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Hamilton's chart success is landmark achievement
In a week where Hamilton has once again dominated the theatre news by winning 11 Tony Awards at the 2016 ceremony and also announced a London transfer to hit the West End in October 2017, there seems to be no stopping this juggernaut show. From humble beginnings off-Broadway, the show has played almost a full sell-out year on Broadway, enjoying some of the highest grosses ever seen, and has reportedly paid back its full initial investment.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical is set to reach another milestone this week as Billboard report that the Original Cast Recording is heading to the Top 10 albums chart for the first time. The UK iTunes chart today places the album at #17 in its chart, with the US version of the store, no doubt bolstered by the performances at the Tonys, has reached #1.
In an internet already clogged with discussion on the show you may well ask why does this matter. As a cast recording 'enthusiast' (no, YOU have over 500 physical CD's and 100 LPs) this fact interests me greatly, and is in my opinion wider testimony to the show's implication on pop culture and breaking out of the theatre bubble. Cast recordings are not cheap to make. Aside from the technical production costs, producers must pay a full week's equity wages to the entire cast and band for just one 8 hour recording session. Alongside all the usual costs of marketing, packaging and distribution it can total around $500,000 for a show to produce an original cast album. For shows that have a more limited appeal, and indeed those that are closing/have closed, this investment has to be weighed up against the benefits of having the score preserved, be it for posterity or international and future licensing.
Hamilton, up there with Queen Bey herself in the iTunes charts, is an exception, and an exciting one at that.
One of the key facts of Hamilton's success is that the score has broken new boundaries and crossed over from the traditional Broadway sound into the sound of America in 2016. Unlike jukebox musicals and the like who attempt to drag the sound of outside into the theatre, with varying degrees of success, Manuel has crafted a powerful and unique score that find a new Broadway sound and blends the essential ingredients found in a theatre score with the music that is currently earning radio play and appeals to a much wider section of society.
Of course traditionally that line was never blurred, or even there at all. The marriage between the Billboard Charts and the Broadway theatres was throughout the 1940s and 1950s was harmonious – the radio played the music that was being created specifically for the stage, and cast albums became best sellers all over America and beyond. In 1943 Decca released the first recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! Featuring the full cast backed by a studio orchestra. The music was able to live beyond the theatre and New York City, and became a vital gateway into people feeling 'connected' to the world even if they lived thousands of miles away.
As record labels fought for the rights to record new productions, some record producers ended up being producers in the show itself, in order to secure the lucrative rights to record and distribute the music. Columbia Masterworks became a dominant label, producing the original cast recordings of such shows as The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Gypsy, and Camelot – shows which all included break out hits that would go on to be recorded by popular music stars of their age.
Burt Bacharach's rare foray into musical theatre with Promises, Promises in 1968 proved a significant milestone for cast albums, and the composer objected to the variations in theatrical sound, so used to the world of record-making where perfection and lack of variance could easily be achieved. As the Broadway sound began to grow ever more electronic with the arrival of synthesisers and electric guitars, the general public's consumption of music, fuelled by the arrival of rock music and influences such as The Beatles, the Billboard charts began to break away from Original Cast Recordings.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s some attempt to weld the gap between the two worlds was made by British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber who realised audiences were more likely to see shows if they were already familiar with some of the music. Musicals such as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar started life as concept albums, finding their way into the popular music charts away from any kind of 'book' or context for the general listener.
As Lin-Manuel prepares to see Hamilton's Original Cast Album break through into the Billboard Top 10 he will no doubt be aware how game-changing and significant that move is. It will be the first Cast Recording to reach the Top 10 since The Book of Mormon in 2011, which enjoyed a similar post-Tonys bump and was available at a knock down price on Amazon, peaking at #3 in the Billboard 200.
To date Hamilton's cast recording has sold over 445,000 copies in the USA alone, and that was before the Tony Awards last weekend which was watched by over 8 million Americans. Billboard is predicting that the recording could sell around 35,000 albums this week, breaking through into to Top 10 in all genres. Since its release on 25 September 2015 it has already won the accolade of being the biggest selling cast album released in more than 10 years. The last cast recording released with greater sales is that of Jersey Boys, which has sold 1.4million copies since November 2005.
Whilst Hamilton continues to collect accolade after accolade and boasts everything from a Pulitzer Prize to a Drama Desk Award, its breakthrough into the mainstream iTunes chart and the Billboard 200 marks a significant milestone for musical theatre, and one that deserves to be listened to above the noise.
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