What makes musical theatre so remarkable as a genre is the way in which it uses music as an instrument of storytelling. Whether this is characters sharing their innermost struggles, as in the case of ‘She Used to Be Mine’ from Waitress, or coming together to unite for a cause, such as in ‘One Day More’ from Les Miserables, it’s hard to deny that the added aspect of song can contribute a lot to a piece of theatre. For many musicals, the songs carry so much of the plot that it’s possible to follow the entire storyline without having ever seen the show. Some productions even deliberately capitalise off of this, such as the recent musical We Are the Tigers which features a cast recording track that warns listeners that the next song will feature a key plot reveal. In this way, cast recordings are their own form of storytelling, and function independently of productions themselves.
to hearing dead voices sing about the joy of living
to reliving the cliff-edge overture feeling
In a year where curtains have barely risen, cast albums have taken on a new currency. We are able to reminisce on shows we’ve seen in the past from our own homes, in many cases entirely for free. But cast albums were important for accessibility even before the pandemic. With ticket prices, especially for West End musicals, shooting into the hundreds, the young people who form so much of the musical theatre fanbase can quickly be priced out of seeing their favourite shows. The lack of cost, both in actually experiencing shows and in terms of travel, means that recordings help them reach a much larger audience. This can even mean that productions that have closed can gain a following from their cast recordings alone – as in the case of the musical Be More Chill. The show originally closed in 2015 as a regional production, but the unprecedented popularity of the cast album led it to run on Broadway and the West End several years later.
to harmonising with the boiling kettle’s hum
to choreographing a dance to the idea of stillness
It’s true, of course, that cast recordings cannot capture live theatre in its entirety. If they did, we would rely entirely on the radio play format for all kinds of theatre. At the same time, however, it’s possible to get some semblance of the live experience from cast albums. Singing along to ‘Seasons of Love’ from RENT is a sacred theatre kid rite of passage, and who hasn’t tried to become the next Rachel Berry belting ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ in the shower? It is our involvement in recordings – be it dancing along in our bedrooms or taking part in a group karaoke session – that brings them to life, and brings live theatre into the everyday.
to aching with the memory of emotion, with the aftermath
to singing until your throat burns with the sting of alcohol
Live theatre will hopefully be back soon, and we will be able to experience storytelling in person once again. However, the cast recording will remain an essential path for stories to make their way into the world and find an audience, and for theatre to find its place in day-to-day life.
to tasting the echo of hairspray in the air, acrid, thrilling
to feeling almost, not-quite, perhaps, if-only, maybe, what-if
to holding stage light in your hands