Most of the songs that make up what we now call The Great American Songbook originated in Broadway shows. These were songs everyone knew, sang along with and danced to, and were written by George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and Cole Porter. When the rock ’n’ roll era began in the 1950s and young folks wanted their own music, the paths diverged and, as composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim has said, it soon became possible to have a hit show with no hit songs.
The period of the greatest popularity of Broadway shows is now referred to as The Golden Age and runs roughly parallel to the career of Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960). Hammerstein actually reinvented American musical theater twice, bestowing a new seriousness to the form with Show Boat (1927, written with composer Jerome Kern) and later eschewing musical comedy to create the musical play with Oklahoma! (1943, with composer Richard Rodgers).
For the past six decades or so, most of us who love the great Broadway musicals came to know them by listening to the “Original Cast Albums” of the shows. But making these recordings didn’t begin in earnest until 1943, so the recorded document of earlier shows often came much later (a good recording of the 1927 Show Boat wasn’t finally released until 1988!). Of course, Broadway stars had always made recordings of their hit songs, but these would be mostly dance-band renditions and were rarely accompanied by the show conductors or orchestras. For example Gertrude Lawrence recorded “Someone to Watch Over Me” from Oh, Kay! with piano in 1926 and orchestra in 1927, and Ethel Merman recorded “I Got Rhythm” from the Gershwins’ 1930 Girl Crazy. In England, the 1928 cast of Show Boat was recorded with the original orchestrations, but the 1927 Broadway original was never recorded.
The idea of bringing the entire cast and orchestra into the studio and using the theater orchestrations was pretty much invented by visionary producer Jack Kapp of (American) Decca Records with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943). Two other influential producers are Goddard Lieberson (d. 1977) of Columbia Records and the still-working Thomas Z. Shepard, the heir-apparent to Lieberson at Columbia, and later at RCA Records the driving force behind translating the shows of Stephen Sondheim into aural experiences.
Indeed the history of the Broadway cast recording is inextricably tied to the rise of the recording industry as a whole, stretching from the end of the 78-rpm era through the LP era and into the digital age. Beginning as a collection of songs squeezed onto three-or four-minute sides (and helping to create the whole idea of an “album,” literally a collection of discs), these recordings later became the way people most often experienced the shows, and sometimes the only extant document of them.
Early Original Cast Recordings
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943) is generally credited as the first American original cast recording (the Broadway performers, conductor, and orchestra all in the studio at the same time). Jack Kapp had previously recorded Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock on six 78s in 1938, but this was with piano accompaniment only. Kapp’s Oklahoma! recording on six discs proved so popular that a volume two was released with three songs that had been omitted from the original (the current CD contains both volumes in the correct show order). In 1945, Decca recorded Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second show Carousel, also a perennial best-seller.
Many of these early recordings have a slightly frenetic quality due to the need to fit a song on one side of a 10-inch disc (more leeway was provided later by the introduction of 12-inch discs). There was also much cutting and shortening of pieces, particularly overtures and multiple song verses. The famous “Soliloquy” from Carousel was unusually allotted two sides so it wouldn’t need to be altered. The sound quality of these recordings has also suffered over the years, falling victim to trends such as echo-ridden “electronically rechanneled stereo,” but the latest CD releases are in the best mono sound possible, using the original masters if available. Decca’s classic show albums from the late 1940s and early 1950s such as Annie Get Your Gun, Guys and Dolls, and The King and I have never sounded better.
Columbia Records began recording Broadway cast albums with the 1946 revival of Show Boat, quickly followed by Finian’s Rainbow (1947) and South Pacific (1949), the latter two produced by Goddard Lieberson. Lieberson soon developed his own style for preserving shows and felt that the recordings should be theatrical in their own right, with as little dialogue (which can become boring on multiple hearings) as possible. This has sometimes led to misconceptions about the shows themselves as Lieberson would create new endings, change song order, and alter tempos at will. A famous example is the South Pacific “finale” which includes a reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening” that doesn’t occur in the score. Lieberson apparently felt that ending the recording the way the show ends (with no singing) was not acceptable! Soon after introducing the LP in 1948, Columbia released the first Broadway cast album in that format, Kiss Me, Kate.
In 1956 Lieberson talked his bosses at Columbia Records into bankrolling a new musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in return for the right to record the cast album and future film and TV rights for CBS. This deal for what would become My Fair Lady not only led to the sparkling original cast album but is still paying off for the company. A bidding war ensued with other labels (particularly RCA and Capitol) looking to duplicate Columbia’s success for the right to record new shows. This was a boon to collectors if not always to the labels. Another boon to musical lovers came when Columbia Records released its first stereo cast album, Bells Are Ringing (1956), which sounds as fresh today as when it was made. Finally it was possible to experience a real sense of theatrical space in the home.