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"The Musical Director for "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and "Annie, Get Your Gun" riffs about Rosie, Reba and Recording Rialto Rhapsodies

by Frank Evans

I catch John McDaniel just after a Wednesday morning live broadcast of the Rosie O'Donnell Show, where John has been resident musical director since the show's premiere. The previous night (Tuesday, January 16) Rosie opened in "Seussical" as the Cat in the Hat at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. After our interview, John will be working with country superstar Reba McEntire, the next Annie of "Annie, Get Your Gun" at the Marquis Theatre. John serves as supervising musical director for the Broadway revival and producing the new cast album won him his first Grammy Award. He has just released a solo CD: John McDaniel at the Piano: Broadway and arranged and conducted Patti Lupone's latest recording: Patti Lupone Live!

McDaniel has a track record for putting stars into shows. He was Musical Director for the long running revival of "Grease," which opened with O'Donnell and had a parade of guest stars including Brooke Shields, Jon Secada, Sheena Easton, Chubby Checker and Jennifer Holliday. And just prior to his work with Ms. McEntire, he put Cheryl Ladd into the Broadway company of "Annie Get Your Gun" and Marilu Henner into the National Company.

McDaniel started working with star talents and egos when he lived in California and worked as musical director for the Long Beach Civic Light Opera.

"We did four shows a year. Big musicals, big sets, big stars. I got to work with Tyne Daly, Carol Burnett, Leslie Uggams, Nell Carter and a lot of people I'd always wanted to work with. It was a great training ground for me to learn how to deal with stars. As it turned out, Cheryl Ladd [who has been the Broadway Annie since September] is quite a good singer. Nobody expected it. You've got to not only give them the kind of confidence to go out there but also to let them know, 'Hey, this really doesn't work for you; why don't you try this,' without being a jerk. I look forward to the challenge of who's going to come into a show and what their strengths are.

"Usually we start out just getting to know one another. I like to hear them sing and get to know their voice. We just kind of find where there voice lives in the character and then within the show. Some keys may go lower; some may go higher. There's no hard and fast rule [such as] 'Oh, you [always] sing down a whole step [from the original key].' We take each song very specifically and it's fun to find when that key feels right. We may change something here and there, shorten something or lengthen something depending on someone's strengths or weaknesses. When we put the National Tour of 'Annie Get Your Gun' together, we lengthened the dance in '[I've Got the] Sun in the Mornin'' because Marilu Henner is a really physical gal and she really wanted to dance, so we added a whole section in the hoe-down especially for her and we've kept that in the show; we put that into the Broadway company when Cheryl joined us in September and we're keeping it in for Reba, 'cause Reba certainly loves to dance and dances in all of her shows. She always has dancers and a million costume changes and puts on a Big Ole Show and she's used to that. But if we had somebody come in as the next Annie who wasn't much of a dancer, we would just take it out again. We're always tailoring the show specifically to the individual lady to show her off the best."

Graciela Danielle, the original director-choreographer, is available to put McEntire into the role. (Sometimes Jeff Calhoun, the associate choreographer, directs and choreographs, based on Graciela's direction–as was the case when the National Tour rehearsed.)

"You can fine-tune it, finesse and just rediscover things in the show that you didn't even know were there. Reba has brought so much reality to the role and so much honesty . She opens her mouth and what comes out–it's gold. She sort of can't make a mistake. She's spot on. So we're rediscovering moments and bits and changing things around that really work for her. We're not really changing the text, but if we do have a text question we just get Peter Stone (writer of the new book based on the original by Herbert and Dorothy Fields) on the phone."

On another star: "I saw 'Seussical' last night, Rosie's opening. They totally took her strengths and allowed her to just be her and be wonderful and the audience just ate it up. I work with her every day and she still was making me laugh. (McDaniel normally works with O'Donnell on any musical projects, but in this particular case, scheduling conflicts and the limitations of hours in the day prohibited his working on the O'Donnell show, "Annie, Get Your Gun" and "Seussical" simultaneously)

What about working with non-singers?

"Is there really such a thing? How about really people who haven't had experience? I remember Brooke [Shields] coming in and singing for us for "Grease." She didn't have the strongest voice but she had a great presence. She didn't know 'Suddenly Susan' [her sitcom, which ran for several seasons on NBC, and now appears in syndicated reruns] was coming along yet. She has great comic ability and loves to play it and we really focused on the comedy of that role. Let's face it, Rosie isn't the greatest singer and had done the role. Although, [Rizzo] can be done by a terrific singer. We had Sheena Easton, for chrissakes, and a lot of other great singing stars in the role. You kind of approach it as depending on their level. I try to point them in the right direction, give them confidence. I'm not really a voice teacher, but I can get somebody on the right road to singing. We usually put them with a really fine singing teacher and give them exercises and get them singing every day. It's like going to the gym. If you want to go and build up your voice, you've got to go to a coach, a teacher and start singing all the time, and singing correctly so you don't blow it out on opening night." When the daily O'Donnell show is on hiatus, McDaniel conducts Broadway concerts with symphony orchestras outside of New York "I work a lot at the St. Louis Symphony, which is [in] my home town. It's one of the greatest orchestras I've ever worked with. And I've had a chance a chance to bring Broadway music back to St. Louis, kind of a nice full circle for me. I just did a Christmas concert with Karen Mason. Next year, I'm going to do a concert called from 'St. Louis to Broadway' featuring St. Louis people who have gone on to work on Broadway. So far we have Ken Page and Christine Ashford Saffron, who lives in Los Angeles now, but did 'Drood' and 'Singin' In the Rain' in New York. McDaniel's next concert will be in Buffalo, where he will bring Broadway performers Anne Runolfsson and Howard McGillin.

