You may not be aware, but I am a huge musical theater lover. If you follow this blog and listen to #WizardTeam it's no surprise to you that I am a big fan of Hamilton, but that is just one in a long line of cast albums that have meant a great deal to me. I have always loved musical theater and one thing that really excited me about the explosive popularity of Hamilton is my hope that people who are not normally open to musicals will be more willing to try out other shows after listening to Hamilton.
Obviously going to a live production is the optimal way of experiencing theaters, however, the way my bank account works, that’s not always a viable option. Even regional theater - while amazing - can still be pricey. So with that in mind, I’m going to list my favorite cast albums to introduce you to my favorite shows.
At this point there isn’t too much to say about Hamilton that hasn’t already been said. Hamilton has won 11 Tony Awards, 7 Drama Desk Awards, and numerous other awards. Hamilton takes what genius (MacArthur-certified) creator Lin-Manuel Miranda created in his first musical In The Heights, also on this list, and enhances them. Hamilton really changed the game when it comes to taking popular music and infusing it into musical theater. Though people tend to focus on the rap and hip-hop aspects of the soundtrack, there are still elements of classic Broadway, jazz, R&B, and other aspects of popular music. Hamilton brings civics and history to the mainstream and tackles issues that most people haven’t thought about since high school but most importantly, the music bangs.
Next to Normal is a Broadway show from 2009 dealing with family and mental health. This story hits very close to home for me given some of my own personal struggles but the reason I find myself coming back to this album seven years later is because of the music and the emotion that is elicited from the performances. Next to Normal also introduced me to a favorite talent, Aaron Tveit, who I will now watch do anything, including Grease Live. Next to Normal does not have the eclectic music choices of Hamilton, it sticks closely to rock but the harmonies and power of the voices and the story told really is universal.
Not every song on this album sticks with me, but the ones that do stick to the rib in a way that not many songs can. The Color Purple is such a recognized and beloved story, both as a novel and book, that when they announced they would be adapting it into a musical, I was very skeptical. However, during the Tony Awards, I saw the performance and immediately purchased the cast album. There is a blend of gospel and blues that works so seamlessly with the tone of the story that it seems as though they were always present in the original novel. I was fortunate to see a performance of The Color Purple in Los Angeles and was so impressed by how much of the story actually, translates through the cast album I had been listening to for a year before seeing the stage play.
Thoroughly Modern Millie was the first Broadway show that I became completely enamored with to the point where I felt compelled to seek out other musicals. I had recently moved to San Diego and in an effort to ingratiate me to my new hometown my mother took me to the previews of Thoroughly Modern Millie at the La Jolla Playhouse. This show is pretty much classic musical theater with a large chorus and elaborate tap routines and an abundance of jazz hands but I was spellbound. By the time it made its way to Broadway I was already a huge fan, but the addition of Sutton Foster also brought me my first Broadway superstar to love. Sutton has gone on to star in other great musicals and TV (Flight of the Conchords, Bunheads and the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls). To this day, when I am in need of cheering up, I will listen to this album and pretend I can how to tap and Lindy Hop with the best of them.
I was first introduced to In The Heights through the Tony Awards, which is my main way to keep track of the new and popular shows. The Tony performance really struck me as being not only contemporary but set in a setting that was unique to Broadway but very familiar to me. Set in a diverse urban neighborhood the music opens with a rap breakdown of the changing dynamics of a close-knit community besieged by soaring rents and gentrification. While not familiar to me at the time, as I now live in Oakland the story becomes more and more relatable. This is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first show which also won the Tony Award for Best Musical and set the stage for his later domination and triumph. In many ways, I enjoy the highlights of this show more than Hamilton, though I recognize that it is not as consistently brilliant song by song.
Dreamgirls is an album I found thanks to a late night YouTube spiral watching Tony Award performances. As iconic as “And I Am Telling You” is, my first recollection of hearing that song is in seeing a poor copy of Jennifer Holliday’s performance at the 1982 Tony Awards. By the time the movie came out I held Dreamgirls in such high esteem I was very skeptical about Jennifer Hudson. Last Christmas I was lucky enough to see Jennifer Holliday in concert and by the time she finished singing “And I Am Telling You” I had been reduced to a complete puddle. Dreamgirls tells such a wonderfully petty story of a sixties girl group in such a wonderfully petty way. The thinly veiled story of Motown, Berry Gordy, Diana Ross and the Supremes makes it even more special to me.
This is an album that I love solely as an album, while I have been lucky enough to see some form of the show and those that I haven’t (Next to Normal) the story is pretty well explained through the music. Spring Awakening remains somewhat of a mystery to me, by which I mean that even after all of my listens of the cast album there are still large gaps in the plot that I haven’t been able to fill through music and lyrics alone. However, this album has such a youthful feel to it and though I am, thankfully, past puberty it brings me back to that time and the strength of those feelings. Spring Awakening recently had a revival featuring deaf and disabled actors and it may be even more moving than the original cast.
Les Mis is a classic Broadway show but also, as an opera the show is sung through and the cast album gives you a great summary of the show as a whole. As an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic story of love and revolution, there are songs on this album that really embody that revolutionary spirit. This album was also my introduction to the legendary Patti LuPone, the inimitable Broadway Diva. Les Mis is also a favorite of current Broadway greats which leads to amazing YouTube moments of celebrities singing "The Confrontation" or a star-studded and heartwarming rendition of "One Day More" sung in the car.
Fiddler on the Roof was the first professional show that I ever saw and therefore holds a very special place in my heart. The memories of my grandmother treating me to a regional show at the beautiful Mount Helix Theatre are only made stronger by the life of the show, like Hamilton, Fiddler does a dual job of entertaining while teaching the history and strife of Russian Jews of that time. The film is probably my favorite adaptation of this show but with every revival, I am convinced that there is no production of this show that is not fully enjoyable.
It’s shocking that this is the only show by Stephen Sondheim to make my list, as Sondheim is my favorite writer, after Lin-Manuel. Company is a show that I discovered thanks to PBS Great Performances, you may be shocked to note that Raul Esparza who currently stars as the DA on Law & Order: SVU is an amazing talent. Company tells a very modern and relatable story about a single man entering middle age and worrying about settling down. "Being Alive" is the big finale of the show and has become a standard of musical theater. It never fails to elicit emotion and awe when I hear Raul hit that final note. This album is the best of the recordings of the show, in my opinion, because the original Broadway cast recording has suffered from feeling very dated as it was recorded in the 70s and has a lot of disco that feels aged and corny.