By Peter Filichia –
Fifty years ago, Camelot was in the middle of its six-week reign as The #1 Record Album in the land.
Not The #1 Musical Theater Record Album in the land. The #1 Record Album in the land — period. In other words, no other album from January 23 through March 2, 1961 sold more copies each week than the Lerner and Loewe musical.
Hard to believe, isn’t it? But a look at The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums by Joel Whitburn, which starts in 1955, shows that there was a time when original cast albums sold very well.
That first year, Silk Stockings made it as high as #9 during its six-week stay. Fanny made it to seventh place, although it stayed around for just a fortnight. Damn Yankees was a bigger hit than both put together, which explains its sixth-place mark during three months on the charts. And yet, it was the show that ran much shorter than any of those that made it to #4. We can easily understand why, however: Peter Pan had been seen by most of the nation because of its national TV broadcast. It rose to #4 during its eight-week stay.
In 1956, there were four big hits, one of which reached #1. (Can you guess? We’ll talk more about it later.) Bells Are Ringing reached twentieth place for its lone week represented. Li’l Abner may not have been as big a hit, but it did slightly better, hitting nineteenth place during its three-week run. The Most Happy Fella, however, made it to eleventh place during its month-long stay. This was, by the way, for the abridged single record and not the complete three-disc recording.
You’d expect that 1957 would have a big winner in West Side Story. You might even expect it would reach #1. Not quite; fifth place was as high as the Jets and the Sharks achieved during their thirteen-week residency. We often hear how West Side Story didn’t become a monster hit until its 1961 film version, and this fifth place finish reinforces that.
You might also expect that Gypsy made it to #1, but it too was not the major hit of its season. The best it did was a lucky thirteenth, although its forty-one week run was impressive. (How do you like those egg rolls, Mr. Goldstone?) Another 1959 show, however, made it to #1, and as you’ve inferred, we’ll meet it later with some other #1s, too.
Bye Bye Birdie was the most-acclaimed show of 1960 while Do Re Mi wound up losing money; still, each of them reached the same position – #12 – on the charts. However, Birdie’s stay (twenty-five weeks) had twice the staying power of Do Re Mi’s twelve. Irma La Douce’s ninth-place mark in seventeen weeks was also impressive, but two shows that opened in December, 1960 would do the best: the aforementioned top-spotted Camelot and Wildcat, which reached sixth place during its twenty-six week reign. Maybe people didn’t want to hear Lucy Ricardo sing, but they sure wanted to find out how Lucille Ball sang in a Broadway show.
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying was successful enough to rack up a couple of nineteens – both in position and in length of service. Milk and Honey, another 1961 entry, reached the bottom rung of the Top 10 during twenty-seven bountiful weeks.
All right, so Mr. President and All-American didn’t make any money for their 1962 investors, but in original cast album terms, both were successes. Mr. President achieved fourteenth place in thirteen weeks. All-American, probably supported by its hit song “Once upon a Time,” achieved twenty-first place in a six-week span.
Oliver! was the big show of 1963, and while it never made it to #1 – #4 was its highest – it deserves credit for being on the charts for a whole year and a week. Can you guess what the other three 1963 shows were? Perhaps not; let me tell you: Here’s Love showed up at number #38 for a week; 110 in the Shade made it to #37 for three. And how about The Girl Who Came to Supper, whose 33 1/3 rpm record came in at #33 for three weeks?
1964 brought another #1 hit. No, not Fiddler on the Roof, although it can hold its head high by making it to a lucky seven and staying around for sixty weeks. What Makes Sammy Run? had a three-week run peaking at number three, perhaps because Steve Lawrence was its star.
1964 was really the last glory year. Up till now, adults could afford to buy albums while kids had to count their pennies until they had eighty-nine of them to buy a single record. But suddenly many of the Baby Boomers were of working age and living at home, and their newfound fortune changed the fortunes of the original cast album. By 1966, Mame, an enormous hit, could muster at best a twenty-third place mark in fourteen weeks. Cabaret, often considered one of the greatest musicals in Broadway history, only mustered a three-week stay, and merely went to thirty-seventh place.
But let’s end on an up-note with #1s, the best-selling record albums in the country that week. Hello, Dolly! made it to the top just once in the summer of 1964, but had fifty-eight solid weeks on the charts. Once Flower Drum Song was released in 1958, it had three #1 weeks among its five-month reign. Camelot, as we’ve established, did six, but that it stayed on the list for a solid year is equally impressive. But Lerner and Loewe had a tough act to follow both on Broadway and in the record stores: My Fair Lady stayed fifteen weeks at #1 during an unprecedented and still unsurpassed 111 weeks.
Two others in our purview hit #1, and two more different shows they couldn’t be. Hair stayed at the top for thirteen weeks of a fourteenth-month stay. But the original cast album that lasted the longest in the #1 position was 1959’s The Sound of Music, with a sweet sixteen weeks in the penthouse. Not bad at all, considering that it was only on the charts for twenty-seven weeks.
On the other hand, Lord knows how many sales The Sound of Music lost and Do Re Mi gained because people bought the latter, assuming that this was the Broadway show that that had that song that began “Doe-a-deer.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.