During the middle of the 20th Century, the original cast recording was hugely influential in the American music scene. Tracks from such recordings received frequent radio plays, and record labels were falling over themselves and each other in the bid to record particularly successful shows. For some time, Broadway musicals were one of the main sources of popular song hits, either as sung by the people who introduced them on stage, or as covered by mainstream recording artists, often those contracted to the label which recorded the show. Both an artform and an industry, the significance of the cast recording declined over the last thirty years of the century, although certain recordings — most recently The Producers, Hairspray and Wicked from Broadway and Mary Poppins from the West End — sell enough to impact on the regular music charts. Aside from these isolated mega-successes, the purchase of cast recordings is now relegated mostly to a relatively small band of collectors who hunt down the obscure, the unknown and the 'previously unissued on CD' with a dedication which matches even the most ardent philatelists of the world.
In the world of the musical theatre cast recording, there are certain terms which carry great weight with devotees of the genre and which should be explained before proceeding further.
A cast recording is not a soundtrack, and anyone who suggests otherwise is liable to be set upon by collectors in a blind fury. Soundtracks are pre-recorded and as such are rarely used for the musical stage, although various 'straight' plays could be said to have soundtracks. The dance show Contact had a soundtrack album consisting of the recorded tracks which were danced to nightly in the theatre, but if an album is made of music that is performed live on stage, then it is a cast recording, often differing to some degree to the actual performance as heard in the theatre. A rare instance of a cast recording becoming a soundtrack occurred when Liza Minnelli starred in The Act by Kander and Ebb. By the end of her run in the show, she was miming to her pre-recorded vocals, a far-from-ideal situation for the theatre. NB: The soundtracks of film musicals can be regarded both as soundtracks and cast recordings at the same time.
Most cast recordings are referred to as 'original cast recordings', despite this being a slightly misleading term. Purists would say that 'original' can only refer to the first production of a show, or at least the first production in a particular place. Hence 'Original Broadway Cast' or OBC refers to the first production, recorded or otherwise, of a particular show in New York's theatre district. Occasionally a recording will be marketed as (for example) 'The Original 1982 London Cast Recording.' In this case, it is almost certainly the recording of a revival of a show, not that there's anything wrong with that. Many shows have dozens of recordings, and many collectors will own them all.
Original Cast Members
This will generally mean that some, but not all, of the cast appear on the recording. Some may have been replaced by 'name' singers (as when Kitty Carlisle took over the female lead on the Original Broadway Cast recording of Song of Norway even though she'd never played the role on stage) or be unavailable due to contractual reasons. Sometimes (as in the cases of Carmelina or A Fine and Private Place), a score for a musical will be recorded many years after its premiere production, by which point some cast members may have died, retired or they simply didn't want to take part in a recording session.
This refers to a recording of a musical which is not based on any particular production, starring performers who may or may not have played the roles on stage. Many shows from the early twentieth century were given studio recordings during the 1950s, often with updated orchestrations. During the 1990s, with the coming of the CD, a trend began for complete, authentic studio recordings of classic scores which received truncated original recordings due to the space limitations of 78s or the LP. Most recordings of operas could technically be called studio cast recordings.
A variety of recording that presumably developed from the demos that composers would shop around to potential producers of their shows. Concept albums are released before a show makes it anywhere near a stage, showcasing the score with star performers and attracting interest in the musical (and hopefully a hit single or two). Used most successfully by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Chess, Aida and Whistle Down the Wind all had concept albums), there have also been a few shows which ground to a halt after the concept album was released — most notably Maury Yeston's Goya, a Life in Song, a recording which starred Placido Domingo, Gloria Estefan and Dionne Warwick. Generally, concept albums feature singers who are unlikely to portray the roles on stage, but occasionally a recording featuring cast members will be released before a show hits the stage in order to drum up publicity for the production. This is a particularly popular marketing strategy in Europe.
Most histories of the musical theatre cast recording will state that the form began with the recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein's first musical, Oklahoma!, in 1943. This is somewhat misleading, for while it may have been one of the earliest lengthy recordings of a Broadway show, original cast recordings survive from as early as 1900, in the form of a few tracks laid down by the original cast of the hit London show Floradora. Due to the recording techniques of the time, these tracks are accompanied only by piano and are sung at breakneck pace to get as much in as possible, but as they include 'Tell Me Pretty Maiden', a number involving twelve of the cast, they have to count as one of the earliest cast recordings.
During the first few decades of the 20th Century, numbers from many shows in Britain and America would be preserved by members of the original casts. At first only one or two hit numbers would be recorded by the star of the show, but by the 1920s the casts of British shows would routinely record around half a dozen numbers from the show, often as medleys or 'vocal gems', one medley per side of a 78, sometimes in addition to full-length recordings of particular numbers by the show's star performers. The first show to receive a full-length cast recording was possibly The Bing Boys are Here, from 1916, with numbers gradually increasing in the decades that followed. Thus, numerous original cast performances have been preserved from the early twentieth century, although not generally in the form of a cast recording as such.
The Golden Age
Still, it was indeed the coming of MCA's recording of the principal numbers from Oklahoma!'s original cast that truly launched the cast recording. The show was a tremendous success, and the recording was as well, purchased both by those who had seen the show and those who wished they could. Recorded on ten-inch 78s, most of the key numbers from the show were preserved by the cast and orchestra who had introduced them (although MCA had to go back for a second pass later on, to include such numbers as 'Lonely Room' which had not been recorded first time around). Lasting only about half an hour, the success of this issue showed that money could be made from the recordings, and the recordings could drum up interest in the show, a mutually beneficial situation for the record company and the theatrical producers, particularly once touring companies went on the road with a new musical.
