Sing Me a Song Musical theatre pundit sets fires... by Stuart Munro @StuartMunroTO [ED: Comment below - we know you want to]
When I was first asked to write this article, I panicked a little bit. My five favourite cast albums? Out of the one hundred twenty plus cast recordings I own, how on earth am I supposed to pick five?! The following is my best effort at choosing from a list that could easily have a dozen or more discs on, and is written with the following conceit – this list would likely be different in three month’s time, and different again three months after that. What all these albums have in common, however, is that they all represent some sort of “A-ha!” moment for me, whether because I was hearing something extraordinary for the first time, or hearing something I thought I knew in a completely new way.
So. Without further ado, My Top Five Cast Recordings (in no particular order).
1. The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe – Original London Cast
I know, I know. Living in Southern Ontario like I do, it’s practically anathema to prefer this recording over the Canadian one. But I do. And I’ll tell you why. Not growing up in Ontario, the Canadian recording was introduced to me long after the London recording was. But more importantly, it was this recording that introduced me to the very idea of musical theatre, and which spawned a passion that would persist for the following two decades. Not only does it include the vast majority of the score, but I also like the voices on this disc better. Now I know people hate Sarah Brightman, often with good reason, but this score was written for her voice and, no offense friends, Rebecca Caine is boring to listen to. The notes are all there, but there’s almost nothing behind any of her words. And Colm Wilkinson will always be my first Valjean – I have a hard time associating his voice with the Phantom. (Speaking of Valjean, the original London Les Misérables deserves an honourable mention here since it was the first musical I heard after Phantom, even if I now prefer the 25th Anniversary Tour Cast recording.)
2. The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown – Original Off-Broadway Recording
I think anyone who’s heard this album will understand why it makes this list. The Last Five Years was composer Jason Robert Brown’s attempt to reconcile the success of his first big musical, Parade, with the simultaneous demise of his marriage. As a result, The Last Five Years is an intimate and painful looks at how people fall in love, and why that sometimes just isn’t enough. The simple truth of the lyrics (“Give me a day, Jamie. Bring back the lies – hang them back on the wall. Maybe I’d see how you could be so certain that we had no chance at all”), the gorgeous melodies, and the skillful orchestrations by the composer (a six-piece ensemble featuring two cellos) make this one of the most beautiful and difficult albums to listen to.
3. The Secret Garden by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon – Original Broadway Cast
To call this recording anything other than magical is to do it a disservice. This is a show that never seems to quite work on stage, but somehow succeeds brilliantly on disc. The combination of small bits of narrative, the remarkable voices (Rebecca Luker and Mandy Patinkin in their prime), the complex and diverse (at times operatic) score all combine to create a sweeping sense of mystery and wonder. Sadly, I’ve never seen it captured so well on stage, but I like to think the production I was involved in back in 2001 (where I had the distinct honour of playing Dickon) came close.
4. Company by Stephen Sondheim – 2006 Broadway Revival Cast
Don’t get me wrong. I love the original 1970 album in a very big way. But the first time I saw Company, it wasn’t set as a period piece and the orchestrations had been pared down to a very serviceable piano, percussion, and bass. As such, that original recording has always had a bit too much of a 70s camp vibe to it. So imagine my surprise upon hearing this completely re-thought and re-orchestrated Company that not only maintains the integrity of the score but also makes it completely accessible to a contemporary audience. The ensemble is led by the extraordinary Raúl Esparza, and the rest of the company also play their own instruments. Like the Phantom and Secret Garden recordings, there is enough dialogue here to try and piece together a bit of the plot and provide a bit of context for each number, which helps incredibly if you’re otherwise unfamiliar with a show.
5. Ragtime by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty – Original Broadway Recording
I passed on seeing Ragtime twice while it was in Vancouver because I had never heard of it. I had no clue what it was about, and I had never heard any of the music. But then, a few years later in college, we sang a medley of tunes from this show, and as soon as I heard those first notes I thought to myself, “Now this is something special.” Like the other discs on this list, the Ragtime recording includes just enough dialogue to give you a sense of what’s going on, without giving too much away. Ragtime’s story and score are, in a word, epic, and listening to this album can be exhausting – it gently pulls you in with some simple, soft notes on the piano, but by the time the final chords sound you’ve been taken on a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs – but man, is it worth it.
Honourable Mention. Parade by Jason Robert Brown – 2007 Donmar Warehouse Recording
Maybe this is cheating, but I knew picking only five would be impossible. Like the Company recording, this version of Brown’s first big musical completely reinvented the way people thought about Parade. The massive orchestra has been reduced down to a band of a dozen or so musicians (necessary for the Donmar’s limited space), and while I at times miss that massive and glorious wall of sound, there are other things that more than make up for it. First and foremost is the remarkable cast, led by Bertie Carvel. But almost as important is the fact that this complete recording includes every note, every word of dialogue, and every sound effect from this remarkable production (which I had the pleasure of seeing in the fall of 2007). Songs like “All the Wasted Time” have always blown me away, but on this recording we get the whole scene before it. As those first notes from the introduction start to crop up into that scene, my eyes always start to well up, and by the end of the song I’m a sobbing mess. This recording takes you on the journey of the show from start to finish – a remarkable feat.