Chart Watch

Chart Watch Extra: Cast Albums, From Camelot To Spamalot

Chart Watch

The Tony Awards are set to air Sunday night. You may think you're not much of a Broadway buff, but I bet you know more theater music than you think you do. It's all around us. Susan Boyle became the year's biggest Internet sensation singing "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables. Last year, David Cook sang "Music Of The Night" from The Phantom Of The Opera on his path to winning American Idol. Gwen Stefani's 2004 hit "Rich Girl" included an interpolation of "If I Were A Rich Man" from Fiddler On The Roof. Jay-Z's 1998 hit "Hard Knock Life" sampled the song of the same name from Annie. Barbra Streisand, who got her big break in one Broadway show (I Can Get It For You Wholesale) and became a superstar in another (Funny Girl) showed the enduring appeal of theater songs in a pair of chart-topping albums, 1985's The Broadway Album and 1993's Back To Broadway.

Broadway cast albums have a rich history. A cast album (Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!) was listed in the top 10 on the first album chart ever published in Billboard in March 1945. Over the next 25 years, 13 cast albums reached #1. Those albums amassed a total of 155 weeks at #1, more than any artist in history, including The Beatles (132 weeks) and Elvis Presley (67 weeks). Just about everybody in that era recorded show tunes. The Beatles included "Till There Was You" (from The Music Man) on their 1964 debut album Meet The Beatles!  Louis Armstrong had a #1 hit in 1964 with "Hello, Dolly!" The 5th Dimension scored one of the biggest #1 hits of the '60s with "Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In," a medley of two songs from Hair.

Here's how central Broadway music was to the pop culture of the period: In an interview shortly after President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy recalled that he liked to relax in the evening by listening to the Broadway cast album from Camelot. The image stuck. The Kennedy administration has been referred to as "Camelot" ever since.

Since 1970, Broadway music has had its ups and downs. No cast albums cracked the top 30 in the '70s, but, more recently, Dreamgirls and Rent muscled into the top 20. Both of those musicals were turned into movies, as were such other stage musicals as Chicago, Hairspray and Mamma Mia!

What's the most successful cast album of all time? There are three possible answers to that question. The cast album with the longest run at #1 is South Pacific, which had 69 weeks on top, starting in 1949. The cast album with the most weeks on the chart is My Fair Lady, which amassed 480 weeks on the chart, starting in 1959. The best-selling cast album of the Nielsen/SoundScan era is 1987's The Phantom Of The Opera. The two-CD set and a single-disk album of highlights have sold a combined  7,448,000 copies since 1991.

Who are the successful Broadway composers of all time? Here there are two possible answers. Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein wrote four of the 13 musicals that spawned #1 cast albums-Carousel, South Pacific, Flower Drum Song and The Sound Of Music. Andrew Lloyd Webber is the theater composer whose shows have grossed the most. The Englishman's many blockbusters include Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats and The Phantom Of The Opera.

Here's a decade-by-decade recap of cast album lore, working backwards.

                                                The 2000s

Wicked is the best-selling cast album of this decade, with sales of 1,748,000 copies since its release in 2004. Stephen Schwartz wrote the show, which starred Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth. Schwartz also wrote Godspell, which was the second highest-charting cast album of the 1970s.

A pair of "jukebox musicals" built around the hits of ABBA and the 4 Seasons are runners-up. Mamma Mia! has sold 1,575,000 copies since its release in 2001. Jersey Boys has sold 895,000 copies since its release in 2006.

The highest-charting cast album of the 2000s is Disney's The Little Mermaid, which debuted (and peaked) at #26 in March 2008. The show was based on the 1989 animated movie. But the achievement needs to carry an asterisk: The CD was bundled with tickets to the show, and pre-orders counted.

                                                The 1990s

Rent is both the best-selling and highest-charting cast album released in the '90s. The two-CD album has sold 1,220,000 copies since its release in 1996. (A single-disk album of highlights has sold 404,000 additional copies.) The cast album debuted (and peaked) at #19 in September 1996, which made it the first cast album to reach the top 20 since Dreamgirls in 1982. Rent famously opened off Broadway the same day that its composer, Jonathan Larson, died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35.

The second and third best-selling cast albums of the '90s are The Lion King, which has sold 783,000 copies since its release in 1997, and the original London cast recording of Miss Saigon, which has sold 729,000 since its release in 1990. The Lion King became a Broadway show three years after the release of the animated movie of the same name. Elton John, who co-wrote the show with Tim Rice, has gone on to compose two other shows, Aida and this year's Billy Elliot-The Musical.

