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‘Hamilton’ cast album brings Broadway music back to pop charts

The sound of music — and the sound of musicals.

Once upon a time, they were virtually one and the same, with such legendary songwriters as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers (first with lyricist Lorenz Hart, later with Oscar Hammerstein) creating Broadway scores spotlighting songs that are now part of what’s known as “the Great American Songbook.”

Performers from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong popularized Broadway tunes on radio, records and — eventually — TV variety shows.

Even the Beatles, making their “Ed Sullivan Show” debut in 1964, played “Till There Was You” (from the Tony-winning Broadway hit “The Music Man”) alongside such Fab Four favorites as “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

But rock music’s ever-growing dominance eventually ended Broadway’s starring role on the pop charts. Tellingly, 1967’s “Hair” — billed as “the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” — spawned four top 10 singles in 1969 and was the last Broadway cast album to hit No. 1 on the album chart.

A half-century later, however, “Hamilton’s” Grammy-winning original cast album has been riding high on the album charts, according to Keith Caulfield, senior director of charts for Billboard, which covers music news, issues and trends.

“Hamilton” ranks as “a crazy anomaly,” Caulfield says, noting that the show’s original cast album has been on the Billboard 200 album chart — the same chart “with pop megastars who sell out arenas” — for more than 130 weeks.

“That really says something about its success,” he adds.

Overall, “Hamilton’s” cast album has sold 1.5 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music (which measures radio airplay and music sales), in an era when “it’s hard for an album — even if it’s Beyonce — to sell 1 million,” because so many listeners stream music, Caulfield says.

Speaking of streaming, songs from the “Hamilton” score collectively have 2 billion “on-demand audio streams in the U.S.,” according to Nielsen Music, he adds.

“Hamilton’s” cast album debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 and peaked at No. 3, Caulfield says, noting that “it’s super-unusual for a cast album to go that high on the chart.” It’s the highest-charting cast album since 2011’s “Book of Mormon,” which also reached No. 3 “but was only on the chart for nine weeks.”

Clearly, “Hamilton” is “reaching people that wouldn’t necessarily” listen to Broadway music, Caulfield suggests, noting that most “musicals don’t connect in a larger pop-culture way.”

But “even though it’s Broadway, the music is very contemporary,” says Fred Bronson, a Billboard contributor and author of “The Billboard Book of Number One Hits.” So, although “Hamilton’s” score “is not getting airplay, it certainly appeals to kids. But you don’t have to be a rap fan to like the music.”

Indeed, “because of the hip-hop and rapid-fire lyrics with the beat,” the score “has a wide appeal,” says Dave Loeb, who heads UNLV’s award-winning jazz program.

“Hamilton’s” success may be unprecedented. But it also may signal a change.

Singer Clint Holmes cites other recent Broadway hits — from “Waitress,” featuring singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles’ music, to “Dear Evan Hansen,” written by “La La Land” Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — as proof that “the Great American Songbook is still being written.”

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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