Exploring the Bunnett Muir Musical Theatre Archive
Theatre is often considered a temporary art form; when a show closes, there is often little left behind from which we can recreate that transitory experience. For musicals, however, there are cast recordings. Wherever you are, an original cast recording can transport you into another world, long after the curtain has come down. Several thousands of these recordings on vinyl form part of Overtures – The Bunnett Muir Musical Theatre Archive, which is held in the V&A Theatre and Performance Archives.
The Bunnett Muir Musical Theatre Archive was originally formed by Rexton Bunnett and John Muir in 1967. Both men were avid collectors of musical theatre recordings and, after collecting throughout the 1950s, combined their collections. The Bunnett Muir Musical Theatre Archive Trust was later established to care for the archive, which continues to grow! The collection is built around historic recordings of musical theatre performance preserved on a wide variety of formats.
In 2018 the collection of vinyl, together with a collection of scores and libretti, were gifted to the V&A Museum to form Overtures – The Bunnett Muir Musical Theatre Archive. The collection demonstrates the breadth of musical theatre history. It includes landmark recordings, such as a copy of the 1943 recording “Selections from the Theatre Guild Musical Play Oklahoma!” which is considered the first Broadway original cast recording, albeit in a truncated form (to fit on the discs of the time). Also featured is a recording of My Fair Lady (1956) which on its release remained at the top of the UK album charts for 19 weeks!
While cast recordings are typically made after a show has opened, some shows have their origins in concept albums. The success of concept albums such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Evita(1976), both by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, served as launchpads for West End and Broadway productions, as well as subsequent film adaptations.
Not every musical is a success, and the archive includes cast recordings from a number of musicals that didn’t become household names. Lionel Bart’s Twang!!is remembered as one of the West End’s most expensive flops and, despite its big-name cast and creative team, closed after only 43 performances. While the show has not been performed again in its original form, thanks to the 1966 cast album it is possible for the curious to travel back in time and get a taste of what the show was like.
Original cast recordings are also significant for the artwork featured on the record sleeves. The design for the original London cast recording of The Rocky Horror Show is a particularly vivid example. Released in 1973 the LP featured artwork by the show’s designer, Brian Thompson which, like the show itself, blends different kitsch elements from science fiction, gothic horror and burlesque. Cover artwork can also help cement the brand identity of the show, as can be seen with internationally successful musicals such as Les Misérables with the instantly recognisable image of the young character, Cosette.
Recently, the V&A Theatre and Performance Archives team finished cataloguing over 3,000 LP cast recordings of both West End and Broadway musicals, and this catalogue is now available to explore online complete with images of the album artwork. This is just the first phase in the cataloguing project and the online catalogue will continue to be updated as work progresses.
A free display, Re:Imagining Musicals, re-opens in August 2023 in the V&A Theatre and Performance Galleries. Catalogues to all of the V&A Archive Collections are available to view on Search the Archives