                                                The 1980s

The original London cast recording of The Phantom Of The Opera is the best-selling cast album released in the '80s. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart co-wrote the show, which starred Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman.

This was the second straight decade in which a Webber show generated the decade's top-charting cast album. Jesus Christ Superstar, which he co-wrote with Tim Rice, was the top-charting cast album of the '70s. Webber and Rice also had a hit with 1982's Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Phantom wasn't the only 1987 cast album to sell in the millions. Les Miserables, released that same year, was also a giant hit. Dreamgirls was the highest-charting cast album from the '80s. It hit #11 in 1982, becoming the highest-charting cast album since Hair hit #1 in 1969.

                                                The 1970s

After playing a leading role in popular culture from the '40s through the '60s, Broadway music was relegated to a supporting role in the '70s. No cast albums made the top 30 on Billboard's weekly pop chart during that decade, though three came close. Jesus Christ Superstar, with Ben Vereen and Yvonne Elliman, reached #31 in 1972. Godspell reached #34 in 1972. The Wiz, which introduced Stephanie Mills, hit #43 in 1975. Jesus Christ Superstar spawned a pair of top 15 hits: Murray Head's "Superstar" and Yvonne Elliman's "I Don't Know How To Love Him."

The cast albums to two of the decade's biggest Broadway hits, A Chorus Line and Annie, didn't reach the top 50. Cast albums from such blockbuster shows would have made the top 10 with ease 10 or 15 years earlier, but times had changed.

A bright spot for Broadway music came in 1975, when Stephen Sondheim's "Send In The Clowns" from A Little Night Music won the Grammy for Song of the Year. It was the first theater song to take that award since Jerry Herman's "Hello, Dolly!" in 1964.

                                                The 1960s

Two vastly different Broadway cast albums book-ended the '60s. The Sound Of Music was #1 for 16 weeks in 1960. Hair, the tribal rock musical, was #1 for 13 weeks in 1969. The Sound Of Music had the longest run at #1 for a cast album since 1949's South Pacific.  Hair was significant as the first major Broadway hit to reflect the sound and sensibility of rock. Four songs from the show reached the top five on the pop chart, more than from any other show in history.

Camelot, with Julie Andrews, Richard Burton and Robert Goulet, had six weeks on top in 1961. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote the show. This was the second time in five years that they teamed with Andrews for a chart-topping cast album. She also starred in their 1956 classic My Fair Lady.

Two other cast albums hit #1 in the '60s. Carnival, with Anna Maria Alberghetti, was #1 for one week in 1961. Hello, Dolly!, with Carol Channing, was #1 for one week in 1964. Two other cast albums from that decade deserve mention, even though they didn't make #1. 1964's Fiddler On The Roof and 1966's Man Of La Mancha each remained on the chart for more than three years.

                                                The 1950s

My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, was #1 for 15 weeks. It remained on the chart for 480 weeks, a total topped by only two albums in history. Two songs from the show reached the top 20: "On The Street Where You Live" (for both Vic Damone and Eddie Fisher) and "I Could Have Danced All Night" (for Sylvia Sims).

Three other cast albums hit #1 in the '50s. The Music Man, with Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, was #1 for 12 weeks in 1958. Flower Drum Song, with Miyoshi Umeki, was #1 for three weeks in 1959.  Guys And Dolls, with Robert Alda (Alan Alda's father), was #1 for one week in 1951.

Two other cast albums from the 1950s deserve mention. 1951's The King And I (from yet another Rodgers & Hammerstein smash) peaked at #2. 1958's West Side Story peaked at #5. West Side Story, a collaboration between Leonard Bernstein and future Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, remained on the chart for 191 weeks.

                                                The 1940s

South Pacific, with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, logged a total of 69 weeks on top, more than any other album in history (cast album or otherwise). This was the second time that Rodgers & Hammerstein had the longest-running #1 cast album of the decade. They also scored with The Sound Of Music in the '60s. Martin starred in both shows. "Some Enchanted Evening," the most famous song from South Pacific, became a #1 hit for Perry Como.

Three other cast albums hit #1 in the '40s. Kiss Me, Kate, with Alfred Drake, was #1 for 10 weeks in 1949. Carousel, with John Raitt (Bonnie Raitt's father), was #1 for six weeks in 1945. Song Of Norway, with Lawrence Brooks and Kitty Carlisle, was #1 for two weeks in 1945. Cole Porter wrote Kiss Me, Kate. Song Of Norway was an operetta based on the life and music of Norwegian classical composer Edvard Grieg.

Paul Grein writes the Chart Watch blog which appears on the site each Wednesday. His favorite Broadway show is A Chorus Line, though he wishes he'd seen Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady.

Find Tickets

View Comments