By Peter Filichia —
This week, when February 29 comes into our lives, we’re most aware that we’re in a Leap Year. So let’s have a Leap Year’s look at cast albums.
We must start in 1944, because American original cast albums, for all intents and purposes, didn’t come into existence until 1943. But that still gives us 18 years to examine in this brief history.
1944 – On the Town, our first entry, isn’t quite an original cast album, and it wasn’t made until another Leap Year: 1960. John Reardon, who that same year was featured in Do Re Mi, sang the role of wistful sailor Gabey that had been originally played by John Battles.
But four other key players return after sixteen years. Nancy Walker and Cris Alexander again respectively portray man-hungry cabbie Hildy and Chip, a sailor and her innocent fare who’s urged to “Come Up to My Place.” Better still, co-authors Betty Comden and Adolph Green are back as anthropologist Claire de Loon and another sailor named Ozzie, who both get “Carried Away.” Despite all the funky adventures that all the characters have, by show’s end they sing one of musical theater’s most beautiful songs: “Some Other Time,” with that glorious Leonard Bernstein melody.
1948 – In this Leap Year, Magdalena runs 44 times longer than Kiss Me, Kate. Granted, that’s on a technicality: the Cole Porter masterpiece opened on Dec. 30, and ran two performances that year (out of the 1,077 it would eventually play), while the already-closed Magdalena had only made it to 88. But how often does one get a score by Brazilian folk music composer Heitor Villa-Lobos? Richard Rodgers said Magdalena was years ahead of its time, and many still say that it influenced Leonard Bernstein’s writing in West Side Story. See if you can keep up with its many key changes, too.
1952 – Although Leonard Sillman produced seven revues called New Faces, the only ones that were recorded were in three Leap Years. Of the trio, we have New Faces of 1952 and New Faces of 1956 available. The earlier – which feature future stars Robert Clary, Alice Ghostley, Ronny Graham, Carol Lawrence, Paul Lynde and Eartha Kitt – runs 365 performances. But given its Leap Year status, isn’t it sad that it couldn’t have run an even 366?
1956 – It was a very good year: My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella open within 48 days of each other. The former runs four times longer than the latter, but which show is recorded in its virtual entirety? The Most Happy Fella, gets an unprecedented three-LP set, thanks to the leap of faith taken this Leap Year by Columbia producer Goddard Lieberson. And let’s not forget that later in the year, Candide, a treat to the ears, opens and spawns an album that’s never been out of print (and quite a few others, too).
1960 — Stephen Sondheim experiences his first (but, as we’ll see, not last) Best Musical Tony Leap Year defeat. This year, he can’t even console himself that his show might have finished second in the race, for The Sound of Music and Fiorello! tie as Best Musical. Thus, his Gypsy, with music by Jule Styne and book by Arthur Laurents, at best finishes third. And yet, its four Broadway revivals means it’s had four times as many as The Sound of Music (1) and Fiorello! (0) combined.
1964 — This Leap Year, Sondheim doesn’t even come close to winning a Best Musical Tony, for his Anyone Can Whistle — which opens and closes on successive April Saturdays — isn’t even nominated.
Much has been written on how inventive the score is — which certainly is true — but how about a hand for orchestrator Don Walker? In the years to come, Jonathan Tunick will orchestrate most of Sondheim’s scores — brilliantly — but he couldn’t have done much better (or at all better) than Walker. One example out of dozens is the terrific ride-out (meaning the last notes of orchestral music as the song concludes) for the appropriately named “The Miracle Song.”
1968 — Too many did leap over this year’s Leap Year Tony-winner, because Hallelujah, Baby! had already closed by the time it won the award. But Jule Styne’s music is extraordinary, spanning the styles of the ‘20s through the ‘60s. (Peter Matz’ marvelous orchestrations certainly helped.) Leading lady Leslie Uggams tied with Darling of the Day’s Patricia Routledge in the Tony race for Best Actress in a Musical; she too sang Styne music in her show. Never before or since has a composer provided the music for two Best Actresses in the same year. The likelihood is that no one ever will again.
1972 — Some say that the greatest achievement in Sondheim’s illustrious career is Follies, but even it can’t break his the Best Musical Tony Leap Year Slump. However, Follies marks the second of Sondheim’s unprecedented and still unmatched three consecutive Best Score wins (between Company and A Little Night Music).
1976 — But this year, Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures loses both the Best Musical and Best Score Tonys. That’s what happens when they meet the juggernaut known as A Chorus Line.
1980 – 42nd Street opens. One of its biggest production numbers is “We’re in the Money,” in which a chorus dances on enormous renderings of dimes. Producer David Merrick certainly was in the money after producing this one, his longest-running show of the 90 he produced. In his honor, the chorus should have danced on $10,000 bills.
1984 — Sondheim’s next Best Musical Tony Leap Year defeat, as Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux Folles wins that prize and Best Score, too. But Sondheim and his Sunday in the Park with George can be assuaged by its winning the Pulitzer Prize – and by its incisive look at the creative process. In the next decade, it spawns one of the nation’s best-known musical theater songs when “Putting It Together” is constantly heard on a widely aired Xerox commercial.
1988 — Sondheim’s final (we reluctantly assume) Best Musical Tony Leap Year defeat, as Into the Woods succumbs to The Phantom of the Opera. At least Sondheim bests Andrew Lloyd Webber (and Charles Hart) in the Best Score category.
1992 – Two notable revivals get recorded. The first is Guys and Dolls, the Tony-winner that stays around for almost three years. That may be a drop in the bucket compared to Adelaide and Nathan’s 14-year engagement, but it was then enough to make it the longest-running revival in Broadway history. Its biggest revival rival is The Most Happy Fella, which receives a two-piano arrangement that’s ideal for soft late-night listening with a glass of wine – ideally from the Napa Valley, in which this musical takes place.
1996 – Timing is everything. Imagine the box office demand now if Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw opened in a musical. Alas, Sarah Jessica Parker wasn’t as famous then. But we have a nice souvenir of her doing the fractured fairy tale classic Once Upon a Mattress.
2000 — Contact wins the Tony for Best Musical, causing a bit of a storm, because it’s really a dance show, with no book to speak of and no original score. Nevertheless, it makes a most entertaining
And it really is a soundtrack and not an original cast album. In case there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know the difference – and at least once a year I find someone knowledgeable about musicals that doesn’t – a soundtrack is the term used for an album of songs from a film or TV show – because each of those has a track of sound. Stage shows have original cast albums.
But not Contact, because it used pre-recorded music on a sound track. No orchestra was on the premises, and no cast member sang. It’s quite the potpourri, for not many albums have selections recorded by Stephane Grappelli’s jazz violin, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, Benny Goodman and the Beach Boys.
2004 — In one of the biggest upsets in Tony history, Avenue Q bests Wicked in the Best Musical, Score and Book races. The lyric about George Bush is certainly dated, but the rest of the Jeff Marx-Robert Lopez score is still fresh as can be.
2008 – In an era where so many Broadway orchestras sound like two Dixie cups attached by string, here’s the most sumptuous Broadway recording in years: 26 musicians backing up 34 actors on South Pacific. Although Masterworks Broadway had the original cast album and the 1967 revival cast album, it made the leap in this Leap Year to get the third jewel of the triple crown.
2012 – And here, starting previews a day before Leap Year Day, comes Once. It’s a most atypical Broadway musical, in that it sports a score that sounds as if it’s genuine Irish folk music. We’ll hear more about it in the weeks to come.
Finally, there’s one other Leap Year worth noting in our history: 1776. The musical by that name leaped off a Broadway stage 1,217 glorious times before closing – in a Leap Year.