During lockdown, cast albums — and YouTube — sustained me, enabling me to revisit my favourite musicals ‘on demand’
The West End, of course, just returned this week, with social distancing, for the first time in over five months, with plans to re-open more fully from June 21, though there are now doubts as to whether this can or should proceed, as new COVID variants, by way this time of India, are reported to be spreading in parts of the country, and to be much transmissible. Broadway, meanwhile, is scheduled to reopen, at last, from September 14, after an even longer closure that has rendered it dark since last March.
But the one thing that has sustained me through it all has been cast albums, the living bridge we have to the shows of the present as well as the past. And they have accompanied me through my life, not just through the pandemic.
My producer Paul Branch has even more skin in this game than I do, given that he and Maureen Rejali (pictured above, by Danny Kannhave, for the last six years, presented a weekly online radio show called Sunday Show Tunes, that does nothing but celebrate cast albums. However, this is my podcast and my column not his; so these are my choices!
As ever, it was difficult to confine myself to just ten choices — though these are the first ten albums I’d stow into my luggage (or load into my iTune library) if I was going to be stranded on a Desert Island anytime soon.
These are, of course, not necessarily my favourite shows — that was another ShenTens podcast which we’ve done already — but the albums I just listen to again and again. The trouble is that some of my favourite shows haven’t necessarily ever had definitive albums recorded of their scores. So although I love Guys and Dolls, for instance — my favourite musical ever — I’d be hard pressed to choose one recording that I love above others.
I can watch that show on endless repeat; I guess the albums I’ve chosen today are the ones I can listen to on endless repeat.
Another ground rule I set for myself is to only choose one album per composer. Or the list might otherwise be ALL Sondheim!
1 Sunday in the Park with George (Original 1984 Broadway cast recording)
I was first introduced to the wonders of Sondheim via the original cast recording of Side by Side by Sondheim, the 1976 West End originated revue that starred Julia McKenzie, Millicent Martin and David Kernan, comprising songs from his shows (up until then, obviously, so up to and including Pacific Overtures, plus some outtakes of unproduced material) before I’d even seen any of his shows in a theatre.
The first Sondheim I saw for myself was Sweeney Todd when Hal Prince’s original Broadway staging transferred to Drury Lane in 1980 starring Denis Quilley as Sweeney Todd and Sheila Hancock as Mrs Lovett; alas it was never recorded, but the majestic original Broadway recording (with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury is still definitive.
Follies is another favourite score — but as with Guys and Dolls, its hard to choose a single recording; though if I had to, it would be the Lincoln Center 1985 concert version with George Hearn as Ben and Barbara Cook as Sally. I also adore the original cast recording of the short-lived Merrily We Roll Along.
But the two Sondheim recordings I still listen to most are those from the first two Sondheim shows I saw in their original Broadway productions, both of which were directed by James Lapine: Sunday in the Park (1984) and Into the Woods (1987). When they respectively received their UK premieres at London’s National Theatre and the West End’s Phoenix Theatre (both in 1990), they were given new productions by directors Steven Pimlott and Richard Jones respectively.
The London Into the Woods (with Imelda Staunton and Juiia McKenzie taking over the roles originated by Joanna Gleason and Bernadette Peters respectively) was recorded; but alas Sunday in the Park (with Philip Quast and Maria Friedman replacing Broadway’s original Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, again, respectively) was never recorded in London.
So my Desert Island Sondheim would be that Broadway cast recording of Sunday in the Park, as it preserves two of Broadway’s most quirky but also electrifying performers in roles they created.
LISTEN: Mandy Patinkin sings Finishing the Hat:
2 The Light in the Piazza (original 2005 Broadway cast recording)
Adam Guettel’s score for this musical, premiered on Broadway at the Beaumont at Lincoln Center in 2005, is one of my favourites of all contemporary scores, full of a heartbreaking, lush romanticism. The original cast features the sublime Victoria Clark and Kelli O’Hara, as mother and daughter on holiday in Italy, and Matthew Morrison as the young Italian man that the daughter falls for. It’s just shattering and beautiful.
LISTEN: Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Morrison sing Say it Somehow:
3 Groundhog Day (Original 2017 Broadway cast recording)
One of my favourite musicals of the century so far — not least because its theme and story resonate so personally with me, as I see it as allegory about suffering from depression, and how it is possible to be freed from it — this Tim Minchin score is full of gorgeous songs, and it is stunningly rendered by a cast led by Andy Karl (reprising the role of weatherman Phil Connors that he’d originated in the show’s London try-out at the Old Vic in 2016) and Barett Doss as Rita, his producer.
LISTEN: Andy Karl sings Seeing You:
4 Girlfriends (London Musical Theatre Orchestra 2018 concert recording)
I bow to no contemporary (or indeed historic) British composer more than Howard Goodall, who composed our theme tune, as well. And while his masterpiece is The Hired Man (1984), it is actually his second theatre score that I’m most obsessed by on disc.
I saw the original production at Oldham Coliseum on my first (and still only) trip there in 1986, with a cast that included Maria Friedman and a young Jenna Russell. cause I’d so loved The Hired Man that I made a special trip; it then transferred to the West End in 1987, with a largely new cast, led by Hazel O’Connor and David Easter. Neither of those were recorded, but I just loved the score every time I tracked down a production, from Mountview theatre school and Walthamstow’s Old Rose and Crown Theatre to Southwark’s Union Theatre.
