There's No Music Like Show Music
A panel discussion of original cast recordings prompts Filichia to muse on how OCRs fell from the Top 40.
Not too many minutes passed before moderator Herb Scher asked why cast albums used to sell so well and now don't. It's true, and we all know it. There was a time when My Fair Lady was the biggest-selling album of all time, and not just in the show-album category -- in EVERY category. Migawd, the week Tenderloin was released, it was the #14 album in the country. Think of it. Only 13 other albums in the entire country did better business than Tenderloin, which wasn't even a moderate hit on Broadway.
Back in 1964, the #1 LP for much of the spring and summer was the cast album of Hello, Dolly! More often than not, the #2 album during that time period was the cast album of Funny Girl, and this was happening when the Beatles were white-hot in America. But since then, aside from Hair in 1968, the words "original cast album" and "number one on the charts" have rarely if ever been heard. I remember former Arista boss Clive Davis once telling me that, when he was with Columbia in 1966, he noticed that Mame's cast album wasn't pulling in the numbers that Flower Drum Song's did in 1958 -- even though Mame was three times the hit that Flower Drum Song was.
What happened? I think I have the answer. Take it from one who's the quintessential Baby Boomer, for I was born precisely nine months after World War II ended. When we Boomers were growing up as pre-teens in the '50s, we were able to strongly affect the singles charts because our parents would indulge us in buying 45-rpm records that cost 89 cents -- but we couldn't affect the same changes with albums because our folks drew the line at spending $4.98 for an LP we might have wanted. Those were too expensive for the likes of us; they were for Adults Only.
So we controlled the singles, and they controlled the albums -- until we were 16 going on 17. That's when we started to get jobs at Bob's Food Store, Charlie's Gas Station, or the local library. Given that most of us had parents who provided us with food, shelter, and clothing, we finally had the bucks to buy not just singles, but albums too. And then the deluge.
Why didn't we new teenagers buy cast albums? I'm convinced it's because we didn't know about them. I was a rock 'n' roll kid until I was 14, when I stumbled onto musical theater by accident. But once I did, I passed up Presley and the Platters in favor of Pipe Dream and Paint Your Wagon, and I bought cast albums galore. How well I remember my cousin Bobby dropping by my house, overhearing "Hymn for a Sunday Evening" from Bye Bye Birdie or "The Only Dance I Know" from Mr. President, and thoroughly enjoying them. What do I mean by "thoroughly?" He wound up buying those cast albums, that's what I mean. More than once, I heard him say: "You know, if there was a radio station playing Broadway music, I'd listen to it as much or maybe even more than the [pop music] stations I listen to."
That's where Broadway dropped the ball: There should have been a radio station in every city playing selections from cast albums. Oh, I'm aware that many cities had certain hours devoted to cast albums. In Boston, where I grew up, I had to be satisfied with "Showtime in Stereo" on an obscure radio station that played some (but not all) of a cast album every Sunday night from 7pm to 8pm. Actually, it would have been able to play an entire album if it hadn't featured between each song the musings of a doleful announcer who felt compelled to tell the story of the show. His heart may have been in the right place, but his unexcited voice sounded as if he were giving facts on botanical specimens. What's more, no matter how many times over the years he played Man of La Mancha, he kept referring to it as Man of La Man-KAH. (For all I know about the Spanish language, he could have been pronouncing the word correctly!)
A program like that couldn't have saved show music. What we needed was a radio station that would play cuts from original cast albums 24/7. I'm aware that we have that now on satellite radio, but that's much too little and way too late. Way back when, there should have been a radio station that played, say, "Who Can? You Can!" from The Gay Life, followed by "Penny Plain, Twopence Colored" from Kean, followed by "Bosom Buddies" from Mame.
The one-song-from-here, one-song-from-there setup is, I think, crucial. Bill Rosenfield, once the musical theater honcho at BMG, told me that compilation recordings of Broadway music do astonishingly well, often better than the full cast albums. This suggests that people prefer listening to show songs rather than full scores. Only the strongest of us can take songs that have titles like Anyone Can Whistle's "The Lame, the Halt, and the Blind," The Rothschilds' "Have You Ever Seen a Prettier Little Congress?" or Two by Two's "You Have Got to Have a Rudder on the Ark." But from the same shows, John Q. RadioListener would probably enjoy such selections as "Come Play Wiz Me," "He Tossed a Coin," or "Something, Somewhere."
I often make compilation tapes to play in the car because, as John Guare said in his one-acter Muzeeka, the wonderful thing about the radio is the sense of surprise. That doesn't happen with an album, especially one you know inside-out. (I'm sure I'm not the only one who, after a song ends on a familiar cast album, begins "hearing" the vamp of the next song before it begins.) But make a compilation tape and who knows what's going to come after "After Midnight Dies" or before "Before the Parade Passes By?"
During the panel discussion at the library, Sherie René Scott kept saying that cast albums aren't "cool" to young people, but I'll bet they would have been if radio stations had been playing cuts from them all along. Then, maybe, 2003 Tony-show writer Jonathan Tolins wouldn't have had Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker talk about how they were "geeks" for listening to show music. The Tonys were the second significant event of this past weekend, but what was with all this "geek" stuff on the one night a year we get on national TV -- and at the very top of the show yet? There's always so much talk about getting people to watch the Tonys, yet here was a line that encouraged the first-time viewer to turn off the telecast lest he be contaminated and thought of as a geek!
Why are spokespeople for our art form stating that our music is inferior to other kinds? Why must we like a group such as Project Pat to make us wonderfully normal? (You don't know them? Then I guess you don't have their album Layin' Da Smack Down, which includes such worthy songs as "Smoke & Get High," "Make That Azz Clap," "Shut Ya Mouth, Bitch," and "On Nigga," which is not to be confused with the similarly titled "Weak Niggaz." I guess you'll just have to wait a few years until someone does a revue of their oeuvre.)
Well, thank the Lord for people like Joe Harrington, whom I met in the Tony press room the other night. He's at Emerson College in Boston, where he has a show called "Standing Room Only" on WERS 88.9 FM every Saturday from 10am to 2pm. "The show's been around for about 20 years," he told me. "It's become very popular in the Boston area because there are not a lot of other places you can find Broadway music on the radio. We have well over 13,000 listeners who tune in every week and they are a very loyal listening audience. We mix up the style and the decades throughout the show, ranging from George M. Cohan tunes all the way up to Hairspray. We get a lot of requests, which helps us have a good mix."
Keep it up, Joe! You're sure doing your part. If only your show had been around 30, 40, or 50 years ago, things might be a lot different today for us and for Project Pat.