Bringing the Rest of the World to Broadway via Television

From 1948 into the early 70's, exposure on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" television show could mean the difference between hit and flop status for new musicals. After it opened, "Camelot" initially flagged at the box office. Director Moss Hart who had suffered a heart attack during the out of town try-out, came back to work on the show after the opening. Then a Lerner and Loewe tribute on Sullivan's show (with extensive "Camelot" selections) helped turn the show around. Nowadays, exposure on O'Donnell's show can have the same impact. The Broadway performers McDaniel has conducted and played for on television is impressive. A partial list includes :Chita Rivera (from Paper Mill's "Anything Goes"); Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat (whom he conducted on stage as well in "Annie Get Your Gun"); Bebe Neuwirth (McDaniel also conducted her on Broadway in "Chicago"); Marie Osmond (a highly underrated Mrs. Anna in "The King and I"); Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald ("Ragtime"); Ben Vereen ("Fosse") Carol Burnett ("Putting It Together"); Toni Braxton ("Beauty and the Beast"); Martin Short ("Little Me"); Eartha Kitt and Toni Collette ("The Wild Party"); as well as Broadway diva Jennifer Holliday with her interpretation of Bessie Smith classic "Downhearted Blues."

When McDaniel was putting the personnel together for the television studio band, he knew he needed musicians who could play in any number of styles, contemporary as well as 60's and 70's "retro" and Broadway. "I put together some groups in a rehearsal studio and we played together a couple of different afternoons. The strange thing is that the very first group we sat down with was me on piano, my guitar player, my drummer and my sax player and a different bass player. I knew I was really close and we swapped around a little bit and mixed and matched. I really wanted to have a woman in the band. Whenever I work I like to have woman around. It's good for the mix. Tracy Wormworth came in and played with us and it was perfect. She's played with Sting and The B 52's. She's kind of a funky player but she also reads. We all have our specialties. We're in it for the long haul together. They've been with me from the very first show.

"We didn't know at the time that we were going to do all the Broadway performances that we do. When we first started some of the suits said 'You're talking about Broadway too much; you're doing too much Broadway' and at one point we had to tone it down until Rosie couldn't stand it any more. She said 'This is my show and this is what I love. People love it.' And they do love it. They tune in for it."

I mention that it never ceases to amaze me in live broadcasts when a performer is singing a capella and the band comes in the same key. McDaniel responds "It never ceases to amaze me, either." (We both laugh) "I have pretty good pitch. If I know the song, we can come in and play under most anybody, but the other day somebody came in and sang from 'Big River' and I honestly don't know that show"–it's one of the rare few he doesn't know–"and I didn't know what the heck he was singing or where the heck he was and he kept changing the key and it was just kind of a mess. Usually we can come in play under most everybody." The daily show always begins with a chat between McDaniel and O'Donnell. McDaniel admits that during the second season there were some new producers who kind of wanted to revamp the show. "We went to a taping schedule, we weren't live any more and they said 'You shouldn't talk to John every day.' So, we didn't. And people went nuts. I got buckets and buckets of letters: 'Please let Rosie talk to you. We love when Rosie talks to you. It's one of their favorite things. It's just Rosie being at the desk. People just want to hear her."

The Genesis of McDaniel at the Piano: Broadway

"I was invited to come out to California to do a recording on a system called PianoDisc, a digital player piano system that you can install into any piano. You stick this disc into the unit and it will play your piano and the keys go down and everything. Sometimes you see them in hotel lobbies and now private homes are starting to get them. They felt that a Broadway retrospective would do really well, especially contemporary Broadway and they called me and asked if I would be interested in being one of their artists. I recorded excerpts from fifteen of my favorite shows. It began selling (as a disc). They suggested that we put this out in CD form.

"People have been asking me since the show went up: 'How can I get a hold of your music' So we went into a studio with a concert grand, put the unit in and played it back and made a CD. It was the coolest idea, because I didn't have to go back and play it again. I produced the record and only had to do a few little fixes here and there. It's far surpassed my expectations in terms of people's interest and I played a bit of it on the show last week. Right now, it's only available on my website, and it has spiked up in such a way, we've had to bring in quite a few extra people to work to get the CD's out to people. We're a little backed up and I just had to order a new pressing which is really exciting. The day that I announced the CD on the show I had 88,000 hits on the website and it's leveled down now to 40,000 hits a day. There's an active message board in which I participate and answer questions and a members area which people can join. All the money raised from that goes to the Grammy Foundation which supports music in schools, something I really feel strongly about.. (A significant portion of the money raised by the CD sales are going Broadway Cares, Equity Fights AIDS).

How does McDaniel deal with questions from young people contemplating a career in the theatre?

"I suggest that people do as many shows as they can and be as active as they can at local theatre groups. That's how I started. Getting to know how a Broadway show works. I wound up doing exactly what I want to do on Broadway. It's really amazing, actually."

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