Our attention turns, for reasons that will become fast apparent, to the original cast albums of musicals we sat through — initially, in the theatre — thinking "I sure never want to hear this again." What pleasures and surprises do these recordings hold for us? How can there be pleasures and surprises in said recordings?
Let us first step back a few historical paces. Broadway has had far more misses than hits, as a result of which numerous unsuccessful musicals — from downright flops to disappointing failures — are represented in the original cast album archives. The mind immediately springs to the great Sondheim, two of whose musicals ignominiously folded within a fortnight. I, for one, have listened to the resulting original cast albums — the 1964 Anyone Can Whistle and the 1981 Merrily We Roll Along — far more frequently over the years than any number of longer-running, financially profitable, award-winning titles; say, La Cage aux Folles or Annie. That doesn't mean much of anything, except that cast albums of quick failures are not necessarily wipeouts.
There are numerous recordings that fall into this category, although not necessarily of the same distinction as the two Sondheim musicals above. Frank Loesser's Greenwillow, say, or Marc Blitzstein's Juno, Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel, David Shire's Baby. And even David Yazbek's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which despite its lack of coherence in the theatre gets my vote for the richest Broadway CD of recent seasons.
There are also decidedly poor musicals that nevertheless left behind cast albums that entertain, like Oh! Captain!! or Donnybrook. For many years — back in pre-CD days — two of the hardest-to-find titles were the first-rate Greenwillow and the bottom-of-the-barrel Whoop-Up! If you want to hear a lousy musical, try Whoop-Up! I promise that like a salty potato chip, though, you will not be able to store it away after only one taste.
It seems, alas, that they don't write bad musicals like they used to. Which brings us to where we started, examining three cast albums of shows that I had trouble sitting through patiently in the theatre.
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