WHAT MAKES A CAST ALBUM PERFORMANCE GREAT?
Having listened to a steady stream of Broadway original cast recordings over the past fifty years, I’ve got a ready-made list in my head of personal favorites. I also have a list of the performances that I feel best represent what it must have been like to see a particular actor create what, in some cases, is the role of their career. As one example, I have always felt like I saw Zero Mostel as Tevye in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof due to his monumental performance on the recording (and for that matter, Maria Karnilova’s Golde — a work of art — especially considering how little she is tasked with singing-wise). Performances like theirs define the word indelible. So, for fun, I thought I’d analyze what makes (for my money) certain actors and actresses worthy of the label “Best Cast Album Performances.”
In the case of Fiddler on the Roof, it was first brought to my attention when my parents purchased the album in 1965. Then, three years later, I was fortunate enough to see it in its original Jerome Robbins staging with Harry Goz as the musical’s fourth philosopher-milkman. Ever since, it’s been a constant in my Broadway playlist and I remain in awe of Mostel’s ability to capture comedically and dramatically, both in speech and song, Joseph Stein’s warm and witty book, heightened by Sheldon Harnick’s heartfelt and wondrous lyrics. His Tevye is simply a master class on acting in a musical’s cast recording. And he does it into a microphone without benefit of the stage business for which he was renowned. Even if you’ve heard this Fiddler a hundred times, take a closer listen and check it out. It’s all there in Mostel’s supple vocal prowess, ready to blast as well as quietly emote deep levels of power in his love for his children and faith in God. The joy of the explosiveness in portions of “If I Were a Rich Man” are counter-balanced by the plaintive ache conveyed while Tevye is dreaming of being in synagogue and maybe having “a seat by the Eastern wall.” And don’t get me started on the beautiful work between him and Julia Migenes in the few lines both in and out of “Far from the Home I Love,” which the album’s producer, George R. Marek, was smart to include, as it is what makes that song so heartbreaking in performance.
Many of these recordings, so precious to me, are greatly influenced by my hearing them first as an impressionable child and teenager (which coincided with the beginnings of my attending the theatre regularly and seeing the tail end of Broadway’s Golden Age). I was lucky to have experienced Ethel Merman and Mary Martin in their final musicals because if I wanted to conjure up what they did onstage as Madame Rose or Nellie Forbush, I only had cast albums to guide me. However, due to the love and care with which the majority of these recordings were set down, it allowed my mind’s eye to picture how they might have physically embodied these roles. And it all came to my imagination “free of charge,” as Harold Hill would have put it.
And speaking of Professor Hill, it might surprise those who know of my affinity for Robert Preston that his performance on the original cast album of The Music Man is not among my favorites. First, it was the 1962 film that introduced me to his pitch-perfect performance when I saw it as a five-year-old, and it was that version of his performance which I listened to so repeatedly I wore out the record’s grooves. Second, the recording session for the Broadway production was done the Sunday after the show’s opening night (the company’s day off) which has always been less than ideal. Preston, a committed smoker and drinker, had probably done more than a little celebrating in the three nights between the show’s opening night and its Sunday recording session. He is plainly not in great voice and not alone in that regard either, in that to name just two, Dick Van Dyke and Sammy Davis Jr. are both pretty ragged on the recordings for Bye, Bye Birde and Golden Boy. In their own autobiographies, each confess to their long battles with heavy drinking during this era. In fact, Davis was so disappointed, he later re-recorded most of his songs, so that on subsequent reissues of Golden Boy, they replaced the inferior first sessions.
Other cast album performances that to my mind transport a listener to full and complete performances (in no particular order) are William Daniels in 1776, Judy Holiday in Bells Are Ringing, Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity, Barbara Harris in The Apple Tree, Robert Morse in How To Succeed, Angela Lansbury in Mame, Anthony Newley and Cyril Ritchard in Roar of the Greasepaint, Hal Linden in The Rothschilds, Lotte Lenya in Cabaret and Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. Spoiler alert: his death scene? Gets me every time.
I know. So far, I haven’t gotten past 1970. But again, these were the shows I listened to repeatedly in my youth (and still do). In the more modern era (is 1980 still modern?), I would include Patti LuPone, Bob Gunton and Mandy Patinkin in Evita, just about the entire ensemble of Ragtime, Alan Cumming’s redefining of the Emcee in Cabaret, Victoria Clark and Kelli O’Hara in The Light in the Piazza and Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens. Obviously, there are many more, but I’ll stop here.
And as for anyone who recorded an original cast album of a Sondheim musical, well… too many to list here as they are in a class all by themselves considering the creative power of the material, as well as the producing genius of many of the Sondheim recordings that were guided by Goddard Lieberson and Thomas Z. Shepard. True aficionados know what happened when the brilliance of Follies was left in the hands of lesser talents, right?
Of those shows before my time, where it wasn’t humanly possible for me to have seen some of the most artful practitioners of of the musical theatre, I will always carry a deep yearning for what was missed. To have seen Alfred Drake in Kiss Me, Kate and Kismet, or Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady and Camelot, must have been truly something. Luckily, there are more than just traces of video featuring Drake and Andrews in these performances to be culled off YouTube. Conversely, it leaves it totally to the imagination to think of what it was like in 1939 to watch Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman cavort in Cole Porter’s DuBarry Was a Lady. And to make matters worse, this was all prior to the genre of cast albums being a thing, so there was no recording.
If anything about this column has inspired you to dig in and treasure the pleasures of an original cast recording, let me offer as two final suggestions, On the 20th Century and Hadestown. Recorded forty-one years apart, they deliver by way of the richness of the performances. With 20th Century, John Cullum and Madeline Kahn are remarkable in their versatility, from high comedy to poignant ballads. And with Hadestown, listen in one sitting, if possible, to best sample the measure of André De Shields, Eva Noblezada, Amber Gray and Patrick Page, showcasing every inch of what they achieved eight times a week on the stage of the Walter Kerr Theatre. The one thing about the preservation of such stellar work, is that it somehow never gets old.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.