Theatre yesterday and today



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When I was a kid in the 1960s, and falling in love with Broadway musicals for the first time, I would listen to the original cast recordings and imagine what the shows looked like on stage, the same anyone might do today. However, at the time of this obsession, record albums sold for around $3 to $4, making them a bit costly and out of my reach. I was a little kid—I had no money. But when my dad brought home a reel-to-reel tape recorder (a Philips, if I recall correctly), everything changed for me. With this hefty forty pound machine in my house, I would now be able to take albums out on loan from the local library and make my own tapes of cast recordings that I could play to my heart's content. This allowed me to build a collection, but it didn't mean I could go crazy. There was still the cost of the blank tapes to contend with, so I had to be choosy with what I chose. One particular bonus though, was that the two-sided aspect of the tapes made it possible for me to record two albums for the price of one tape. Nice.

Stock image of a Philips reel to reel tape recorder, similar to the one my parents owned.

And anything I recorded was a gift, since it meant adding to my then-library of two (count them, two) albums. One was I Do! I Do!, which I'm sure was given to me for my tenth birthday (I mean, what else do you give a kid with a hero worship of Robert Preston?). And besides, it made for a perfect match with the other album I owned, yes—The Music Man. And let me make note of an interesting distinction here: my album was the film's soundtrack, not the original Broadway cast recording. This made perfect sense, as it was the movie of The Music Man that started the Indiana Jones-sized ball rolling for me with a love for musicals, seeing the film as I did at the age of five, when it played the Radio City Music Hall in 1962.

Broadway Cast Recording (1957)

Film Soundtrack (1962)

In fact, it would be years before I ever heard The Music Man's Broadway cast recording, as I continuously passed on it while perusing the titles available for me to take home from the library. Since there were so many other shows, why would I need another Music Man with Robert Preston? At that time, I didn't know about even the few books written on the American Musical, so I had no compass to point me in the right direction. I wound up bringing home some pretty odd stuff.

For every My Fair Lady there was a Mr. President; a correlative musical that was in reality the exact opposite. A show that was not a hit, nor one that probably had any business of being recorded (though of course, we are fortunate to have with us now the last show ever written by Irving Berlin, preserved for all time, and sung by its original players). But my having no knowledge of what constituted a good score from a bad one, I often made my choices at the library off the album covers, not dissimilar from how (I'm sorry to admit) I pick out a bottle of wine. What can I say? An attractive label goes a long way with me. Which is how I'm sure I ended up bringing home 1967's Illya Darling, with its bright yellow background and captivating illustration of Melina Mercouri encouraging a look-see?

If anyone's gutsy enough, try and give a listen to "I'll Never Lay Down Anymore."

I mean, what did it really matter how I made up my mind in those days? I learned a lot either way, in spite of a far less-discerning ear. Back then, I readily admit I didn't care much for Mr. President either, but trust me—it's A Little Night music compared to Illya Darling.

For whatever reason, I was never interested in British musicals from that period: a minor prejudice that still pervades my tastes to this day. I have simply never gotten behind a single Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, and at this stage, I probably never will. I'm sure this form of xenophobia had to do with not caring for the voices or scores to Oh What a Lovely War! or Half a Sixpence, or by attempting to engage in listening to certain British musicals that never made it to Broadway, i.e. Salad Days (a show that for a period of time was the longest running in West End history). It was also the winner of the Evening Standard Award for "Most Enjoyable Show." Maybe the Tonys should think about creating that as a new category? It would certainly produce some interesting results.

But I digress. The effort that went into how I listened to records back in the 1960s was totally dependent upon my home town of Great Neck's four libraries. I went to ALL of them in search of records to record for my own personal library. I would get on my bicycle and ride miles to see what might be in the collections, long before there was anything like an online catalog. If you wanted to know what was at a specific library, you went there in person, then thumbed through long drawers jammed with index cards. While doing various research these last few years, I have discovered that this antiquated method is still in use at some libraries. Call me old fashioned, but I kind of like going through these dog-eared cards. It makes me feel like I'm a part of something that a cold computer would never allow.

And the Philips tape recorder that my dad brought home one day back in 1967? I can tell you right now (without even asking my mom), that it's still where it has always been—behind the bar in our basement—no doubt inoperable, without the ability to play or record.

But oh, if only it could talk. The stories it would tell.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book