Musical theatre albums are the cornerstone of any Broadway lover's collection. You’ve listened listened to Hamilton, Wicked, and whatever your favorite revival of Gypsy is, but if you really want a solid foundation, be sure to check out these Original Broadway Cast recordings.
It used to be that students would discover hidden gems lurking in record stores but, thanks to today's technology, most cast recordings have been made available to listen on Spotify and Apple Music or purchase on Amazon (students can currently get 6 months of Prime for free).
The Color Purple (2016)
Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, Danielle Brooks, Jennifer Hudson, and the entire cast brought the house down every night in this revival. Performers should pay close attention to the vocal work by Erivo, but the score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray is also a master class in adapting a film into a musical. Taking cues from Black standards—jazz, blues, and gospel—from the 1930s, the trio transports listeners to the Deep South without stereotypes. Also worth a listen is the original Broadway production from 2005, starring a Tony-winning LaChanze as Celie.
Avenue Q (2003)
The little Broadway musical that could is one of the most NSFW musical theatre albums to ever be recorded. With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the Tony-winning Avenue Q tells the tale of 20-somethings learning how to live and love in New York City—in the style of Sesame Street with humans and puppets interacting. The wordplay throughout is strong, as are the inappropriate jokes that walk a tightrope between offensive and brilliant. Avenue Q became the little show that could when it ran a successful Tony campaign that ended with the show taking Best Musical over megahit Wicked in 2004. The show also blazed the trail for successfully moving from Broadway to Off-Broadway, a relatively unheard of practice when they did it in 2009 before shows like The Play That Goes Wrong and Jersey Boys followed suit.
One of the few sung-through albums on this list, Ragtime follows a series of characters as they chase the American Dream at the turn of the 20th century. Based on the E.L. Doctorow novel and featuring music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the recording captures nearly every minute of the show. In addition to the melting pot of musical styles as diverse as the U.S. itself, the performances by Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and the late Marin Mazzie are praised to this day.
The behind-the-story creation of Jonathan Larson’s pop-rock musical often gets most of the headlines, but the score won a Tony Award for a reason. It captured the feelings of many in a generation who were stuck in a post-Regan hangover that still favored the elite while leaving the artist and “bohemians” out in the cold. Add on top of that a star-studded cast in some of their earliest roles (Idina Menzel, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, etc.), and this recording perfectly captures a turning point in theatre history.
City of Angels (1989)
This musical from Cy Coleman and David Zippel is one of the few musicals to pay homage to film noir, incorporating the toe-tapping jazz sounds of the ‘40s, a musical style in which Cy Coleman reportedly felt most at home. City of Angels follows a writer named Stine as he tries to adapt his detective novel into a screenplay. While the author and his leading man Stone are played by two actors, much of the cast takes on double duty: performing one role set in Stine's colorful real world and another in the black-and-white world of the movie, which comes to life on stage.
Jennifer Holliday performing “And I’m Telling You” gets all the YouTube views, but the entire score by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen is like discovering a long-lost Motown album that never hit the airwaves. Influenced by the sounds of The Supremes, James Brown, and other Black recording superstars of the ‘60s, Dreamgirls follows the rise of a Black girl group only to be challenged at every corner on their way to success from men, the white music industry—and each other. Joining Holliday as Effie White are Sheryl Lee Ralph as Deena Jones and Loretta Devine as Lorrell Robinson. The current CD and digital editions of this album also feature material left out of the initial vinyl and CD releases, including the dynamic and dramatic "It's All Over."
