On Sept. 22 Tim Federle tweeted “Life is so much better when you unapologetically love and accept showtunes,” and I couldn’t agree more.
It should come as no surprise that the majority of the music that fills my life, and my iPod (yes, I still have an iPod), is from the theatre world. More than half of the songs on my iPod are showtunes, and there are a lot of songs on there. Honestly, if I had to pick one genre of music to listen to for the rest of my life it would be showtunes, but with so many different types of musicals, with shows like Hamilton, Rent, Phantom of the Opera, Into the Woods, SpongeBob (the list goes on and on), there is no shortage of variety within that genre. And that is just one of the great things about musical theatre.
There are songs for every mood. Songs to make you smile, laugh, cry (from happiness, beauty, and/or sadness). There are songs you listen to when you’re feeling down, either to cheer you up or just to match your mood. There are songs to get you fired up, songs to motivate you. There are songs to get you moving, even if that just means dancing around your house when there’s no one else around.
Cast recordings allow you to re-live experiences of seeing show and they allow you to experience shows you have not seen. They allow closed shows to have a longer life and they help to make theatre/musicals accessible to those who don’t live near it or don’t have opportunities to experience it. Cast recordings are how I’ve been able to experience shows like Bonnie and Clyde, Wonderland, Tuck Everlasting, and more that I didn’t and likely (unfortunately) won’t get to see live.
Cast recordings are a great way to share the shows you like with your friends and family. Even if they can’t actually see the show itself, you can share at least part of the experience with them. And it’s always fun singing showtunes with your friends!
I feel like every musical theatre fan and star has stories and memories of listening to cast recordings. There’s a reason performers are so excited when they get to be part of a recording (I know there are many other reasons too, but I’m sure that’s a big one). There is so much meaning associated with cast recordings. I have my own memories attached to various recordings: remembering when I saw the show(s), remembering the sets, costumes, lights, the actors (sometimes the ones who are actually featured on the recordings). I can picture those scenes being played out as I listen to the songs at home or on my way to work. There are memories from working on productions of those shows. There are memories from when I heard certain recordings for the first time. I remember discovering Wonderland through the cast recording in my 2nd year of university, listening to it and You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown while working on an end of year assignment at a time when I was also a sound op for a production of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.
Sometimes a show introduces you to a cast recording and sometimes a cast recording introduces you to a show. Sometimes you find it because you are familiar with one or more of the artists involved and sometimes it is the writers/composers with whom you are familiar. Sometimes it starts with an individual song that you hear listening to a playlist or radio-type station (I frequently use Spotify and AccuRadio). You might fall in love with it the way you would any popular song on the radio. You hear it, think, “I like this song,” and then you listen to it on repeat. You may have no idea of the context of the song at first, but it doesn’t really matter. That individual song can then inspire you to listen to the rest of the album and sometimes it just stays with that particular song, which is OK too. Sometimes you see a performance of a song or songs (at a concert, BroadwayCon, Stars in the Alley, awards show, etc) and that’s what inspires you to listen to the full album. And sometimes it’s from actually seeing the show. I’ve found it to be even more exciting when I’ve seen the cast that is featured on the recording, and I love that I’m getting to experience this more and more!
Some shows even have multiple recordings for you to listen to. Between original Broadway casts, revivals (sometimes multiple for one show), West End productions, and movie musical soundtracks there are so many options for your musical theatre listening needs. It can be interesting to compare and contrast, to see what changes were made, if any, from the original production to the revival or any subsequent productions, between Broadway albums and West End recordings, or between stage and movie versions. And now you can throw the live TV musicals into the mix too.
Listening to a cast recording can also change depending on whether or not you’ve seen the show and in which order you experienced them. You may think you know the story/how things will happen from listening to the cast recording but there can still be surprises when you do see it live. And sometimes the song you always skip on the recording can end up being part of your favourite scene in the show. Sometimes something as seemingly small or simple as the harmony during a particular line (not that harmonies are small or simple) can have a greater meaning when you see the live production (I found some of those moments in Rent). Sometimes I do wait to listen to a cast recording until after I’ve seen the show. Sometimes this is a deliberate decision and sometimes it’s just a case of not having gotten around to listening to it, and sometimes it’s a mix of the two. That was the case for me with A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. I had heard a couple of the songs but hadn’t listened to the full album. Then when I knew I was going to see the show (when the tour came to Toronto) I decided I would wait to listen to the rest. Come From Away was another one I held off listening to in full. Then there are the shows I listened to right away. Even though I still hope to see them some day, I did not want to wait to experience them through their recordings. Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen both fell into this group. Of course there will always be surprises if/when you get to see a show after you’re already familiar with the recording. Sometimes even a full song is left off the recording. Like how you won’t find “The Wicked Witch of the East” on the Wicked cast album (I do wish it was on there though).
What are your cast recording listening habits? Do you listen to them in chronological order or do you play them on shuffle? Do you listen to every song or do you pick and choose? Me, I go back and forth between all of these options depending on my (musical) mood. Sometimes I want to get fully immersed in the recording and listen to the whole thing from start to finish and sometimes I just want to listen (and if I’m home alone sing along) to my favourites. More often than not I’m likely listening to a playlist of my current musical obsessions (a list which currently includes SpongeBob, Once On This Island, Dear Evan Hansen, and Great Comet, to name a few).
I do honestly think some of the best voices belong to people in the theatre world and I love being able to listen to those voices via cast recordings. One of the great things about it is that when you hear someone on a cast recording, you know they will sound just as good in person (something you hope but don’t always know with popular recording artists).
With each new show there is the potential for a new cast album and I love that! It is disappointing that there are some shows that don’t have recordings and won’t get to live on in that way. But I do like that we’re getting to a time when a closing notice doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be a recording. Even a lot of the shorter lived shows in recent years have gotten recordings which is great for the fans, for those who didn’t get to see the shows, and for theatre history. And with each new release I look forward to adding more songs to my playlist!
For any of you reading this, I would love to know what your favourite cast recordings are! Are there any shows or particular casts that you wish had gotten recordings that didn’t?