Theatre yesterday and today



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Yesterday while writing about lyrics to Broadway scores, I found myself conjuring up memories of listening to record albums in my bedroom as a kid and as a teenager. I know that records are making a comeback right now (Hamilton released one so we know it's a "thing"), and I got caught up in recalling the ritual. If you're unfamiliar with it, here goes.

With records back in circulation, I'm assuming nothing's changed. But back in the day, a record came in an an album casing (cardboard) and a protective sleeve (paper lined in plastic). Upon purchase, the first order of business was to cut the exterior plastic wrap with which the jacket was encased, then remove the vinyl album and place it on a turntable. Purists would use a record cleaner, a dust collecting cylinder or cloth of some sort, in order to lift off any impurities that might gather under the needle and cause a muffled sound. My method was to put the album on the turntable, turn it on, then clean the grooves as the record spun. Others I know did this by hand, before placing it on the stereo for a spin. Either way, the important part was to be sure you always played a clean record.

Then came the needle drop and there were two ways to go. Some might manually pick up the arm and place it at the start of the record due to the harshness of having a record "drop," potentially doing harm to the needle or the vinyl itself. This was from the top arm, installed above the other arm you would place on the record. The top arm was a built-in, solely for stacking purposes. This would allow you to listen to up to three (possibly more) albums without having to flip them over, making for continuous music at a party or love making (worked for me). But for those interested in listening to one specific song, you had to manually lift the arm with the needle and drop it (gently) within the groove that marked its track, say the fourth groove for the fourth song. As Broadway scores rarely had more than eight songs on Side 1, with even the bare minimum of mathematical skills, most found this an easy task.

When CD's were first introduced in the mid-1980s, there were two things that were lost forever in exchange for better sound (debatable) and convenience. The first was the sound of the needle drop—a "thud" and then a scratchy sound until the grooves ran their course and the music began. Many missed the drama in this moment, gone when CD's would magically produce music without any hesitation or pause, as if coming out of nowhere. The second thing was the disappearance of Side 2. With the continuous tracks on a CD, recordings were no longer split in half. This didn't make much difference on a Beatles record, although I certainly remember that on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" ended Side 1, and "Within You Without You" began Side 2. Make no mistake: there was a decision-making process that went into deciding such matters when these albums were produced, especially when it came to a Broadway show.

With cast recordings these decisions were loaded. This was because an album producer (different from the producer of the musical itself) was in charge of creating a listening experience for the public, so they would get the full benefits of following the show much as they would in the theatre. Sometimes this meant rearranging songs on the record that were different from the way they were performed in the theatre. Again this had a lot to do with each side only having the ability to hold thirty minutes of music. One prime example, as late as 1975 when the album of A Chorus Line was recorded, was that they started Side 2 with Cassie's long solo "The Music and the Mirror" and not "Dance Ten, Looks Three," which comes before it in the show. I think this had to do with Side 1 running out of time and "Mirror" not fitting. "Dance Ten, Looks Three" probably would have fit, but then two comic songs would have occurred back-to-back. This is conjecture, but I think I'm correct in assuming this is why the songs run out of order. Of course, all that thinking is eliminated today. When the 2006 Chorus Line revival CD was recorded, its producers moved the songs into their original and proper order.

The limits to what could be achieved with an LP (long-playing record) and its maximum hour's worth of music, left off many reprises and dance music, even whole songs altogether. It was ever thus as cuts were necessary at the very first cast recording of them all—Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! This session marked the the birth of essentially how cast recordings are done today, with the entire cast, chorus, and orchestra brought into a studio. But with more than an hour's worth of music to record, three of its songs had to be omitted. However, when the album went on to sell over a million copies, cast members returned to the studio to record the dropped songs. So thankfully, if you buy the CD of Oklahoma! today (still in print after 73 years), it has been reconstructed to resemble a true original cast recording.

The most egregious omissions ever made at a recording session were the ones for Stephen Sondheim's Follies. The decision not to have it produced as a two-album set necessitated massive cuts. Not only interstitial ones (which all but destroyed the perfect flow of Sondheim's work), but whole numbers were jettisoned as well. Worse than that, the songs were recorded in these bastardized renditions so that once the CD was invented, and proper reparations could have been made, it was no longer possible. There were no master takes to go back to and reinstate sections of the songs so they could be heard as fully as they were done in the theatre. It is such a terrible loss that, to the best of my knowledge, no recording session for a cast album has made this same error in judgment in the last 45 years.

The last word on vinyl is when my son was a small child and decided that he wanted to listen to records of Broadway shows and not CD's. Unfortunately, when I moved to Los Angeles from New York City in 1986, I left behind all my record albums which eventually were thrown out in the trash. Why did I care? Practically everything was on CD. But I never expected to have a child that preferred to listen to music "old-school." So a project was embarked upon, whereby he and I visited every old record shop in Los Angeles (and back in 1995 there were many of them) and lovingly recreated, and even improved upon, my collection of Broadway cast recordings. Now age twenty-seven, my son recently was looking over the collection we amassed and said, "Dad, you really should get rid of these."

I looked at him sternly, cocked my head, and said: "Do you really think I'm going to make that mistake again?"

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.