Merrily We Roll Along (1982)
Told in reverse chronological order, Stephen Sondheim’s score follows the life of a successful Hollywood writer and producer who abandoned his career as a Broadway composer—and the people he left behind. Many of the songs have become recognizable standards, like “Old Friends” and “Not a Day Goes By,” but listening to the album from start to finish is a different experience, especially with the transition numbers that cue the clock turning back. Listen for a young Lonny Price starring as Charley Kringas; Price would go on to become a celebrated director on stage and screen, with a résumé that includes the recent Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard and a documentary film tracking the history of Merrily We Roll Along, titled Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979)
One of the most complex scores to ever hit the Main Stem, Stephen Sondheim created (with book writer Hugh Wheeler) a macabre musical comedy that has stayed as sharp as Sweeney's razors. The performances by Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou deservedly won Tonys, but it’s the piercing music that really leaves an impact with the use of factory whistles and violins reminiscent of the most terrifying horror movies—Sondheim has said he was directly inspired by the work of Bernard Hermann, composer of the scores for such films as Psycho and Hangover Square. Contrast that with the often-hilarious lyrics and you’ve got a cast recording that will have listeners laughing while nervously looking over their shoulder.
Mack & Mabel (1974)
This cast recording is a well-preserved reminder of why Bernadette Peters was a bonafide star from the get-go. Featuring a score by Jerry Herman with his signature horn and piano, the musical, based on a true story, follows a young film actress and her relationship with the director who wants to make her his next muse. While not a sung-through show, it’s easy to follow the story along thanks to the show’s standout cast.
The recording of this album was captured in what’s considered by many to be a seminal documentary about musical theatre—but the music itself is just as memorable. In between the ensemble's opening echoes of “Bobby” and Elaine Stritch’s showstopping “The Ladies Who Lunch” is a look at the life of Manhattanites in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There’s a level of reality in the score that hadn’t been heard on Broadway in 1970, reflecting the fast-paced world Sondheim captured in this first collaboration with director Hal Prince. The duo would go on to reinvent the genre of musical theatre with a string of daring, musical theatre classics including A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Follies.
Hallelujah, Baby (1967)
Leslie Uggams won a Tony for her performance in this musical which traces one woman's journey through the African-American struggle for equality. When it debuted, the musical was lauded for its depiction of the Black experience but, nowadays, the acknowledgment that the score was written by an all-white team (music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden) and its dated stereotypes have kept this show off the boards for a while. Still, it’s more than worth the listen for Uggams, who won a Tony Award for her performance and became a star.
Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
With a popular movie adaptation, countless revival cast albums, and an Off-Broadway version performed in Yiddish, it’s possible students have missed out on the original cast recording. Zero Mostel’s take on Tevye is the stuff performance legends are made of. In addition, Maria Karnilova as Golde, Bea Arthur as Yente, and Austin Pendleton as Motel make it worth the time exploring the entire score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.
My Fair Lady (1956)
Leave it to Julie Andrews to make a Cockney accent sound beautiful while still being rough around the edges—and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins is no slouch, either. While reminiscent of most musical styles at the time, Lerner and Lowe’s score stands out thanks to its lyrical focus on Eliza Doolittle’s transition from mouthy flower girl to a lady of high society. Fun fact: Andrews and Harrison recorded two cast albums of the show, a Broadway album in 1956 and an original London cast album in 1959. The latter has become the primary record of their performances because it was recorded in stereo (the Broadway album was recorded in mono), but both are excellent listens.
Damn Yankees (1955)
Historically known for being the show that brought Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse together, the score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross is sadly one of the pair’s few musical scores (Ross passed away at the age of 29). A modern re-telling of Faust set in the world of baseball, Damn Yankees manages to capture the thrill of the sport within its music and lyrics in songs like “Heart” and “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO.,” plus there’s Verdon’s “Whatever Lola Wants.”
Kiss Me, Kate (1949)
The first-ever winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Original Score, Cole Porter’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew is a true ensemble effort. Patricia Morison, Alfred Drake, Harold Lang, and Lisa Kirk lead the main quartet as they try to mount a musical production of the Bard’s comedy. It’s worth listening to catch the show-within-a-show conceit that became commonplace in musical theatre, but the real fun lies in the female empowerment tunes like “I Hate Men” and “Always True to You in My Fashion.”