Broadway Cast Albums Find Fresh Footing With Hip New Sounds, Viral Outreach

Mixtapes. YouTube videos. Dedicated playlists. Ancillary products. Viral marketing. Epic chart stays. These are things you expect to hear from a record label discussing Cardi B or Beyoncé. Instead, this is the new world of a very old staple, the Broadway original cast recording.

Robust stats tell the tale: Atlantic’s “Hamilton” album beat the record held by Adele’s “21” for longest stay in the sales top 40, with an awareness assist from auxiliary releases like “The Hamilton Mixtape” (starring the Roots and Chance the Rapper) and monthly online “Hamildrops.” The same label’s “Dear Evan Hansen” had the highest chart debut for a cast album since “Camelot” in 1961 and proved popular among young people who still only aspire to see a Broadway show someday.

The indie Ghostlight label issued an album of Joe Iconis’ “Be More Chill” score when it was still launching in New Jersey and racked up 200 million streams, a number so powerful that off-Broadway and eventually Broadway producers took notice — with those bigger productions helping add another 100 million-plus streams to its total. With stories like these, it’s no wonder Decca Broadway, the label behind the first-ever cast album, 1943’s “Oklahoma!,” has just been relaunched.

Variety spoke with Atlantic A&R president Pete Ganbarg, responsible for bringing “Hamilton” and the upcoming “Jagged Little Pill” to the label; Dickon Stainer, Universal Classics’ president/CEO; and Ghostlight label co-founder Kurt Deutsch about rethinking the original Broadway cast recording as pop.

Variety: There seems to be a hunger for Broadway albums among younger audiences in particular. Why now? 
Pete Ganbarg: I am a big believer that everything is cyclical. When I was growing up, I remember my family listening to the original cast album of “A Chorus Line” on long car trips, singing “One Singular Sensation.” For me, that was as much a part of the pop fabric as anything on the radio. Everybody knew “Dance 10, Looks 1.” Five years before that, there was “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It’s the right show coming around and connecting with an audience that doesn’t even know they’ve been waiting for it. We got lucky as a label when we decided to jump in on “Hamilton” head first. What Lin was doing was so unique and special and the songs were so amazing and different … it was unlike anything we had ever done before, whether Broadway was hot or not.
Kurt Deutsch: Now, you can reach audiences around the world with the way streaming works. It’s changed the dynamic so significantly. Musically, there have always been fans like me who grew up in St. Louis who didn’t have the opportunity to be in New York when an amazing show opened, who lived that through cast albums. Now there are communities and tribes for any inclusivity and sound, like a Comic-Con. That’s what happened with “Be More Chill.” That tribe found itself — a tribe that exists all over the world. The same with “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Heathers.” If the story moves them emotionally, those people, generally young and high school music students, will watch the YouTube videos and listen to the music over and over again, just like I did with  “Hair” the movie or the DVD of “Pippin” — especially now because the music is so readily available. If had known there were a million people out there that had the same interests as me, the community where I hung in St. Louis would’ve have felt much larger.
Ganbarg: We now take it for granted that “Hamilton” is “Hamilton.” But having to pitch it to people inside the company before it existed — only workshopped, not even at the Public Theatre as yet — was a wacky pitch. Imagine me telling the deal committee that whenever you record a Broadway cast album, it is super-expensive due to all the union fees, actors, musicians, everything literally on the clock — stopwatch even. Depending on the number of songs you are recording, it can get even more expensive: “Dear Evan Hansen” is 14 songs; “Hamilton” has 46 songs. Then there is the further pitch: not just that it’s 46 songs, but a new musical about the founding fathers, the American Revolution and its after-effects. And, by the way, all of the fathers are played by actors of color, and it’s all hip-hop, and some of the raps are about states’ origins and the Federal Reserve … You can feel the window opening and you being prepared to be thrown out the window. But it’s art and it’s not supposed to be always logical.

Kurt, when you first saw “Be More Chill” exploding, what went through your mind?
Deutsch: When I first saw the show in New Jersey, I think I said to (composer) Joe Iconis that “Michael in the Bathroom” was destined to be sung by kids forever, as it touches on the angst of being an outsider; that’s what a lot of musical theater fans feel like. Joe’s music speaks to that in a way no songwriter right now writing today speaks to it. I think “The Last Five Years” was like that; this totally intimate musical that died after 9/11 has become something virally. Going back to “Be More Chill”: We sold a few albums at first, then noticed that people were watching the YouTube videos such as “Michael in the Bathroom” that we made. We saw Tumblr and Animatics things that the fans created, and it all started to snowball in a very homemade, organic way. It was beyond our control. Once we saw that, we began feeding the fire with more content. But we couldn’t force-feed or go over the top; kids know what’s real and not real.

