Last March, The Book of Mormon, the profane and funny musical written by the duo behind South Park and one of the songwriters from Avenue Q, opened on Broadway to rave reviews and sold out houses. In June, it won nine Tony Awards and the show's cast album did something that hasn't happened in over 40 years: It hit the top ten on Billboard's pop charts.
Author and theater critic Peter Filichia says this wasn't always a rare occurrence. Once upon a time, original cast recordings were popular — really, really popular.
"For a while there, My Fair Lady was the biggest selling record of all time," says Filichia. "I don't mean in the show category, I mean of all time. Every kind of music: pop, polka, Hawaiian, jazz."
Even into the rock and roll era, shows like Hello Dolly! and Funny Girl could be one and two on the Billboard pop charts. But, as the times changed, tastes changed as well. So, it came as a big surprise when the original cast album of The Book of Mormon showed up last June at number three on the charts, right behind Adele and Lady Gaga, says Keith Caulfield, Billboard's associate director of charts.
"[This] was the first time a cast album had been in the Top 10 since 1969, when the cast recording of Hair was Number 1 for 13 weeks," says Caulfield.
Hair, of course, was a rock musical in rock's heyday, says Filichia. But he also notes that it might not be the only reason for that album's popularity.
"The album cover did mention it was 'unexpurgated,' so that certainly appealed to the Baby Boomers as well — that we were getting it raw," says Filichia.
Hair used some words which hadn't been heard in Broadway musicals before, and The Book of Mormon takes that one or two or three steps further — even if the words are set to almost old-fashioned theater music. Trey Parker, one of the creators of the show — and of the highly successful TV series South Park — says they tread the line between profane and sweet.
"Obviously, anyone can go out there and go, 'F---, f---, f---, c---, c---, c---, piss, piss, piss,' whatever. And, like, it's not gonna do anything, unless at the root of it there is this heart and this soul," says Parker.
A lot of the score of The Book of Mormon is just, well, catchy; catchy in a way that recalls those chart-topping shows in the 1950s and '60s. The cast album spent nine weeks on the Billboard 200 this summer, fueled partly by The Book of Mormon's Tony wins; partly by a special three-day promotion on Amazon, where people could download it for $1.99; and partly by Trey Parker and Matt Stone's following from South Park. The album has sold over 150,000 copies — making it both the best-selling cast recording of the year and the most downloaded cast album ever. But, Caulfield says it's gonna have to stick around a while to catch up with some of the all-time leaders.
"You can see a lot of success from certain kinds of albums that have stood the test of time, from Les Miserables to Phantom of the Opera to Rent," says Caulfield. "All those albums have sold hundreds of thousands and millions of copies in the U.S., so will we see that with The Book of Mormon? I don't know."
Caulfield says the album's been selling 2 or 3,000 units a week, just behind Wicked.