‘Beautiful’ on LP

81-NypgJeaL._SL1500_ Since the long-playing record went out of vogue, very few contemporary cast recordings have been released on vinyl, the most notable being the original Broadway cast recording of The Drowsy Chaperone and the 2009 revival of Hair. These came courtesy of Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records, who also issued a limited vinyl edition of Beautiful, the hit bio-musical about Carole King currently playing the Sondheim Theatre. These three releases, while conceived as collector’s souvenirs, were in essence leading a return to form, as more musicals seem to be taking part in the current vinyl renaissance.

I’ve never been without a record player in my life, and I listen to LPs whenever I can. My very first cast album was the London My Fair Lady gatefold from Columbia. I was that nerdy child rummaging through boxes at second-hand bookshops and flea markets, picking out the Golden Age records that would start my life-long love of show music. (Spoiler alert: I am still that nerdy child). It’s different from popping on a CD or downloading an album from iTunes. Newer digital technologies are great for convenience, but the act of putting a record on a turntable, lifting a needle to the surface and waiting through those brief pops and crackles for the sound to pour out is a much more visceral, immersive experience. Plus, there’s the added pleasure of looking at the record sleeve and its artwork, allowing for greater appreciation of show logos and designs.

I don’t think Beautiful itself is a particularly great musical, but it is quite entertaining, especially thanks to its leading players. The show chronicles the early life and career of legend Carole King, her collaborator/husband (Gerry Goffin) and friends (songwriting team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) through the late 50s and 60s, up to her Carnegie Hall debut in 1971. The story is told in a rote fashion, with most of the song cues feeling like elaborate setups for a bizarre game of Name That Tune. The first act spends much of its time showing King and co. at work in the Brill Building, surprising the audience with an “I bet you didn’t know she wrote this one” attitude. The second act focuses on King finding her own voice as a singer-songwriter, though I think the musical ends just as Carole King’s life starts to get really interesting.

What Beautiful had going for it – and this is the most important element of all – was its leading lady Jessie Mueller, who was a sensational doppelgänger for King. I’ve seen Ms. Mueller in almost everything she’s done since arriving in New York (with the exception of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) and she continues to astonish me. Her voice is one of the modern wonders of contemporary musical theatre, seemingly able to sing any role in any tessitura. Onstage and off, Mueller radiates warmth, charm and pluck. (She’s also my choice for a Broadway revival of Funny Girl. In the meanwhile, I look forward to her return in Waitress).

But Mueller was not headlining a solo show. There’s also the delicious pairing of Spector and Larsen as King’s close friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. They are spectacularly warm, funny second bananas who should be headlining a separate Mann-Weil musical. (Billed as “The Carole King Musical,” Beautiful uses just a little too much of their tune-stack). However, Beautiful is even more enjoyable on second viewing. I went back to see it one more time before Mueller departed, and the issues I had were less problematic to me.

While I have my reservations about Beautiful the musical, Beautiful the cast album is a treasure.  Capturing the best of the show (its songs and performances), it plays quite well on disc, though I am more inclined to revisit Mueller, Spector and Larsen’s contributions than the slavish recreations of ’60s pop hits. As someone who hasn’t taken to the jukebox musical trend, I’m surprised how often I listen to the album, especially Mueller’s dynamic performance of the title song.

The idea to release Beautiful on LP came from marketing whiz Rick Miramontez over at O&M. Many of these were given out as voter swag to members of the various awards groups, ostensibly to capitalize on the nostalgia factor of Carole King among Baby Boomers. The vinyl release also went on sale at the theatre and from Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight’s website. It has since been made available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The CD release liner notes (with lyrics) have been beautifully repurposed for the gatefold interior, as well as the individual record sleeves.

Having purchased Beautiful from iTunes, and being quite aware of how it sounded on my iPhone, I was unprepared for the record experience. Mueller’s voice has considerable warmth, but somehow she sounds even warmer here. I stopped what I was doing to hear her sing those first lines of “So Far Away,” and immediately picked up the needle so I could hear it again. Mueller’s voice was made for vinyl. Plus, the LP release comes with a digital download card, so you’ll have the cast recording for your on-the-go needs.

