How to Listen to Cast Albums
I am sorry to say that my classmates are annoyed with me at the moment. Since the Hamilton cast album dropped, that is basically all I have had playing in the Musical Theatre Archive at San Diego State University and they are ready for a bit more variety in my choice of ambiance music. My issue is, I can’t seem to get enough of it! Each time I listen to this recording, I find something new in the music, catch a joke I missed the first time, or grasp even more of the storytelling – which is why I continue to immerse myself in it.
Artists (painters, composers, choreographers, performers, etc.) want the audience to absorb their art, wrestle with it, and be transformed by it. I believe, with musical theatre pieces, you will not truly understand all the complexities of a piece by putting it on once while you are cleaning your house on the weekend. Below you will find my tips for actively listening to music in the musical theatre genre and how you can get the most out of your listening experience.
Firstly, make time to listen. I am guilty of putting a new cast recording on while I am working, to have something to fill the silence, and that does not count as active listening. Turn off your phone, get rid of distractions, and just sit down and listen. Musical Theatre is actually meant to be watched (otherwise we would only produce concept albums), so put yourself in the closest position to “watching” as possible. This will allow you to concentrate on the storytelling of the piece and pay attention to the nuances that you might miss while driving or working.
Secondly, I suggest listening to a live recording, if you can find one. It is important to watch/listen to storytelling in real time and sometimes even in the context of the entire piece. It is also important to remember how cast recordings come into existence. Usually the cast will come in on their day off and record as much as possible so the producers don’t have to pay too much overtime. As a result, some cast albums feature fatigued performers, tempos being sped up in order to get finished quickly (and to make everything fit on a record, back in the day), and sometimes even storytelling being lost in an effort to be musically “correct.” I believe a live recording gives the listener a more accurate idea of the show and possibly a better grasp of the story. Side note: many New Musical Theatre writers upload videos of their songs to YouTube, which I find very helpful!
Thirdly, listen to a cast recording in its entirety at least twice before making a decision based on your taste (see Show Shaming). Like I said, artists want you to wrestle with their work, and that is only possible if you give the piece multiple viewings, or in this case, listenings. The first listening should be about absorption – taking in the story and the style of the music and developing first impressions. It is the second listening where the brains start to really work. I have found intricacies in melodic lines, lyrical puns and actors’ performances that I missed during the first listening, just by giving a show another chance.
When listening to musical theatre, remember: the lyrics are where characters can tell lies, but the music never lies. Take “The Bench Scene” in Carousel, for example. Listen to the words Billy and Julie are saying to each other: “IF I loved you/words wouldn’t come in an easy way/round in circles I’d go.” Now listen to the music – it is definitely a Rodgers and Hammerstein love song! The music is informing the audience of the actual feelings of the characters, despite what they are saying to each other. It is important to tap into these musical cues when listening to a recording of a piece, since you are missing the performer’s body language and staging cues.
Lastly, take a break. (I am currently reminding myself of this one!) No matter how much you are in love with a piece, take a break and marinate on it. To be truly transformed by a work, you can’t be in constant contact with it – you have to give yourself time to process it. Take a day, a week, a month, etc. off from experiencing the piece and take stock of how it affects you the next time you listen to it. Has it transformed you? Are you in a different place in life and can experience it differently? My personal favorite musical to test this with is Company. I feel that every time I come back to this musical, I find something or someone new to connect with and inspire me. Some days I feel like a Joanne, other days an Amy, or maybe a Harry, and always a Bobby. This piece continues to change in my eyes as I, myself change. The piece transforms me and I transform it in my mind.
So take some time this week to actively listen to a show that is new to you and wrestle with it. Then, listen to a show that you love and see how you have been transformed by it. Let’s respect the artists and continue to be inspired by their work and creativity by giving their pieces the time and effort they deserve.