Photograph courtesy of John McDaniel
John McDaniel’s still kicking himself for missing the original Broadway cast performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Muny. He was just a kid, and he figured it was “something creepy and grown-up.” Now he’s grown up, living in New York but coming home to conduct for Opera Theatre St. Louis this season. He’s conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra several times, and hopes to someday work on a show at—natch—the Muny.
McDaniel composed Rosie O’Donnell’s theme song and led the band for her rollicking TV talk show. He’s also arranged music for the Tony Awards; conducted Grease, Broadway’s longest-running revival; received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his musical direction of Chicago; won a Grammy for producing the Annie Get Your Gun Broadway cast album; and recorded a solo piano CD. He was the musical director for Catch Me If You Can, based on the Steven Spielberg film, which opened this spring on Broadway. At the moment, he’s composing the music for two shows, The Titans and It’s a Wonderful Life.
So have you ever worked on a flop?
Yeah, I did a show on Broadway years ago called Taboo, the life story of Boy George. It ran four months, it’s not like it closed in four days, but it wasn’t the success we’d hoped for. You just never know.
How do you react when something bombs?
It keeps you humble. Jule Stein, one of the great songwriters on Broadway—his favorite word was “next.” If something doesn’t work out, “Next!”
You didn’t need to use that word once during The Rosie O’Donnell Show’s six-and-a-half-year run. What was it like being her band leader?
A complete blast. We had a great warmup comedian, Joey Kola, who got the audience whipped up, and at the top of the hour, Rosie would come out of the curtain, and there was this whoosh of adrenaline and excitement, and an hour later it was like somebody pulled a giant plug out of the wall and the whole thing was over.
How did you meet O’Donnell?
We’d been friends from the first day we met, which was many years ago out in L.A. We knew a lot of the same people and we’d wind up at the same parties, at the piano. I knew all the show tunes, and she knew all the words. One day I got a call from a producer who wanted to do a revival of Grease and have Rosie play the lead, Rizzo. He said, “But we have to find out if she can sing, so she’s going to come to your house”—and I’m sort of rolling my eyes, because I know the answer. But afterward I called and said, “Oh, it was terrific, she was great!” And she did wind up being pretty good in the show. We worked hard!
You’re conducting Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment this season for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. How much of a shift is that from The Rosie O’Donnell Show?
Interestingly, there are similarities! It’s the light opera of the season, and we hope to mine all the comedy we can find. It’s my first opera ever—I’ve been talking with them for several years, and I’ve seen many of their performances. When I saw Carmen in junior high, I was just swept away by the grandeur of it, the scale of it, the size of the emotions and the scenery and the music. It’s not that different from a musical, really. They’re both storytelling with music.
What got you loving musicals?
[He changes tone, becoming solemn and portentous.] In sixth grade at North Glendale Elementary, I was Jacey Squires, the tenor in the barbershop quartet in The Music Man. [He breaks and laughs.] I was just drawn to the upbeat, happy nature of it.
What’s the music in The Daughter of the Regiment like?
Absolutely gorgeous. It’s satisfying: It goes where you want it to go, and it gives you what you want to get out of it. And to get to work with [soprano] Ashley Emerson and [tenor] René Barbera, who are both on their way up, and Sylvia McNair, who I’ve heard of all my life…
Is there as much temperament in theater as we’re led to believe?
Depends on the individual. Most of the great artists I’ve worked with are pretty secure in their life and their work. I always think of Tony Bennett—he’s such a pro. He just lets it happen, doesn’t make any crazy demands. That’s my model. I think the drama belongs on the stage.
How do you set about composing?
It’s very intuitive; it kind of comes through you to your fingers on the piano. I’m in the throes of writing a musical version of It’s a Wonderful Life right now, working with Kathie Lee Gifford, who’s doing the lyrics. I find we’re mostly writing to character: Is it George, or the old guy who runs the bank? What do they want, what are they trying to do, what is the mood of that—is it staccato, are they agitated, is it a ballad?
Your mom was your first piano teacher—how awkward was that?
She actually did a great job of being the mom and the teacher at the same time. The mom knew the kid was only practicing the night before the lesson, and the teacher knew that when the kid came in, he could pretty much play it. From the time I was a baby, there was Bach and Mozart and Beethoven in our living room, because my mom taught from home. I think both the rules and the emotion of music got into my blood.
Your piano teacher when you were at Kirkwood High School, Elaine Boyd—did she have a different approach?
More contemporary. She opened my eyes to other kinds of music, like ragtime, and Erik Satie. What I learned from that was how important it is to have different teachers. There’s always something you can glean.
If music didn’t exist, what would be missing from the world?
That would be a good science-fiction movie. Music’s everywhere in our lives. When you walk through a store or restaurant, there’s always music playing. Not always good music…
Is bad music better than none?
That’s a hard one. If it were only elevator music anywhere, it might be a problem. But I’d rather have it all than have none.
What’s your definition of bad music?
If you are in an elevator and you are listening to music out of a tinny little bad speaker and it was produced not so well as a not-so-thoughtfully-done knockoff of the original, that’s maybe the nadir. There’s pop music I think is really repetitive and not saying a lot—but then something will come through that is absolutely beautiful. In country, Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland has a really expressive voice, and I’m a huge Trisha Yearwood fan. I also like some of the stuff Michael Bublé is doing; he’s bringing a little bit of a traditional sensibility to pop music. I’m sounding like an old man now. I actually am a big fan of Lady Gaga; her music is what I call hook-y, and fun.
What are you known for?
I hope the eclectic quality of what I’ve chosen to do: from classical to Boy George, and everything in between. On Rosie, I had a chance to work with Barry Manilow and Chaka Kahn and Billy Joel, all musicians I loved growing up.
Barry Manilow? Seriously?
Oh, yeah. In my mom’s maroon Nova, driving down Manchester listening to Copa Cabana.
How do you write music that energizes people?
Sometimes familiar, fun things do, but even something that’s new on your ears can be fun immediately, if it’s hook-y. It has to have a really familiar beat, the end of a phrase you keep hearing that makes sense. That’s probably the most important part of feeling good. Like in “New York, New York”: “If I can MAKE it there, I’ll make it AN-Ywhere…” You hear it, and you go, “I’m in.”