It wasn’t until 2018 that a recording was finally made, when London Musical Theatre Orchestra recorded their concert performance at Bishopsgate Institute, opposite Liverpool Street station, with a cast that included Lucie Jones, Lauren Samuels, Bronté Barbé, Natasha Barnes, Rob Houchen and Chris McGuigan. And I simply can’t stop listening to it! (For sheer happiness, however, I always play the exhilarating Bollywood-infused score for his 2015 stage version of the film Bend it Like Beckham).
WATCH: Lauren Samuels and Lucie Jones perform Seize the Moment, accompanied by LMTO founder and conductor Freddie Tapner:
5 Chess (concept recording 1984)
I always call Chess a guilty pleasure — a show that doesn’t really make great dramatic sense, but has more great melodies than just about any West End born musical hits of the 80s, and I include the juggernauts Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express and Les Miserables.
Launched first as a concept album in 1984, its principals then performed their roles live in a concert tour, before most of them — including Elaine Paige as Florence, with Murray Head as her American lover Freddie and Tommy Korberg as the Russian Anatoly who usurps him in her affections — all reprised those roles in the show’s West End premiere in 1986. So the original concept recording still remains definitive, though the cast recording for the original, short-lived Broadway production in 1988 is also stellar, comprising Judy Kuhn, Philip Casnoff and the late, great David Carroll respectively.
LISTEN: Tommy Korberg performs Anthem:
WATCH: Murray Head performs Pity the Child:
6 Evita (original 1976 concept album)
Andrew Lloyd Webber is probably, commercially speaking, the most significant West End and Broadway composer of all time. This summer the West End should, pandemic permitting, be alive once again to the sound of his musicals from July onwards, with his longest-running show ever, The Phantom of the Opera, returning to Her Majesty’s (though with a much-diminished orchestra now in attendance, reduced from 27 players to just 14), while Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcat, his first popular hit, will return to the London Palladium. And Cinderella, his newest show, is set to premiere at the Gillian Lynne in July.
LISTEN: Julie Covington sings Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina:
My desert island score, however, would have to be Evita, in the original 1976 concept recording that first introduced it to the world, two years before Hal Prince brought it to the London stage. The concept recording features Julie Covington in the title role, who would have a break-out chart hit with ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’; she did not reprise her performance on stage, where the role was originated by (and made a star of) Elaine Paige. The concept recording also had Colm Wilkinson as Che (who would go on to originate the role of Valjean in Les Miserables on stage), but was replaced for the stage by David Essex.
7 The Baker’s Wife (original 1976 cast recording)
Stephen Schwartz had an early run of three consecutive hits, Pippin, Godspell and The Magic Show that meant he had three musicals playing on Broadway when he was only 26 years old. But then in 1976 came the notorious The Baker’s Wife that closed on the road before it got to Broadway — much to the relief of the cast, as I previously wrote when I included it in my ShenTens of my top ten guilty theatrical pleasures.
It makes this list, too, as it the original cast recording features Patti LuPone in the title role of the philandering Geneviève, wife of the new baker Aimable Castagnet in the tiny French village of Concorde.
LISTEN: Patti LuPone sings Meadowlark:
8 On the Twentieth Century (original 1978 Broadway cast recording)
This gorgeous, hilarious backstage musical operetta — set not backstage at a theatre but on a train instead as a producer returning from his latest flop out of town musical premiere plots another show to make a comeback with — premiered on Broadway in 1978, with a cast led by John Cullum as the producer, and the late comic genius Madeleine Kahn as Lily Garland, the actress (and his former partner) who he is trying to get to work for him again.
Though Kahn famously, in the words of her Wiki entry, “left (or, reportedly, was fired from) the latter show early in its run, yielding the role to her understudy Judy Kaye, her performance on the original cast recording is still one of the greats.
LISTEN: Madeleine Kahn sings Never:
9 Titanic (Original 1997 Broadway cast recording)
Premiering on Broadway in 1997 — the same year as the release of the James Cameron film about the sinking of the luxury liner — there were fears that the show might sink will all board too when it was plagued by technical problems during previews. But Maury Yeston’s sweeping, soaringly melodic score is one for the ages. It that year’s Tony for Best Score, while the production won all five awards (including Best Musical) that it had been nominated for. The score is a keeper.
LISTEN: Overture, Prologue and The Launching of Titanic:
10 Parade (Original 2007 London cast recording)
Jason Robert Brown’s first Broadway musical — premiered at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre after opening in 1998 — with a cast led by the late Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello. But the album I love to listen to of this gorgeous score is the one made of its original 2007 London company, when it premiered at the Donmar Warehouse with a cast led by Bertie Carvel and Lara Pulver. However, it is Stuart Matthew Price’s rendering of the opening number The Old Red Hills of Home that is a bracing wonder.
- The next episode of ShenTens (on June 5) will be a countdown of my favourite outdoor theatres, just as the summer season is about to begin.
Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for the theme music (and writing Girlfriends); and Thomas Mann for the logo design