of approach; if you approach a cast recording with the intent of making it feel complete and satisfying as an entity unto itself, it has a chance of taking on a life of its own. And that’s not just good for the listener, it’s good for the show.
See, as much as I talk about taking those for whom seeing the show will be difficult-to-impossible into prime consideration, just think about how many tickets for Wicked, both Broadway and touring, were sold off the back of that cast album. It staggers the mind.
There is a full toolbox available to us as artists and as an industry, and interstitial dialogue is just one implement within it. In fact, this is one of those rare occasions for optimism within our industry. As far as I’m concerned, cast albums are changing not just for good, but for the better.