Musicals are one of the few forms of theatre - invariably a transitory, in-the-moment experience - that can continue playing long after the curtain comes down. Thanks to the industry of Original Cast Recordings, a key part of a show's experience (the music and the lyrics) can be experienced vicariously, without actually being there.

And buying CDs is a whole lot cheaper, in the case of trying to catch up with what's happening on Broadway, than actually flying over there and seeing the shows themselves. (In fact, with tickets for musicals now hitting £50 and £55 in the West End, it's cheaper staying at home with the CD here, too).

Of course, cast recordings don't offer the whole picture, but they are the next best thing, and just occasionally - when the worth of the score eclipses the show it's supposed to illuminate, as with The Baker's Wife, the French version of Romeo and Juliet or Broadway's Jekyll and Hyde, to name a few examples - they're a better thing.

On Broadway Last Season

A prime example of the latter from the Broadway season just ended is the fatally overblown revival of Man of La Mancha, which in a reversal of what some say of small children, is best heard on a recording and not seen. In my previous New York Nights review of the production, I wrote: "The least said, the better: consider it a blip in (former Almeida joint artistic director) Jonathan Kent's otherwise impeccable record that his first major musical should be so monumentally misguided, starting with Paul Brown's monumental set. Broadway's reigning leading man, Brian Stokes Mitchell, plays the title role with the fiercest of singing voices but the feeblest of acting performances."

But listening to the fine recording (RCA, 09026-64007-2), you don't suffer the sight of the vertigo-inducing set or its star's melodramatic acting. Instead, you just get a full-blooded account of Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's throbbing, powerful score, and yes, Stokes Mitchell really does hit that impossible note in the show's most famous song, "The Impossible Dream".

With the far more successful revival of Maury Yeston's Nine, you inevitably miss the stunning visuals of David Leveaux's production, but this aurally captivating musical is given the best-yet overall interpretation of the four recordings I now have of it on the new cast album (PS Classics, PS-312; the other three available being the original Broadway cast, the original Australian cast and the London concert cast). That's largely due to Antonio Banderas, whose stunning performance marks him out as one of the most remarkable leading men of our time, around whom a swirl of gorgeous women inevitably revolve.

Movin' Out is choreographer Twyla Tharp's bold narrative dance setting of a collection of old Billy Joel songs, all of them previously available in the composer's own interpretations. But the new cast album (Sony Classical, SK 87877) is entirely justifiable and a pleasure in its own right, both for pulling all the songs heard in the show together in one place as well as for onstage pianist-singer Michael Cavanaugh's remarkable channelling of Joel himself as he delivers startlingly powerful versions of these great pop songs.

Of the new scores recently heard on Broadway, there was no contest for Best New Musical score. Only Hairspray lasted out the season and, in Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman's witty 1960s musical pastiche, it swept up most naysayers with its irresistible feelgood charms. But Hairspray must also be one of the few musicals in which the Tony Award for best performance by a leading actor in a musical went to someone who can't so much sing as croak, Harvey Fierstein. There's not much of his performance actually on the CD, for which one can only say, much relief (Sony Classical, SK 87708).

Of the other new shows that have come and gone, some are not entirely forgotten. The CD for the short-lived Michel Legrand musical Amour (Sh-K-Boom Records, 4003-2) reveals a beguiling, minor-key score (enchantingly performed by a cast led by Malcolm Gets and Melissa Errico) but a show whose quirky charms were always going to be a tough sell in a spectacle-led Broadway. Others, however, are thankfully entirely forgotten, like the unrecorded, dismal Michael Crawford starring vehicle, Dance of the Vampires. Only flop collectors and the star's fans would have wished to be reminded of that expensive, and all that remains is a promo CD of some of the songs (not available for commercial sale and also, thankfully, without Crawford's inflated vocals).

Two revivals, also no longer with us, are available, however. Puccini's La Boheme, seen on Broadway in Baz Luhrmann's stunning staging, can be heard on a highlights CD (Dreamworks Records, 0044-50408-2) offering different sections of the score sung by all three of the rotating casts that played the lead roles of Mimi and Rodolfo, including Britain's Alfred Boe in the latter role with a notably rich and resonant vocal quality that he captivatingly matched as an actor on stage at the final performance I saw of the show. Although the attempt to reclaim Rodgers and Hammerstein's long-neglected Flower Drum Song failed to take the town, a cast led by Lea Salonga (the original Kim of Miss Saigon in London) lovingly renders its lovely score (DRG 12996).

