Another Fabulous Invalid
In these lean times, a group of small labels is working to keep musical theater cast recordings alive.
Nowadays, the independent companies are the ones that make sure we get cast albums. Two months ago, I had a conversation with Peter Pinne of Bayview Records, who has recorded those Scott Siegel Broadway by the Year discs and has reissued such London show albums as Lock up Your Daughters, Maggie May, and Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be. Last month, I chatted with Kurt Deutsch, president of Sh-K-Boom, which had put out Amour and The Last Five Years; now he was launching a new label, Ghostlight, just for show music. Both Pinne and Deutsch sounded very optimistic that each of their companies was going to make a go of it and that there was certainly a market for theater-related recordings. There wasn't a flicker of doubt in either of their faces. Good for them!
Today, it's Ghostlight that does Finian's Rainbow, but it was Columbia that did the original cast album in 1947 and RCA Victor that waxed the 1960 revival cast LP. Back then, those labels were the leaders in the cast album field, with Capitol in third place and Decca in fourth. Put it this way: The first 17 Best Musical Tony winners were all recorded by these four companies. Not until Man of La Mancha went to Kapp (because none of The Big Four wanted it) did a smaller label produce a Tony winner. So in those days, when we heard that a cast album would be recorded by Kapp, United Artists, Warner Brothers, MGM, or Mercury, we automatically inferred that the score wasn't all that good. If it had worth, we reasoned, one of The Big Four would have signed it.
Within the decade after La Mancha's 1966 Tony triumph, cast albums took a precipitous fall. When Tony winner Cy Feuer announced that he was doing a show starring Tony winner Liza Minnelli in a show by Tony winners Kander and Ebb, you'd think that The Big Four would have dueled to the death for the rights. But The Act, as the 1977 musical wound up being titled, opened on Broadway without a recording contract in place; only many months into the run did then-fledgling DRG decide to take a chance on it. And to think that, 17 years earlier, the cast album of Tenderloin -- by no means a hit show -- reached #14 on the charts. The entire charts, mind you; not just the show music category. Only 13 albums in the entire country outsold Tenderloin the week it was released by Capitol. And the situation now? Back in September, you probably got an e-mail urging you to sign a petition to "Keep Broadway on Record."
I remember that when I met an executive of ABC-Paramount records in 1964, he told me in a somber voice, "We were desperate to get a Broadway show album in our fold." The label did its first two that year, High Spirits and Fade Out -- Fade In. All they'd had up till then was the recording of the modest Off-Broadway show Cindy, and they craved more. Wouldn't you know that the poor souls got two shows that weren't hits, and that they started in right around the time when show music stopped selling? When ABC-Paramount did finally get a Tony winner (Applause in 1970), the market was no longer there for cast albums.
Now The Big Four -- corporations called Sony, BMG, EMI, and Universal -- record only a small percentage of the cast albums that are issued. In recent decades, we've seen those alphabet soup labels AEI, DRG, TER, and TVT carry the banner, along with Razor & Tie (Brooklyn), Q (42nd Street), JAY (Triumph of Love), Nonesuch (Bounce), Hollywood (Caroline, or Change), and Triangle Road (The Spitfire Grill). Harry Connick Jr. put his Thou Shalt Not on his own label, Swing; and Galt MacDermot has had his own label, Kilmarnock (Dude, The Human Comedy), since the '70s.
So the original cast album is still with us. God bless Bruce Kimmel for all that he got done on Bay Cities, Varèse Sarabande, and Fynsworth Alley. When he left the business, up sprang Pinne and Deutsch. Tommy Krasker and Philip Chafffin started PS Classics, which has recorded scores of yesteryear (Through the Years, Fine and Dandy) and revivals of today (Nine, Assassins) along with such new shows as A Year With Frog and Toad, My Life With Albertine and Zanna, Don't! MIO International may be MIA (I don't mean that the company has been retitled, I mean that it's Missing in Action) but we now have Must Close Saturday Records. Just from the name alone, you can tell that they're doing albums of shows from yesteryear (Belle, One Over the Eight, Tom Brown's Schooldays), for a company that was recording today's quick flops would call itself Must Close Sunday.
But even Brian Drutman, the senior director of Decca Broadway, said during a Lincoln Center panel discussion last year that one of the reasons his company gets involved with cast albums is for "prestige." Broadway still means that to a lot of people. For that matter, Wicked, Mamma Mia! and The Boy from Oz have done well for Drutman and Decca Broadway, and sales of the Seussical album almost paid back its recording costs during the show's Broadway run. The show's post-Broadway community theater success (nearly 300 productions this year alone) means that the album will make some money for the company.
Those who mourn the fate of original cast albums should take some solace from the history of Bruce Yeko's Original Cast Records. Back in the '70s, Yeko put out the original cast album of the legendary 1966 fiasco Breakfast at Tiffany's -- in a manner of speaking. The show's cast, led by stars Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, never even came close to an RCA Victor recording studio, so what did Yeko issue? A vinyl LP drawn from a tape recording made by an attendee of one of the four previews that the show played at the Majestic before producer David Merrick pulled the plug. It had absolutely terrible sound but at least it had a fabulous cover with the show's actual logo, and on the spine -- to really make it look like an RCA record -- a perfect rendition of RCA's typeface, down to the minuscule squiggly line that the company used to use to separate the name of a show from the words "Original Broadway Cast."
But here's the thing: A quarter-century later, Yeko's company had progressed to the point where he could release Robert Sher's two-CD studio cast recording of Breakfast at Tiffany's not only with a great cover but with Faith Prince and John Schneider in the Moore and Chamberlain roles. So let's focus on Yeko's growth: Once upon a time, he released a bootleg recording of a show score, but two-plus decades later, he produced something legitimate and classy.
Let's also concentrate on the fact that someone's always been there to pick up the slack. Granted, RCA isn't reissuing anymore, but Flare took on its Call Me Madam and Sepia its Hazel Flagg, among others. According to the TheaterMania Guide, John Hammond Records did Charlotte Sweet, After 9 recorded Swinging on a Star, the Performing Arts Preservation Association preserved Swingtime Canteen, 150 Music reissued The Me Nobody Knows, and First Night has given us several interesting British shows. Do I wish that things still were the way they used to be when RCA Victor's Hello, Dolly! was the number one album for the entire summer of 1964 and Capitol's Funny Girl was number two for much of the same time span? Sure. But it seems that, like the musical theater itself, the original cast album is going to survive by the skin of its teeth.