This release was meant as a sort of novelty to cash-in on the show’s nostalgia. However, it seems to have come at a perfect time: sales of vinyls are up (as are sales of turntables). Sh-K-Boom has also released The Last Five Years film soundtrack as a 2-LP. Other musicals (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, School of Rock, If/Then) have released their Broadway cast albums released in the LP format. Word is Hamilton‘s best-selling and brilliant cast recording will be released on vinyl some time in 2016. Plus Masterworks Broadway has teamed up with Analog Spark to reissue some of their classic cast albums. I hope this is an encouraging sign of what’s to come because #yesrecords (and because I require the original Broadway cast recording of The Bridges of Madison County on vinyl).

Yes, records…

I like to browse. I like to rummage through things at most stores. You can put me in a supermarket or Home Depot and I’ll keep myself occupied for as long as necessary. But even moreso, I enjoy going through second hand stores, taking a look to see if I can find anything of interest.

For most of my life I’ve managed to collect a considerable collection of books, films and music. I’ve take an especial interest in discovering show music, and before I got my first CD player it was mostly in the form of records. Growing up in my house, my parents were a little behind the times on the music technology – it took them to 1995 to get their first CD player. Yeah, seriously. In fact, my father only got a CD player in his car for the first time in 2005. But anyway, for lack of the CD player, we did have a very nice unit that played records, cassette tapes and, get this, 8-tracks (I’ve never owned one of those). In fact, my first cast album was the original London cast recording of My Fair Lady, in all its lavish Columbia gatefold beauty, which I found in a used book store run by the local public library. I think it cost a quarter, along with several other LPs I picked up.

When I made the switch to CDs, I kept my LPs but didn’t give them as much play. It wasn’t until college that I started to get back into collecting cast recordings on LP. Looking to see what I could find in terms of releases and sleeves. It’s been a rather fun project, because going through a $.25 bin in a college town music store you’ll never what sort of surprises you’ll be in for. Add to that when I was living in New Paltz, NY (where I attended college), the two music stores would recognize when I came in and would advise me as to where I would find the most recent musical theatre records. (I think they were just grateful that someone was buying as much as I was).

Anyway, I managed to find a lot of treasures, many times 10 for a $1.00, inclusive of many recordings, some of which aren’t available on CD, such as Inner City, Illya Darling, Carousel studio cast with Robert Merrill, Patrice Munsel & Florence Henderson, and from the commonplace into the rare, a private label recording made of The Yearling, a disastrous 3 performance flop from 1965. So plain was it, there was no date, authors, labeling – nothing that would point it out that it was a show album.

I write this today because this morning I got up and left the house at 7:00 to drive to Stormville, NY with some friends of mine. Every major summer holiday they have a weekend vendor market in which you walk through an airstrip filled with booths from antiques dealers, retailers, or people just trying to unload their junk. The first time I went to this was in 2003, when elderly neighbors of mine gave me $150 to unload their truck for them and then reload it. I had the rest of the day to wander throughout. In browsing I found the original cast albums of The Unsinkable Molly Brown and High Spirits (both featuring the sublime Tammy Grimes). I immediately picked them up and much to my delight, discovered that they each contained the show’s original souvenir program as well.

I’ve been back several times since, voraciously poring through milk crate and box after milk crate and box just to see if there’s anything of use. The downside to this is that there are a lot of terrible things such as Rex Smith, The Bee Gees, countless “never heard of them” artists and such interesting things as “Do the Strip Tease” novelties. But it’s usually worth it. Last time I got a few show albums, Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall, It’s Better with a Band, The Anna Russell Album? and The Bob Newhart Button Down Album, to name a few. While today wasn’t as successful as usual, I happened upon a mint condition LP of the original Broadway cast of 1776 for a $1. It may have been the only thing I bought (my hopes to discover LPs of On the Twentieth Century, A Time for Singing, Donnybrook! and Darling of the Day weren’t assuaged, but on the other hand they haven’t dashed either. (I know I can always check ebay, but part of the fun is finding them at such incredibly low prices).

While I know I’m going to sound a lot older than my 25 years, I can’t help but think about how much is lost in the music experience with downloadable mp3s. Sure, it’s the easiest thing to go to i-tunes and enter a search query and have it on your computer right then and there, but there’s none of the gratified satisfaction that comes from the effort put in looking for something. It’s for that reason I hope that while music stores may become about as hip as the Automat, they will never fully disappear. If you’re willing to look, you never know what surprises you may find.