On Cast Recordings vs. Soundtracks

This post was originally meant to go at the beginning of my forthcoming post on why The Lightning Thief is a perfect cast recording, but it spiraled out a little more than I had anticipated, and I figured it would be a good enough guide to other future topics that I decided to extract it into its own post.

While this post highlights the differences between a soundtrack and a cast recording, I do use the terms “cast recording” and “cast album” interchangeably.

I feel like it can come off as condescending when people judge others on their misuse of the term “soundtrack” in describing a cast recording, and far be it from me to correct others who use the two interchangeably as I can sometimes be guilty of the same thing (“soundtrack” is just sooo much easier to say than “cast album” or “cast recording”), but I do think there’s an important distinguishment to make. For the longest time, I didn’t even understand what the difference really was–if there’s a filmed version of a musical, is the album from that filmed version a soundtrack or cast recording? Are movie musicals soundtracks or cast recordings? If the underscoring for a musical is recorded onto an album, would that be a soundtrack and or a cast album? Some of these, I still don’t know–but I was listening to an episode of The Original Cast podcast when the host, Patrick Flynn, mentioned how movie soundtracks always seem “cold” as compared to a cast recording. Thinking about it, I do think there’s something sterile about a movie soundtrack (even to a movie musical!) compared to the vibrantness of a cast album, and part of that difference is also contained within the names themselves.

The Soundtrack to Your Life

When you hear a song and refer to it as “the soundtrack to my life”, you probably picture it as the background song that plays during events in your life that happens to coincide with what’s happening. Thus, the soundtrack is really there to provide support for what’s happening centerstage (or rather, whatever’s on the screen) instead of being the vehicle that allows things to happen. Most movie soundtracks are mostly just the instrumental passages that create the mood of a scene (or, in more recent movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Hunger Games, a curated playlist that evokes a certain mood for the movie), but the songs and lyrics aren’t necessarily meant to correspond one-to-one to things that are happening in the movie.

The other thing about a soundtrack is that most of the time it’s almost exactly the track that is used in the movie itself (rather than something recorded specifically for the soundtrack album), with just enough editing to formulate the way it starts and ends. That’s not to say that these songs aren’t works of art in their own way, as they also fulfill a purpose in underscoring the emotion or energy of a certain scene, and the best scores allow you to imagine what kind of scene would be going on. And that’s fine, but the ones that really suffer are the soundtracks of movie musicals, where the songs being sung are the ones that should actually tell the story, not just support it.

The Living Cast Recording

I think the name of a cast recording underlines the “living” aspect of it–it’s only one recording of a particular cast of a piece of art that can grow and change as it takes on multiple other casts. To me there really is no “definitive” cast recording of any show (looking at you, Miss Saigon) because as long as the work exists and people keep putting it on, the casts will keep changing; after all, a future recording could always take on that “definitive” title. Theater is a living artform, as it can differ even nightly based on the energy in the room and how the actors are feeling. Thus, the cast recording can only attempt to capture a snapshot of what happens onstage each night, whereas movies are only rarely changed after they have been released, and can remain the “definitive” version of themselves since there really can only be one version.

But cast recordings aspire to do more than just take a snapshot of a night at the theater, otherwise all cast recordings would just be live recordings. Because of its particular constraints, theater can’t be consumed in the mass audience fashion that movies and TV shows are. Cast recordings attempt to bridge this gap by offering a somewhat comprehensive audio experience of a show. Many Broadway stars have talked about how when they lived outside of NYC, a cast album would be their way of experiencing and knowing a show that they’d fall in love with.

This has led to the inclusion of dialogue on a recording in an attempt to help guide the listener to what’s happening in the scene around a song, especially as albums moved to a digital format unconstricted by length limits. While some people may believe that there’s no place for dialogue on a cast recording, I do enjoy the context it provides, given that the dialogue doesn’t continue on for too long. It’s a bit jarring whenever a playlist on shuffle delivers a constant stream of music only to stop abruptly because of an extended dialogue scene.

The Jersey Boys cast recording neatly sidesteps this issue by extracting the dialogue into separate tracks, whereas songs like “If You Were Gay” take too long to get to the song proper, which results in me leaving it off some of my showtune playlists even though I do think the song itself is quite catchy. While this doesn’t necessarily fit for all musicals, I do find that some instrumental underscoring for dialogue can go a long way in allowing it to not seem so stark while also leading into the sung portions better.