For the next several decades, almost every new or revived musical on Broadway or in the West End of London would receive a cast recording, whether the show was a hit or a flop. Several recordings became huge successes. The Original Broadway Cast Recording of My Fair Lady (1956) was particularly sought after, with copies being smuggled into the United Kingdom, where the recording was not made available until the show opened on the West End. Record companies would frequently provide some of a show's initial investment, hoping to reap the profits from both the production and the recording. As audio technology improved, recordings became longer and thus more complete. In the 1950s, numerous studio cast recordings were made of hit shows from earlier in the century, preserving numbers which had previously been unheard outside of the theatre due to the time constraints of earlier media.
The 1960s saw the most cast recordings (120 shows were recorded in New York alone), but by the end of the decade, changes in the popular music scene meant that sales of these recordings declined and the genre gradually became a specialist area rather than part of the mainstream. By the mid-1970s, show tunes had all but disappeared from the singles charts (with rare exceptions, the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber) and the big record companies became more reluctant to commit to the expenditure involved in cast recordings, knowing that profits, at least in the short term, would probably be small. This led to a rise in specialist labels devoted entirely to theatrical recordings. TER (now known as JAY) and First Night were pioneers in this field in the United Kingdom and still remain strong, with First Night issuing the majority of contemporary London cast recordings. A newer American company, Sh-K-Boom, entered the field in the first few years of the 21st Century and has become one of the major labels for recording new Broadway productions. While the big names such as RCA Victor and Sony still recorded the smash hits, the smaller companies ensured that other deserving scores were preserved for the general public.
The advent of the compact disc has had various effects on the cast recording since La Cage Aux Folles became the first Broadway Cast CD in 1983. Again, the medium allowed for the inclusion of more music — in reissues of old cast recordings, this has often taken the form of bonus material, such as numbers cut from the shows or the composers' initial demonstration recordings of various songs. The 1990s saw the issue of many complete studio recordings of hit shows, preserving every note of the score, and sometimes every word of the script. These recordings were designed specifically for the collectors market — to many collectors of cast recordings an additional verse, some dance music or an incidental song is an exciting find, making a recording a 'must have'. JAY/TER, EMI and Nonesuch (recording the scores of many Gershwin shows) all produced a number of these complete recordings during the 1990s and in 2004, PSClassics founded a not-for-profit arm dedicated to recording shows that have previously been entirely unrecorded, again intended solely for collectors.
Many cast recordings have been reissued on CD, but some remain available only on LP or other media, sometimes due to rights issues, and sometimes because the recording company simply doesn't believe that they can recoup the cost of a reissue. Additionally, many releases are in production for only a brief period of time — once deleted from catalogue, cast recordings can sell for vast amounts of money to collectors who 'need' that recording of Blondel, Me and Juliet or Woman of the Year. Various companies are working to make the back catalogue of musicals available again, purchasing the rights to the recordings from the larger record companies that control them. DRG and Bayview in the United States, plus Must Close Saturday in the United Kingdom, specialise almost entirely in reissuing otherwise unavailable recordings. Due to the smaller size of these companies, they can afford to issue recordings with a tiny market. Other UK-based companies, such as Sepia, reissue out-of-copyright recordings (sound recordings are in copyright for 50 years in the United Kingdom) at a low price.
Although cast recordings, whether new or reissued, remain a specialist area of interest, a number of recent recordings have been able to make an impact on the general music sales charts. Most musical theatre recordings are sold at a higher price point than chart CDs due to their more limited audience, although recordings from some labels are often discounted through online music sellers. The cast recording industry is not exactly thriving, but it is far from dead.
Like any collectors, the aficionados of cast recordings can seem obsessive to the outside observer, and will sometimes spend more than they can really afford on recordings old and new. It is quite common for a collector to own numerous different recordings of the same score — Chicago, for example has two Broadway recordings, a London recording, an Australian recording and the film soundtrack, and a serious collector may well own all five. There are various websites devoted to cast recordings, as well as an email discussion list, CASTRECL, which alerts collectors to new recordings and reissues and allows for the discussion of those recordings already available. Certain CDs and LPs always sell for hundreds of dollars when offered on internet auction sites, even if the recording is generally acknowledged to be awful, it simply must be had, in order to complete the collection.
Collectors often have heated disagreements — regarding the differences between Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, or the relative merits of Ethel Merman, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury and Bernadette Peters in Gypsy, or the quality of the digital re-mastering or liner notes on any given recording — but are always passionate about the musical theatre and about the recordings that preserve it.
Although there are many books on the musical theatre (generally specifically about Broadway), very few publications have been entirely devoted to the cast recording. These books are generally either discographies or collections of reviews.
- London Musical Shows on Record 1897 - 1976 by Brian Rust (Gramophone, 1977) is a comprehensive discography of original cast performances of London shows (including shows imported from America).
- Broadway on Record: A Directory of New York Cast Recordings of Musical Shows, 1931 - 1986 by Richard Chigley Lynch (Greenwood, 1987) is a similar resource for the New York stage. The same author has also compiled a similar volume for TV and studio musicals, plus an update covering 1985 - 1995.
- The Gramophone Musicals Good CD Guide from 1998 is a collection of reviews from Gramophone magazine (which no longer reviews cast recordings with any regularity). Nine reviewers offer opinions on hundreds of recordings, often comparing multiple versions of the same score.
- The most recent collection of cast recording reviews is The Theatermania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings (Backstage, 2004).