* It's the most wonderful time of the year! Many people are heading out of town to see family and some of the lucky ones (or unlucky ones, depending on your point of view) will be taking road trips to make the trek. If you're like me, then a road trip means junk food and bathroom breaks and showtunes!
The soundtrack to life in my apartment may be all vocalists, but I get in the car and I crack open the cast albums. Nothing makes the time fly by better than Broadway songs telling the story of great characters from musical theatre. You get goosebumps as the overture begins to blare and then you're so engrossed in the story, by the time the finale has played out, you've traveled another 100 miles! This is why, generally speaking, the best cast albums for hitting the highway are sung-through shows where the libretto is contained within the lyrics, or at least shows with extended musical sequences to carry you away. (Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road!)
Click through to read my selections for the Top 10 Road Trip Cast Albums.
Richard Maltby, Jr.'s genre-defining Fats Waller revue, Ain't Misbehavin', was the biggest hit on Broadway in 1978, winning a host of awards, including the Best Musical Tony and a Tony for the late, great Nell Carter. If Ain't Misbehavin' is something of an anomaly on this list for lacking a plot to make the travel time go by, it more than makes up for it in melody and pizazz, and each of the songs really tells its own story, especially as brought to life by the across-the-board stellar original cast including André De Shields, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page and Charlaine Woodard, in addition to the divine Carter.
Quite the opposite of Ain't Misbehavin' is Leonard Bernstein's plot-heavy, classically scored Candide. I must admit that I don't really get the operetta references and parody of this piece (other than in some subconscious osmosis way), but I can't resist the glory the music. One of the great overtures of all time is followed by thrilling song after thrilling song, given glorious voice by a peerless original company of singers including Robert Rounseville, Max Adrian, Irra Petina and God's gift to musical theatre, Barbara Cook.
What can one say about Les Misérables that hasn't already been said? Perhaps the greatest populist musical of the last 50 years, Les Misérables continues to enthrall audiences all over the world in a smash hit international revival currently on Broadway and, of course, the recent blockbuster film adaptation. So many gifted performers have played the leads in Les Misérables, but my go-to recording remains the Original London Cast Album with Colm Wilkinson, Roger Allam, Frances Ruffelle, Michael Ball, Rebecca Caine, Alun Armstrong and, in her Olivier Award-winning role, Patti LuPone.
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's score to Hairspray is relentlessly tuneful and about as witty as one could ever wish to hear in a Broadway theatre. As a cast recording to play in the car, it's consequently one of the all-time greats. From the infectious opening chords of "Good Morning, Baltimore," your ears just buckle up and take the ride of Tracy Turnblad's life. By the time the peerless original cast joyfully proclaims "You Can't Stop The Beat," you may want to play the whole thing again.
For some people, particularly the rock and roll generation, Jesus Christ Superstar may be Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's best work. Few so-called rock operas are as rock or as operatic as this opus. The sung-though style envelops you in the music of the story of Jesus' final days from the first guitar riff to the final organ groan. Almost anyone can sing along to the popular hits, but the long-form musical sequences really dazzle and make for excellent trios and quartets to engage the backseat on the way to your destination.
5. Avenue Q
Perhaps my favorite musical of the last 10 or 15 years, Avenue Q touched the heart of disaffected Generation X in a way few works of stage or screen have managed to do. This was due in no small part to the brilliant comedy and cultural skewering in the score's many funny sections, but credit is also due the more sensitive material like "I Wish I Could Go Back To College" and "There's A Fine, Fine Line." You can't ask for better performers of this material than the fabulous original cast led by John Tartaglia and featuring Broadway's secret weapon, Ann Harada.
4. And The World Goes Round
So many Kander and Ebb songs are perfectly suited for road trips that it would be hard to settle on one of their cast albums for any drive. Luckily, much of their best work is represented in the popular revue, And The World Goes Round. This early 1990s Off-Broadway hit delighted audiences with both familiar and unfamiliar tunes from various Kander and Ebb collaborations, performed by a truly delightful company of actor-singers including Robert Cuccioli, Karen Mason, Brenda Pressley, Jim Walton and in the Drama Desk Award-winning performance that put her on the map, Broadway triple-threat sweetheart Karen Ziemba.
There are no other musicals like Falsettos, and that is a d*mn shame. On the bright side, two hours of any road trip can pass in the blink of an eye if you get the double original Off-Broadway cast albums of March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland (combined on Broadway as Falsettos) playing on your sound system. The complicated lives of Marvin and his family wash over you with humor and quirky empathy until you ultimately feel that basic human connection we all seek in the theatre to begin with.
Did somebody say great overtures? Sondheim's beloved cult flop musical, Merrily We Roll Along, has an overture that holds it own among such celebrated fare as Gypsy, Funny Girl and the aforementioned Candide. And of course, the overture is just where the fun begins. Hit play and settle in for the backwards show business life of pals Frank, Mary and Charley with stops along the way for some of Sondheim's most defiantly hummable tunes, such as "Old Friends," "Not A Day Goes By," "Good Thing Going," "Now You Know" and the title song.
As I've said, a musical's suitability for road trip listening is almost directly proportional to how much of the theatrical experience of the show translates for the at-home (or in-car) listener. By this standard, nothing beats Evita. From the opening strains of the funeral requiem, Evita's dramatic score engulfs you in the narrative whoosh of the Argentine social climber's ascent and almost immediate descent. As dissected in Eva's final reflective ballad, "Lament," it ain't much of a life, but it sure as hell makes for good theatre. Without question, the recording to take is the Original Broadway with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, performs through Feb. 27, 2015, at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)