Since you can’t attend any live performances at the moment, you have lots of hours to fill with show tunes. But before you combine the Polish recording of “Les Miz” on your playlist with the sad 2010 revival cast album of “A Little Night Music” and cherry-picked highlights from some random “Porgy and Bess,” please heed a few idiosyncratic words of advice from lifelong listeners on how best to make your way through our desert island cast recording lists.
1. Do get the original cast album.
The first Broadway (or Off Broadway) recording is almost always better than any revival, studio, soundtrack, foreign language or London recording. Later versions may have more songs, or may include important new interpretations, and are always worth a listen. But with so few exceptions that you could probably count them on the sides of an LP — the 1968 “Funny Girl” film soundtrack is in many ways an improvement on the 1964 cast album — the original cast is the one that sounds the way it should, with the original orchestra playing the original orchestrations. Decide for yourself with the stage and screen versions of Barbra Streisand singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade”:
2. Don’t shuffle, pause or mutilate.
A great cast album is not a collection of interchangeable songs; it’s a score that builds from start to finish, in the order the authors intended. Listen to the whole thing straight through in one sitting, if possible, or at least a full act at a time. Otherwise you’ll miss how the tension of “Sweeney Todd,” for instance, accumulates (and is not dissipated) by the lighter numbers that interrupt the darker ones. Or how “Hairspray” keeps topping itself on the way to its explosively giddy finale.
3. Do excise any dialogue tracks.
Listening to the interstitial scenes that some cast albums preserve for context can be informative the first time; by the third time you’ll want to plug your ears. This is even true when it’s Audra McDonald, so glorious in the song portions of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” doing the dialogue. Dialogue is not meant, as songs certainly are, to be heard over and over.
4. Don’t read the liner notes.
Except with musicals that are impenetrable without a plot summary — we’re looking at you, “Candide” — it’s better not to know, at least on first listening, what’s going on or what’s coming next. Write your own show in your head as you listen. Learn about the real one later.
5. Do choose your listening companions with care.
Musical comedy is as specific a taste as oysters or Marmite, and the sound of it can induce nausea and even violence in parties who do not share this affinity. Friendships, love affairs and marriages have been known to founder when an aficionado insists that a presumed soul mate sit in reverent silence while “The Golden Apple” fills the air. (Pro tip: Beware of people who refer to cast albums as soundtracks.)
6. Don’t play a cast recording as background music at a party.
The songs on these albums are in themselves a form of speech, of thought set to music, which evolves into a full conversation. Played in a room full of chatty people, this can sound irritatingly competitive. (See: The second version of “Good Thing Going” in the penthouse party scene of “Merrily We Roll Along.” You can find it in the second half of this recording of the 1994 revival — not the original, despite Rule No. 1.)