It used to be that all well-rounded record collections had the best Broadway cast albums included. A great show tune is typically funny and or moving, witty, and it is what you are whistling when you leave the theater. Many of the standards recorded by the best — like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and the like — were originally from Broadway shows.
Luckily for us, our managing editor, Winston Gieseke, is not only a storehouse of knowledge about the music of Broadway, but he is also a damn fine showman himself.
Herewith, is Winston's top ten list of best cast albums. And before you go all Broadway-psycho on us, yes, we know there are a few movie soundtracks on the list. We hope you will respond by adding your own top ten in the comments below!
10. A Little Night Music (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1977)
I realize this isn't a Broadway recording, but it's still a Broadway musical. And truth be told, the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of A Summer Night isn’t great. Actually, it’s pretty heinous. But the soundtrack — which sadly, I’ve only been able to find on vinyl — is another story. Elizabeth Taylor’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is truly cringeworthy, but she more than holds her own with Len Cariou on the genius “You Must Meet My Wife.” Other highlights: the amazing baritone of Laurence Guittard (whose visual hotness helps make the movie bearable) and one of the best ensemble numbers ever, “A Weekend in the Country,” whose catchy melody will stay in your head long after the needle has reached the end of the side two. What makes this better than the Broadway recording? The slightly altered version of “Weekend” and the completely reconfigured “The Glamorous Life,” which went from a clunky ensemble number on stage to a simple, much more effective solo number in the film.
While not as well known as some of the others on this list, this one act off-Broadway musical with book, music, and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown tells the story of a couple’s five-year relationship — but with a twist: The man’s story runs chronologically from beginning to end, while the woman’s telling of the same relationship runs simultaneously backwards from breakup to meeting. The songs are both funny (“Shiksa Goddess”) and touching (“A Part of That”) as performed by the divinely talented Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie René Scott. Catch me in the right mood and “If I Didn’t Believe in You” — in which the man tries one last time to convince his wife that she’s worthy of being loved — will literally make me weep.
8. Oklahoma! (From the Sound Track of the Motion Picture) (1955)
On their first collaboration, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II hit gold. While you may not be a musical theater fan, I reckon you know at least one show from this show, whether you realize it or not. And the voice of Gordon MacRae (the finest male vocalist of the 20th century, in my opinion) truly makes me drool, regardless of whether he’s singing about tall corn, a surrey with fringe, or a pore daid farmhand named Jud. Trivia lovers might appreciate knowing that this soundtrack — which has never been out of print since it hit #1 on Billboard’s album chart in 1956 — was the first ever certified “gold” record album presented by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). (It went “multi-platinum” in 1992.)
7. Falsettos (Original Cast Recordings, 1981 & 1990)
Though technically two separate one-act shows (March of the Falsettos opened 1981, followed by Falsettoland in 1990), they are generally performed together and the cast albums are available as a double CD, so I’m counting them as one. By far my favorite gay-Jewish musical, the songs run the gamut from absurd (“Four Jews in A Room Bitching” and “My Father’s A Homo”) to moving (“I Never Wanted to Love You” and “You Gotta Die Sometime”). Beginning with an almost Ionesco-like tale of a man who encourages his wife to seek counseling after he leaves her and their son for another man — never imagining that his gay lover will leave him, his ex-wife will marry the psychiatrist, and he’ll wind up alone — and ending with a botched bar mitzvah and a tragic death from AIDS, the show is almost primarily sung and filled with bizarre and sometimes awkward melodies that go right to the heart, usually in off-the path circuitous ways. When the wife sings “The only thing that’s breaking up is my family / But me, I’m breaking down,” you won't know whether to laugh or cry.
6. West Side Story (The Original Sound Track Recording) (1961)
So what if no one did their own singing in this movie? (Before you get all nasty in the comment section, I am well aware that Rita Moreno’s voice was used in “America” and Russ Tamblyn was allowed to sing “Gee, Officer Krupke!” Sheesh.) The movie version of West Side Story took the nearly flawless score from the Broadway production and perfected it. Letting the boys join in “America” gave the number a stronger dynamic (not to mention some sexy male dancers), and swapping “Krupke” with “Cool” put the humor and the drama where they should have been all along. Dubbed or not, all of the voices on this disc are lovely, and the “Quintet” (which is technically a quartet since Maria and Tony sing the same part) gives me chills every time I hear it.
5. Street Scene (Original Broadway Cast) (1947)
While I’ll admit that my love for this show may have something to do with the fact that as a 10-year-old, I appeared as one of the children in a production mounted at Illinois Wesleyan University (which also featured future pros Dawn Upshaw and Alison LaPlaca), this so-called “American opera” won Kurt Weill the first ever Tony Award for Best Original Score. Depicting the goings-on at an east side Manhattan tenement during a sweltering summer, the score, comprised of operatic arias, jazz numbers, and bluesy dance sequences, is beautifully haunting with lyrics by Langston Hughes that expertly bring out the eccentricities of the various characters’ personalities. And even though this is not a complete recording of the show — there’s a really fun sextet about the joys of ice cream that evidently didn’t fit on the LP — the performances have never been equaled, even on subsequent recordings.
4. Wicked (Original Broadway Cast) (2003)
I saw this show three times and the CD has been in my car for nearly a decade. You can’t go wrong with a Stephen Schwartz score, especially when it’s sung by the amazing Idina Menzel, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Elphaba, and Kristin Chenoweth, whose voice could make a 401(k) statement moving. Even though it’s been covered far too many times, there is still no better rendition of “Defying Gravity” (though Philos’s version is pretty rockin’), and if you can’t relate to the sentiment of “For Good,” you need to get out more.
3. My Fair Lady (Original London Cast Recording) (1959)
Evidently when this show opened on Broadway in 1956 no one thought it was worth the extra coin to make a stereo recording, which is why the original monaural New York cast album did not make this list. By the time the principals (the sensational Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, and Robert Coote) opened the show across the pond, someone came to their senses and realized that this amazing score deserved another go in the studio. In addition to the full spectrum sound, the album captured the performers three years into their run, when they had more than perfected their interpretation of the roles producing an absolutely perfect listening experience.
2. Assassins (Original Cast Recording) (1991)
Who ever thought a story of people who murdered American presidents — or attempted to — would make a good musical? The warped but genius Stephen Sondheim, that’s who. And the result is a complex and often hilarious look at society’s fascination with evil, deftly told through the musical styles of the eras in which the various crimes take place. John Hinkley, Jr. sings a duet with Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme called “Unworthy of Your Love” in which he’s pining for Jodie Foster and she for Charles Manson. Yes, it’s wrong on many levels, but I challenge you to find a more effective study of demented minds told via love ballad. Sondheim’s true brilliance comes out in “How I Saved Roosevelt,” a song sung by bystanders to the assassination attempt of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Miami, each of whom tries to take credit for saving the president-elect’s life. “Lucky I was there / Or we’d have been left / Bereft of F.D.R” is just one of the many clever lines in this heady word monsoon of a song.
1. Camelot (Original Broadway Cast) (1960)
This is by far my favorite musical theater score, and this original recording of it is still the best ever produced. Frederick Lowe’s melodies are lush and gorgeous, while Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics are incomprehensibly brilliant. How can you go wrong with internal rhymes as cleverly structured as “The wee folk and the grown folk / Who wander to and fro / Have ways known to their own folk / We throne folk don’t know”? The voices of Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet are breathtaking on tunes like “I Loved You Once in Silence” and “If Ever I Would Leave You,” and there’s even a song devoted to a month-long celebration of extramarital dalliances. Pure delight from start to finish.