New York Post
Clive Barnes

There is often a radical difference between a musical and its music.

Ideally, a show and its music should match up. Three current shows – "Oklahoma!," "Into the Woods" and "The Producers" – are all from different eras, but each has music that doesn’t just fit; it grooves.

Yet some musicals offer songs and lyrics that far outpace the shows themselves – and sometimes the reverse is true.

So how do you look past a crummy production to see a terrific score?

This is where the original cast CD comes in, for here is where you can take in a score naked and unadorned. And you may be surprised by how different your reaction is listening later at home.

The awesomely underrated, and now defunct, "Sweet Smell of Success" was a superior production to the inventive "Urinetown." But even I, one of "Sweet Smell’s" few defenders, was never persuaded that Marvin Hamlisch’s score outclassed "Urinetown’s" melodies.

Yet could I really know?

The point is that I couldn’t – until listening to the CD of each show, which confirmed my first impressions.

A big surprise, however, arrived with the CD for the Harry Connick Jr. musical "Thou Shalt Not." I gave the show a bad review. Later, I got a chance to listen carefully to the CD and – undistracted by what was happening on stage – I can now say that Connick’s neglected score was, to my fresh ears, the best on Broadway this season.

Had I heard Connick’s music three or four times on CD before seeing the show, I am pretty sure that my criticism of the show wouldn’t have been much different. However, I would have been a lot more enthusiastic about Connick’s music and lyrics, which I called "so-so."

In the case of Jason Robert Brown’s brilliant but woefully dismissed "The Last Five Years," I did have the CD, which meant I knew and appreciated the score well before seeing the tragicomic musical.

It was the most sophisticated score we’ve seen in New York in some time.

So what? you might ask. Well, a lot of people have trouble assessing a score at first – not just critics. But our job is to guide the public, to hail the best shows, and we can’t do that sufficiently without CDs.

And since so many shows stand or fall based on early reviews, the kind of favorable second opinions that come after spending more time with music might arrive too late to save a production.

What might be done?

Producers, who lay out many millions for new musicals, should consider burning a promotional CD for critics, with the understanding that the music is from a final rehearsal and not perfect studio quality.

This way, when critics write their reviews, they can be based on a fuller appreciation of the score.

But critics aren’t the only ones who might benefit from an advance listen. Certainly some musical lovers enjoy the feeling of first confronting a new score in their seats.

Others, however, would no doubt love having an early taste, maybe a melody they can hum on the way to the show and build anticipation for that big number.

Would it be economically possible to mail, say, a three-song CD sampler with the performance tickets?

When I think of the millions the show is going to spend on advertising, I believe that an advance CD for the general public, or at least a final rehearsal tape for critics, might be the best advertising possible.