In the heyday of the Broadway musical, America knew the score—often by heart—thanks to original cast recordings. Show tunes were big business: In the first decade of Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart, from 1956 through 1965, five of the ten No. 1 sellers were OCRs of Broadway shows. (Three more were soundtracks from movie musicals.) Major record labels like Columbia and RCA clamored for their glamour.
Needless to say, times have changed. On Tuesday 17, the original cast recording of the hit musical Legally Blonde is set to splash record stores around the country with its hot-pink Broadway razzmatazz. But like many other recent major shows, Legally Blonde has eschewed the majors and entrusted its music to Ghostlight Records: the cast-album division of Sh-K-Boom Records, a local boutique label cofounded by Kurt Deutsch and his wife, the Broadway bombshell Sherie Rene Scott. (The label’s other recent offerings include Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Drowsy Chaperone and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.) The rise of Ghostlight represents a sea change in the way that Broadway music is preserved and sold: a tide that, if Deutsch has his way, may end up lifting all Broadway boats.
“When I started the company [in 2000], cast albums weren’t part of the scenario by any stretch of the imagination,” Deutsch recalls. “It was about new, young actors that were being overlooked, and bridging the gap between rock & roll and theater.” Among this bright new generation of stars was Scott, who was starring at the time in Broadway’s Aida, and who was interested in recording a set of non-theater music. Deutsch and Scott decided to produce her CD themselves. Lacking distribution, they sold the album on their Web site; lacking ad money, they plugged it in Scott’s Playbill bio. “My feeling was that she was playing to 15,000 people a week on Broadway, and if people liked her then maybe they’d go online and buy her record,” Deutsch says. “We were putting together a relationship between the Internet, the fans and how people sell records.”
Deutsch and Scott set up shop in their apartment’s second bedroom, and went to work. (The company’s offices have since moved to midtown; Deutsch runs the day-to-day operations, but credits Scott with key creative contributions.) “I was the guinea pig to see how this would all work,” Scott says. “What was most exciting to me was the idea of getting my friends and the rest of the community involved, and getting their work out there.” Other prominent performers soon jumped aboard—including Scott’s Aida costar Adam Pascal and her onetime Tommy castmates Alice Ripley and Michael McElroy—and Disney began allowing Scott and Pascal’s solo albums to be sold in Aida’s theater.
It wasn’t until 2001, when Scott was starring Off Broadway in Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, that Sh-K-Boom began working with shows as well as individual artists. “It was at that time that the major labels were really starting to divest their interest in cast albums,” Deutsch says. “I couldn’t believe that nobody wanted to record The Last Five Years.” Sh-K-Boom stepped in, and its recording has been instrumental in boosting the show’s popularity in regional theaters. “It’s had more productions than almost any new musical,” he observes. “The record has allowed that show to have a life.”
The increasingly important role of cast albums as marketing tools—both for musicals that are currently on the boards and those hoping for post-Broadway runs—spurred Deutsch to devise a new approach to financing OCRs, which often cost between $350,000 and $400,000 to produce. (Cast members are paid a full week’s salary for eight hours in the studio, and orchestrators get a “reuse fee” of 100 percent of what they were paid for the original work.) “I started thinking about having the producers become partners with me in investing in the records,” he says. “We’ve kind of created a new business model for cast albums.”
At Ghostlight, the producers of the musical foot part of the bill for the recording—and get a larger share of the album’s profits if it’s a hit. (The company no longer sells albums exclusively online.) And the money that the label earns with its higher-profile offerings helps finance its labors of love: records of important scores that might otherwise disappear, such as Michael John LaChiusa’s Off Broadway musical See What I Wanna See, or Mark Bennett’s incidental music from The Coast of Utopia—flowers of Sh-K-Boom’s deep roots in the Broadway world.
“Sherie and I started this because we love the theater, not necessarily as a means to make money,” Deutsch says. “I’m from St. Louis. Sherie’s from Topeka. We grew up listening to these records; that’s why we’re here.” In rejuvenating the business model for OCRs, Sh-K-Boom isn’t just boosting performers and producers, but helping to preserve an American art form. “A cast album is a piece of history; if a show isn’t recorded, it’s forgotten,” he notes. “I look at it now as a joy and a tremendous responsibility. And, hopefully, a revenue stream.”
The OCR of Legally Blonde hits stores Tue 17. Visit sh-k-boom.com for details.