By Ron Fassler
As a kid in the 1960s and 70s and totally infatuated with Broadway, listening to a cast album was as close as I could get to the real thing. There was no internet to go on, or YouTube and watch clips, and no such thing as streaming on your television screen. There wasn’t Google, so if you wondered about who this Tammy Grimes with the odd voice was in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, you needed to go to the library and look her up (and believe me, I did). No, the only real way to enter the world of the Broadway musical was by listening to records (yes, records!), which I did with joy and abandon (and still do).
But there was something else back in the day that furthered the intrigue and laid the ground for my own personal curiosity about who was behind all of these wonderful shows. Sometimes the back of the album jacket would include photos and bios of the creatives behind the scenes. The prolific producer David Merrick often made sure to provide this information (Hello, Dolly! and The Happy Time come immediately to mind), and for someone as hungry as I was to learn everything they could, all of this was invaluable to me. This is how I first discovered who Harold Prince was, when I saw his photo on the back jacket of the Fiddler on the Roof album. Most importantly, it’s where I learned why his inclusion there among Jerome Robbins, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein and Zero Mostel was so necessary (after all, what did a ten-year-old like me know what a producer did?).
I would read these mini-bios (in tiny print) and it was truly the beginning of my theatrical education. Of course, the main attraction of these records was that they allowed me to imagine what shows looked like on stage, the same anyone might do today. However, at the time of this obsession, record albums sold for around $3 to $4, making them a bit costly and out of my reach. I was a little kid—I had no money.
That all changed when my dad purchased a reel-to-reel tape recorder (a Philips, if I recall correctly). With this hefty forty-pound machine in my house, I would now be able to take albums out on loan from the local library and make my own tapes of cast recordings that I could play to my heart’s content. This allowed me to build a collection, but it didn’t mean I could go crazy. There was still the cost of the blank tapes to contend with, so I had to be choosy with what I chose. One particular bonus though, was that the two-sided aspect of the tapes made it possible for me to record two albums for the price of one tape. Nice.
And anything I recorded was a gift, since it meant adding to my then-library of two (count them, two) albums. One was I Do! I Do!, which I was given on my tenth birthday (I mean, what else do you give a kid with a hero worship of Robert Preston?). And besides, it made for a perfect match with the other album I owned, yes—The Music Man. And let me make note of an interesting distinction here: my album was the film’s soundtrack, not the original Broadway cast recording. This made perfect sense, as it was the movie of The Music Man that started the Indiana Jones-sized ball rolling for me with a love for musicals, seeing the film as I did at the age of five, when it played the Radio City Music Hall in 1962.
In fact, it would be years before I ever heard The Music Man’s Broadway cast recording, as I continuously passed on it while perusing the titles available for me to take home from the library. At that time, my awareness of the few books written on the history of the American Musical was nil, so I had no compass to point me in the right direction… which is why I wound up bringing home some pretty odd stuff.
For every My Fair Lady there was a Mr. President. Not a hit, but fortunately it was recorded. Happily so, as it turned out to be the last show written by Irving Berlin. And with no knowledge of what constituted a good score from a bad one, I often made my choices at the library off the album covers, not dissimilar from how (I’m sorry to admit) I pick out a bottle of wine. What can I say? An attractive label goes a long way with me. Which is how I’m sure I ended up bringing home from the library 1967’s Illya Darling, with its bright yellow background and captivating illustration of Melina Mercouri encouraging a look-see? I mean, what did it really matter how I made up my mind in those days? I learned a lot either way, in spite of a far less-discerning ear. Back then, I readily admit I didn’t care much for Mr. President either, but trust me—it’s A Little Night Music compared to Illya Darling.
The effort that went into how I listened to records back in the 1960s was totally dependent upon my home town of Great Neck’s four libraries. I went to ALL of them in search of records to record for my own personal library. I would get on my bicycle and ride miles to see what might be in the collections, long before there was anything like an online catalog. If you wanted to know what was at a specific library, you went there in person, then thumbed through long drawers jammed with index cards. While doing various research these last few years, I have discovered that this antiquated method is still in use at some libraries. Call me old fashioned, but I kind of like going through these dog-eared cards. It makes me feel like I’m a part of something that a cold computer would never allow.
And the Philips tape recorder that my dad brought home one day back in 1967? I can tell you right now (without even asking my mom) that it’s still where it has always been—behind the bar in our basement—no doubt inoperable, without the ability to play or record.
But oh, if only it could talk. The stories it would tell.