Off-Broadway Last Season

From the last off-Broadway season, two important albums offer the chance to hear scores for shows that not too many people actually saw in the theatre. Both A Man of No Importance, with a score by Ahrens and Flaherty (best known for Once on This Island and Ragtime) and William Finn's song cycle Elegies played all-too-briefly at Lincoln Center's tiny Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. I was delighted to catch both and am even more pleased to have them live permanently on via CD.

The first is a beautiful Irish-inflected show about which I said in my New York Nights review, "this lovely little musical unfolds with an earnest delicacy as it tells the story of a Dublin bus conductor (Roger Rees) with a very verbal passion for Oscar Wilde and an unspoken one for the driver of the bus he works". On the recording (CDJAY1369), it's an enchanting musical storytelling experience.

William Finn's Elegies is ideal for an album (Fynsworth Alley, FA-2189), since the staging was mostly static and the drama lives in the deliberately elegiac songs (hence the title) and the thrilling vocal performances, in particular, of the always fiercely dramatic Betty Buckley and Carolee Carmello, the latter of whom is fast-tracking to major diva status.

The Previous Season

Thoroughly Modern Millie - now bound for an October opening, starring Amanda Holden, at London's Shaftesbury Theatre (See News, 5 Jun, 19 Jun & 7 Jul 2003) - was re-dubbed 'Thoroughly Mediocre Millie' by some Broadway wags when it opened there in April 2002. But in a world of the blind where the one-eyed man is king, it swept the major Tony Awards to be named Best Musical in a mediocre season.

In fact, Millie is a new show that looks (and sounds) like an old one, with a score that is a hybrid of old songs from the 1960s movie (set in the 1920s) and new ones in a similar style by Jeanine Tesori. The show feels somewhat manufactured, but the album (RCA Victor 9026-63959-2) contains lots of incidental pleasures, none of which seem accidental, in this expertly contrived hit that has been built to fire on all cylinders and simply deliver.

Far more quirky is the Brecht/Weill-like Urinetown, which, in 2001, transferred from an off-off Broadway run to a Broadway one just days after September 11th, yet is still going strong. The album (RCA Victor, 09026-63821-2) contains the hilarious scene-setting narration from the opening that helpfully contextualises a show that envisages a future where people have to pay to pee.


Finally, for long-running shows, while original casts may be a long distant memory, at least the pleasure can be re-claimed on CD regardless of who's actually now headlining the show. So, on The Producers album (Sony Classical, SK89646), you get Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in all their hilarious glory, performing Mel Brooks' appealing pastiche score that may not be great music but is the perfect match of form and content. And, on the album for the revival of Chicago (RCA Victor, 09026-68727-2), while neither Ann Reinking nor Bebe Neuwirth are the best Roxie and Velma you've ever heard sing the roles, this sexy, scintillating score nevertheless comes through in all its sassy glory.

A little bit of Rent goes a long way, in my own opinion, and the two-disc set (Dreamworks Records, DRMD2-50003) therefore probably goes too far, though completists will be happy that for once a show hasn't been shrunk to fit the 70-odd minutes playing time of a single CD. (Those who don't need it all can content themselves with the highlights CD). But the ideal cast of then-unknowns - that included the likes of Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L Martin, Taye Diggs, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Idina Menzel, all of whom have gone on to make names for themselves - give it a blazing passion that refuses to die.

So, too, do the three Disney musicals on Broadway, doing for the Great White Way of the 1990s what Cameron Mackintosh did there in the 1980s. First out of the gate was the mostly synthetic, all-too-literal film-to-stage translation of Beauty and the Beast (Walt Disney Records, 60861-7), then came the far more imaginative The Lion King (60802-7), both of them with scores heavily augmented from their original screen versions. But Aida (60671-7) saw Disney creating a new, if not exactly original, stage musical from scratch, with some soaring new pop ballads in its Elton John/Tim Rice score.

In the next CD Watch column, Mark Shenton will turn his ears towards London cast recordings currently available.