VINYL TAP By Peter Filichia
My turntable is spinning again.
Recent vinyl reissues of some vintage cast albums and vinyl debuts of some new ones have me dropping a tone arm and stylus – the fancy term for needle – on one black platter after another.
No – not every one of these cast albums is on black vinyl. Because the three-record set of RAGTIME celebrates the American experience, each disc sports one of the U.S.A.’s trio of trademark colors. Three cheers for the red, white and blue records!
So, we’ve had a comeback – nay, return – to The Great Recording Innovation of 1948: the long-playing record (or LP, as it was chummily called). Consumers back then were delighted that they could now hear a full half-hour of music on each side.
Starting in the ‘80s, a CD upped the ante by almost 20 minutes, which put the LP on the endangered species list. But just like the Giant Panda, it has rebounded as a viable format – which is why Masterworks Broadway has made so much vinyl available.
Why the resurgence? Since the CD revolution with its crisp digital sound, many audiophiles have asked the question that Stephen Schwartz had Patti LuPone pose in THE BAKER’S WIFE: “Where Is the Warmth?”
That’s vinyl’s greatest asset, which is again made clear on such ballads as “A Girl in the Valley” (THE SECRET GARDEN, courtesy of the late, lamented Rebecca Luker), and “Tonight” (from WEST SIDE STORY, natch). There is the warmth.
At least two musicals seem logical for vinyl, considering the eras in which they take place: HAIRSPRAY in the early ‘60s, when records ruled, and ALMOST FAMOUS, set in the early ‘70s when vinyl was still dominant if relinquishing its hold to cassettes that allowed for greater portability.
ALMOST FAMOUS starred Casey Likes, soon to be Marty McFly in BACK TO THE FUTURE. If you’d like to get a head start on that score, its London cast album is also available on vinyl (and most everything else). Sit down with the two-record set and start with either a new song specifically written for the show (Roger Bart sings “21st Century”) or a vintage one (“Earth Angel,” a Top Ten hit of 1955, when much of the show takes place).
But if you really want a golden oldie, SCHOOL OF ROCK offers its own unique take on one of the Queen of the Night’s arias from Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE, on its first of two vinyl records.
Why two? New state-of-the-art technology has not only made for a more expansive sound but has also caused vinyl records to expand. So many albums that had been originally released on one long-playing record are now on two (such as the WEST SIDE STORY cast album and soundtrack). Granted, that means you’ll get up from your chair twice as often to turn over sides and change records than you would have in days of yore. Don’t complain; the exercise will do you a world of good.
At least the songs will be in the right order, which brings us to another format of yesteryear: 8-track tape. Musical theater enthusiasts who went for this format in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (mostly because they could play them in their cars) occasionally blanched at an album’s weird running order.
DEAR WORLD, which some will see and hear at Encores! this week, was especially bizarre, for its Overture was the eighth and ninth selections on the tape, because 8-tracks were at the mercy of the length of a short tape: one continuous loop offered four separate tracks. (Stereo channels are what doubled it to eight.)
So, where a song was placed had to do with what would fit on that quarter of the tape. The best that Columbia’s people could do was get DEAR WORLD’s Overture after song seven – and then, not even on one track. The Overture would start, fade out, and fade in on the next track.
Now there isn’t much of a difference on a pop album if the songs aren’t arranged in any particular order. If Michael Jackson’s Thriller had put “Human Nature” before “Billie Jean” and not after it, the album would have still made sense and sold 70 million copies. But a musical, needless to say, tells a story, so a cast album’s songs should be arranged on in the order in which they’re done in the show.
Not that Goddard Lieberson, the guru of cast albums, didn’t cheat every now and then. Those seeing CAMELOT in 1960 heard Julie Andrews sing “Before I Gaze at You Again” before Robert Goulet sang “If Ever I Would Leave You”; Lieberson, though, reversed them for the recording.
He knew that then-heartthrob Goulet was developing a following. Recall in A CHORUS LINE, Bebe cried out “Robert Goulet! Robert Goulet! Oh, my God! Robert Goulet!” To accommodate Goulet’s fans who would want to play what would become his signature song over and over again, Lieberson put “If Ever I Would Leave You” at the start of Side 2. The space between the edge of a vinyl record and its first groove (where the song begins) is much larger than the substantially skinnier bands that separate every other song on a record. Thus, positioning and re-positioning a stylus on the record’s edge was easier.
So, unlike the soundtrack of WEST SIDE STORY where “America” is the sixth song, the vinyl edition of THE ESSENTIAL STEPHEN SONDHEIM starts with it. Many a musical theater enthusiast insists that this men-vs.-women version is better than the original cast’s women-vs.-women interpretation. Now vinyl fans will find it more easily accessible for repeated playings than they would on the album that ruled the charts for the early years of the ‘60s.
The larger edge at the beginning of a record was a boon to me when I got CINDERELLA. This will be heresy to Julie Andrews fans, but I first bought the 1965 soundtrack, not the 1957 recording on which she played the title role. As much as I appreciated what I still consider one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best-ever scores, I was truly taken with the composer’s “Gavotte.” Lucky for me, it was the first song on the second side.
So, I would lift the tone arm and easily position it to play “Gavotte” many times. At one point I thought to myself, “Hmmm, these days my friends are all listening to ‘Heart of Stone’ by the Stones, and I’m listening to a gavotte.
“From CINDERELLA, yet!”
(Ah, well. I am what I am.)
You may find yourself repeatedly lifting the tone arm to the edge of Side C of LP 2 on ONCE ON THIS ISLAND for the delectable “Mama Will Provide.” Ditto Side A of LP 2 of RAGTIME for the stirring “Wheels of a Dream.” Of course, any song from each of these scores would be a fine start to any new side. Thank you, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the best composer-lyricist team of the last quarter of the 20th century (and beyond).
What’s most apt is that “Could We Start Again, Please?” starts Side D of the 2018 soundtrack to JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. That recording brings us to another asset that vinyl albums have that no other format does: large pictures. CD booklets offer photographs that are barely larger than some commemorative stamps. LPs, though, can offer pictures that fill 12-by-12-inch back covers. So JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR shows the musical’s Title Character (John Legend) embracing Mary Magdalene (Sara Bareilles) in a way that suggests support and consolation rather than anything else.
In the end, though, the sound that vinyl gives is what makes audiophiles smile and makes them feel “Warm All Over,” to quote a Frank Loesser song title from THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. Lieberson gave that musical an unprecedented three-record set in 1956. Shall we hope that one of these days, Masterworks Broadway will release it on six vinyl records?
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.