We can debate when the Golden Age of Broadway Musicals occurred, though most folks set the dates from 1943 (the appearance of “Oklahoma!”) to the mid-1970s, when composers such as Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim took their last shots at traditional book musicals with old-fashioned scores.
But the Golden Age of Broadway Cast Albums continues today through Ghostlight Records, the most important preserver around of Broadway musicals. I never smile as widely as when the mail brings me a padded envelope with its CDs inside.
Larger labels such as Atlantic (“Hamilton”) or Sony (“Kinky Boots”) may snap up the rights to megahits. Ghostlight can compete on a high level: It has produced Grammy-winning cast albums of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” “The Book of Mormon” and “In the Heights,” the show whose success let composer Lin-Manuel Miranda launch “Hamilton.”
Yet its main virtue is a catalog that’s wide, deep and handsomely presented. (The CD booklets usually contain both synopses and complete lyrics.) I didn’t see “The Bridges of Madison County” during its brief Broadway run in 2014, so I had to become acquainted with Jason Robert Brown’s lyrical score via the Ghostlight Recording.
Three recent releases, all of which landed on my desk this month, epitomize the label’s approach.
One was the cast album for “Bright Star,” the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical that has been Tony-nominated this year. It tells the story of an Asheville publisher who reflects on her youth, after a young man brings her his intense poetry; she’s played by Tony-nominated Carmen Cusack, who was so good in Charlotte in the national tours of “South Pacific” and “Wicked.” You could call this memorable score bluegrass, though the songs go beyond that genre’s traditional structure and orchestration.
I’m still making up my mind about “Jasper in Deadland,” which loosely combines elements of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and Dante’s “Inferno.” Ryan Scott Oliver’s music and lyrics wander happily all over the pop-rock map, as 16-year-old Jasper (Matt Doyle of “Book of Mormon”) dives into Hades to find a suicidal friend with whom he has just consummated a soul-connecting passion. I haven’t decided whether the eclectic, electric score coalesces into something I want to hear multiple times, but it’s clever.
I have no such doubts about “When Everything Was Possible: A Concert.” Victoria Mallory and Kurt Peterson met half a century ago as 18-year-olds at the new American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. They were determined to become Broadway stars and briefly grasped brass rings. He played opposite Angela Lansbury in Jerry Herman’s underrated “Dear World”; she created the role of Anne Egerman in Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” They teamed in a revival of “West Side Story” and in small roles in Sondheim’s “Follies.”
This 2012 concert celebrates musicals they appeared in between 1966 and 1974 – their early years, but the last decade of Broadway’s Golden Age. The pair planned to make a studio recording and tour this show, but Mallory died at 65 in 2014. The concert contains touching memories, fine music sung by voices dimmed by time but not decrepit, and much-needed wisdom for would-be stars of today.
As a college student, I saw this couple in “Follies” and saw her in “Night Music.” I’d been raised on Broadway – I was lucky enough to attend the original “Hello, Dolly” and “Fiddler on the Roof” in middle school – and had no idea the traditions I loved would soon die away. But maybe “Jasper” represents a new tradition for some 12-year-old in 2016, so I’m glad Ghostlight has preserved it.