Despite a Smaller Cultural Role, the Show Goes On for Broadway Cast Albums

The Broadway hit "Wicked" generated a rarity these days: a big-selling cast album.
The Broadway hit "Wicked" generated a rarity these days: a big-selling cast album. (By Joan Marcus)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

Just as the Broadway musical has been pushed to the sidelines by other forms of mainstream American entertainment, so has the Broadway cast album declined as a cultural force. It still has important functions: as a marketing tool, a historical document, a memento of an evening to be cherished.

But as a vital facet of the recording industry, those who make the records say, the cast album is in a precarious state. Buffeted by high production costs, the ever-widening problem of piracy and a reluctance by established record companies to produce CDs for many shows, the cast album seems to survive today largely on the will of a few people determined to keep show music enshrined.

No one is saying, of course, that the recordings will disappear. Yet more and more, the question of whether the songs from a musical you like will find their way into recorded immortality is coming down to the taste and business acumen of a few entrepreneurs and producers who have a special passion for theater music.

"The whole business model has altered," says Kurt Deutsch, a onetime actor -- married to the Broadway musical actress Sherie Rene Scott -- who runs nine-year-old Sh-K-Boom Records and its spinoff label, Ghostlight. "The music industry has changed so drastically, even from the time I started my company. I had no background in the music industry. And so all of this has been done out of the need to preserve and salvage, out of the love for what Sherie and I do."

Never heard of Deutsch's company? Just look on the back of your CD of "Legally Blonde the Musical" or "[title of show]" or "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" or "The Drowsy Chaperone" and see his imprint. (What? You don't own any of these? Well, that's germane to the story, too.)

Once a recording industry staple, the kind of project that might be scooped up willy-nilly by a Columbia Records or an RCA, the Broadway cast album has become more like an exotic dessert, a niche venture taken on at great risk and with not much hope of a substantial payday. Occasionally, a company like Universal produces a CD on its Decca label for a brand-name show, such as "Shrek the Musical." Or Sony will back the recording of the revival of something mega-familiar, like "West Side Story."

And commercial lightning, too, sometimes can strike, as it did with the cast recording of "Wicked," which since its Broadway opening 5 1/2 years ago has sold 2 million copies.

Still, gone are the days when a cast album could be a bona fide sensation. As Broadway historian Ethan Mordden notes in "Coming Up Roses," his study of the musicals of the 1950s, the "My Fair Lady" LP was a chart-crushing phenomenon, so huge that within weeks of its release, "Something like half the middle class of the nation had grabbed it. Everywhere one went, one heard the songs. Radio and television were saturated with them."

That simply doesn't happen anymore, partly because Broadway is not viewed as musically relevant "The general public doesn't necessarily buy into the Broadway mainstream," says Deutsch, whose firm, along with PS Classics, is in the vanguard of the small labels focusing on theater music. (Full disclosure: I contributed liner notes -- gratis -- a few years ago for Ghostlight's CD of the musical version of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.")

Some musicals, like last spring's short-lived "Cry-Baby," for instance, do not even make a recording. The current revival of "Guys and Dolls" with Craig Bierko and Lauren Graham -- up for a nomination for best musical revival at tonight's Tony Awards (CBS at 8) -- apparently will leave town, too, without a disc of its own.

With the expense of producing a cast album so exorbitant -- a big show can cost as much as $400,000 to record these days -- the concern increasingly is not only finding someone to foot the bill, but also determining whether it's worth making a recording at all.

"There was a time when everything was getting recorded," says David Stone, producer of "Wicked," "Spelling Bee" and the current "Next to Normal," which vies for best new musical, and which has a new CD on Deutsch's Ghostlight label. Stone did not produce the "Wicked" CD; Decca took it on (and reaped the benefits). He had to help finance the "Spelling Bee" and "Next to Normal" CDs.

The nuts-and-bolts aspects of making cast albums have become more difficult, too, because New York's large recording studios, with enough space for a sizable cast and big orchestra, have closed: Film-score recording is now virtually all done in Los Angeles and London, says Bill Rosenfield, a former BMG executive who now consults on cast albums. "When we recently did 'Hair,' we had actors in one room, musicians in another, the control in a third," he says. "It was not a happy way to make an album."

Still, there is an abiding belief among theater folk that the cast album is crucial, and not just as a memento. Rosenfield points to his recording of Jason Robert Brown's offbeat "Songs for a New World": "I think it played 32 performances off-Broadway; the one I attended had 40 people in the theater. Yet that album has sold 60,000 copies, and the show is done constantly across the country. It's a validation for rolling the dice."

In that spirit, we look here at the state of the cast album through some of its latest incarnations. What follows is a critical roundup of the recordings for the four Tony nominees for best new musical, as well as the CDs of four other big musicals that are coming to Washington in the coming weeks and months:

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