Is it fair to say that the success of streaming capabilities in regard to the success of “Hamilton,” “Evan Hansen” or “Mean Girls” is similar?
Ganbarg: Yes. People hear their music this way, now. When we working on “Hamilton,” we worked first on “Hamilton”-related playlists that were highlighting the new sound of Broadway. If you were a fan of Lin’s first show, “In the Heights,” we capitalized on that success. We used the digital streaming platforms as a marketing tool with playlisting, making sure that you could find our music wherever you were looking. Word got out that the show was something special. We made sure people knew that they could consume them however they liked.
Deutsch: I should say, though, where Ghostlight is concerned, shows such as “Tina,” “Beautiful” and “The Cher Show” —those are album-buying audiences. They like physicals. They’re not into streaming so much. If “Be More Chill” is 90% streaming, “Beautiful” is 70% physical hard copies. “In the Heights” and “Book of Mormon” have both gone gold. “Beautiful” and “Newsies” are up there. “Legally Blonde” and “The Last Five Years” have sold well. Our “Hair” and “Pippin” revivals were big for us via our physical versions.

Famously, Decca Broadway released the first-ever cast album with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” Now, here you are, Dickon, with the newly-relaunched Decca Broadway, reconnecting with that classic American musical in 2019. Is it fair to say you timed the relaunch to your re-connecting with that musical?
Dickon Stainer: Decca Broadway has such a storied legacy, having released the first ever cast album in 1943 of “Oklahoma!,” so when we knew we were going to release the cast album for the revival, we of course wanted to emphasize the connection. We are also releasing the cast album for “Tootsie,” so to be releasing the cast albums for two Tony-nominated shows to relaunch our label is an honor. … Decca Broadway now is part of Verve Label Group, among other storied and iconic imprints such as Verve, Impulse!, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and more. We have a renewed sense of purpose with Decca Broadway — the team believes in the artform and there are many exciting shows that we are looking forward to aligning ourselves with to continue the legacy of the label. “Wicked” and “Phantom” made huge cultural waves at the time; we hope to be a part of that again.

“Hamilton” had its ancillary associated projects such as Hamilldrops and its remix album. “Be More Chill” had its viral YouTube videos. How do you see these marketing ideas affecting other shows you’re associated with? 
Ganbarg: You always want to be able to lean into consumer demand. Once we knew that we had something special, the idea was to give the consumer more about what they were excited to hear. Lin did not want to release a cast album first. He wanted to release a mixtape first. Remember, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a concept album before it was a stage musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted people to fall in love with the music and the songs first. By the time the show was staged, everyone knew all the songs. As “Hamilton” was written by Lin in a hip-hop place, he could get rappers together to do these songs. Eventually he changed his mind and went the traditional route, but it was in the back of all of our minds to do a mixtape. We just did it when the audience was ready for it. Once it became a phenomenon after the Tonys, we got calls from artists asking us about doing covers of the songs. So Chance the Rapper, Busta Rhymes and John Legend became part of the Mixtape. Now, because you don’t want to go to the well too many times and do “Hamilton mixtape Volume 17,” the idea of the Hamildrops came from Lin himself — something new every month in 2018, finishing up with the “44” remix of “One Last Time” with Barack Obama.
Deutsch: I have been heavily involved with “Alice by Heart,” a show by Duncan Shiek and Steven Sater. We’ve been on it a number of years … a beautiful production. When people hear the score they will respond in a way that is akin to “Be More Chill.” It has that “Spring Awakening” feel, but it is a tragic love story between these two people. In thinking about the marketing of “Alice by Heart,” and how the audience grew from its first performance and the Twitter fans who followed it by the end of its 10-week run, there were a hundred kids waiting for the cast outside, similar to the “Be More Chill” crowds. The kids know what they love. I think of “Beetlejuice” and the character of Lydia as the gateway to a similar audience. Songs like “Dead Mom” have a similar sense of sticky humor. “Heathers” too, very much, too.

Broadway has a handsome track record for making its biggest stars into pop stars, from Streisand to Idina Menzel. What can a label do for a burgeoning star beyond Broadway? Do you try to build composers as stars, too?
Ganbarg: Broadway music is popular music. As an A&R exec, I know that there are no new ideas, just new ways of applying them and new voices to apply them with. When we were at the opening of “Dear Evan Hansen,” my boss turned to me at intermission and asked me to run backstage and sign Ben Platt to a solo deal immediately. Which we did. If Lin wanted to do a solo album, we’d jump at the chance. The problem is if you do too many, you dilute the market and the special nature of the Broadway star coming off of the stage and into the arms of contemporary music fans.
Deutsch: If we hadn’t made a recording of Joe’s show in NJ, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. When Joe does his next work, I’ll be there. … We did “Dogfight” with Pasek & Paul right before “Dear Evan Hansen,” but people have been revisiting “Dogfight” because they want to hear the body of work. The same with Jason Robert Brown with “Last Five Years,” “13,” “Bridges of Madison County” and all of his solo records that I have released. That’s a tremendous responsibility, maintaining all that.

What do you want to hear from a soundtrack that you believe makes it a hit? Is it one anthemic song? Or an overall vibe?
Ganbarg: When you see a show and you want to hear its soundtrack, it’s because the entire show moved you. You want to recapture that emotion after you leave the theater. The best, most pure way to do that is with a cast soundtrack of the show you just saw. We knew from day one that we had 14 great Pasek & Paul songs on “Dear Even Hansen,” but in “Waiting for a Window,” we had a song that was instantly recognizable, something we could attach to something more. Not only did Ben Platt’s “Window” anchor all of the advertising online and on television, ultimately we, like with “Hamilton,” had other artists coverin