- OnStage New York Critic
If you’re just getting into musicals in 2016, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. It wasn’t much better for me sixteen years ago, when I first got into them. Musicals had already been around in their current form for nearly a century, and that’s ignoring the all of the evolutionary stages that came before Show Boat. So what’s the best way to catch up? Reading the history is good, and there’s no shortage of material, but you don’t really get a feel for what was going on at the time you’re reading about. Documentaries only really feature snippets of the musicals themselves, and YouTube, while a great source, is missing a significant quantity of all that is musical theatre. No, the best way is to listen to the history of the musical, and fortunately, cast recordings make that easy.
In my day, we didn’t have digital music files and their players. Well, maybe we did, but they weren’t ubiquitous. I didn’t have them. I got my education from compact discs. Like I said, though, I had a lot of catching up to do, and CDs were expensive. I couldn’t just go out and buy everything I wanted to/knew I had to listen to. Fortunately, there was the library. For a year or so in my early teens, I would make weekly visits to the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, after my Saturday morning bass lesson, and take out ten or so cast recordings at a time. Then I would make copies of the CDs and the booklets. I used regular paper for the liner notes and lyrics and nicer paper for the booklet covers. This is how I built my collection.
In some cases, like if I was in a show or really into a new show, I would buy cast recordings, for expediency and quality guarantee. You never know if something will be at a library or how good a CD that has known many players will be. Mostly, though, I had my copies, and they worked. I copied nearly all of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s Gilbert & Sullivan recordings, as well as a lot of Sondheim and Webber, Rodgers and Hammerstein; the obvious ones. Many, I did not listen to right away, but had when inspiration struck, as when I recently became very interested in the musicals of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, or when I wanted a primer for the 2014 revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
And there are some that I still haven’t listened to, or fully appreciated. These include Kean, How Now, Dow Jones, and Anyone Can Whistle. Going through this process, especially since I made sure I had clear copies of the booklets, I also learned a lot about the performers and the writers. I wouldn’t have known how important someone like Alfred Drake had been, since he’s not as famous today as Ethel Merman or Robert Preston, if I hadn’t seen his name on what seemed like half of the recordings I copied. It also started opening my eyes to the fact that there is much more to musical theatre history than the musicals that receive multiple revivals in a decade, or even than those that have been revived once since I started paying attention, and I went in search of that history.
I also inherited a significant collection of cast recordings on vinyl from my grandparents, so I am firmly rooted in past cast recording collecting and listening techniques. Now it is much easier to access cast recordings, and to carry them around to listen to. I have stopped collecting CDs at the pace I was going, getting more selective about what I buy and only ripping library CDs to my computer instead of making physical copies. I also didn’t have YouTube, so I had to watch the PBS schedule very closely to make sure I caught every glimpse of Broadway performance on television that I could. I don’t know what the equivalent collection process would be today, luddite that I am, but whatever it is, I hope there are elements similarly painstaking to what I did, because I believe it gave me a better grasp of the depth of the musical theatre craft, and prepared me to embrace its future, whatever it may be.
Aaron Netsky writes about musicals (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and books and culture (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) on his personal blogs, and has written a yet unpublished musical theatre novel. His writing can also be seen on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, and Medium.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.