While the same goes for sound effects, I find that those are generally less distracting overall as they don’t tend to interrupt the flow of a song and actually enhance the experience instead. The same goes for a tap break, though there is something to be said for being able to hear just the instrumentals of a song without dancing over it.

A cast recording can also give the artists room to expand on their work in a way that’s simply not possible on stage. Certain physical motions may disrupt the flow of an actor’s breathing in a song, but they can make a choice about how much of that to include on the recording and how they (and the music director) think it should ultimately sound. Additionally, another constraint that is oftentimes removed on the recording is the size of the orchestra. Broadway orchestras seem to be constantly shrinking, hovering now around the size of a 5-10 person rock band. Part of this may be due to physical constraints of the venue or budgetary constraints of the production, but because the recording of the cast album is generally a one-time deal, it allows a little more freedom to really expand on the sound of the show and deepen the auditory texture it creates. A rather peculiar instance of this occurred in the Off-Broadway run of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins where the production itself only had three orchestra members, but it was completely fleshed out to 13 members for the cast recording by Michael Starobin.

The Ultimate Album

If you ask theater fans what their favorite cast recording of a heavily revived show is, you’re bound to end up in a rather heated argument somewhere down the line. Do you pick the Original London Cast Recording of Les Miserables with the inimitable Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, or do you choose the 2010 live album with new orchestrations and all the little extras that come from a live recording? Even just a Youtube video of someone singing a particular song can generate comments comparing them to all the other people who have also recorded that same song, as if there can only be one best recording and all the others are irrelevant as a result.

What I think these people fail to grasp is the very sense of “liveliness” that I mentioned. Just about every actor will bring something different to a song, and the joy of experiencing theater is seeing how a different actor might take on that role. It’s the reason that we have so many revivals of Gypsy and Les Miserables and Fiddler on the Roof. We want to see other people in these roles and discover new things about the characters in these situations–the current 2019 revival of Oklahoma! is a fantastic example of this.

And while I have my own preferences regarding my favorite cast recordings (I vastly prefer the Canadian Cast Recording of Phantom of the Opera to the widely acclaimed Royal Albert Hall Recording), it’s almost a pity that movie soundtracks don’t take the opportunity to try to produce something closer to that of a cast recording. While the argument can be made that movies don’t need to recreate the world through their soundtracks because movies can just be watched again, the soundtracks of movie musicals in particular suffer from the in-betweenness of what they try to achieve.

As movie musical soundtracks aren’t rerecorded, a lot of things that work in the movie just don’t work in a soundtrack album. Les Miserables (again) is a prime example of this. While the creative team for Les Mis patted themselves on the back for recording all the actors singing live rather than in a studio, it really made the soundtrack difficult to listen to (though a lot of that had to do with the sound mixing), especially since many of the actors weren’t quite used to singing a score like this or were just grossly miscast. Which is a shame especially since Les Mis is a sung through musical where the whole story can be understood through its cast recording.

On the flip side, the most recent remake of A Star is Born seemed to try to create a soundtrack more akin to that of a cast recording, including dialogue to give background to scenes. But while they did try to tell the full story through the soundtrack, the actual songs are still the exact ones used in the movie, and the soundtrack doesn’t flow through the different numbers as well as most cast recordings do, feeling more choppily edited together with the dialogue tracks thrown in to give a sense of where we are in the movie’s events.

Overall, in terms of telling a story, I believe that cast recordings are far superior, and really bring to life what happens on stage, even if it’s not quite the same as how it happens on stage. Movie soundtracks have their own role and purpose, but it’s not the same as that of a cast recording, which is why the distinction is necessary to have. And while people may quibble on the finer points of what makes a perfect cast recording (should it be more responsible for telling the story of the show or should it preserve the show as it was on stage?), my personal preference is that a cast album ultimately represents the full show as best it can with only audio, an adaptation of a musical to an album much like books have been adapted to movies and TV shows. While changes are not the root of all evil, they must preserve the same spirit of the original material with the intent of improving it for this new medium.

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