MUSIC: John McGlinn, 1953-2009

I’m surprised and saddened to read of the death of conductor and musical-theatre archivist John McGlinn, of an apparent heart attack. He was 55.

McGlinn was essentially a Broadway musicologist, someone who studied and brought to light the traditions of Broadway musical performance. He was particularly interested in original orchestrations, and the idea that the classic songs of the Broadway musical should be performed not with new arrangements, but with the orchestrations that were used in the original productions (and, while usually not done by the composer, at least done with the composer’s approval). He helped reconstruct the orchestrations of various shows after 1982 brought about the theatrical equivalent of a great archeological find: people were looking into the contents of a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey, and discovered that it had been used to store the original manuscript scores of many Broadway musicals from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s — including the original parts used by the orchestra. Suddenly an “authentic” performance of an old Broadway musical was potentially a reality.

McGlinn was one of the people who helped turn it from a potential reality into a, well, real reality. He took up conducting in 1984 for a Reader’s Digest album called “Songs of New York” (Reader’s Digest used to have its own recording label for subscribers, and made many excellent recordings of classical music and show tunes) and led concert performances in New York of some original scores by Jerome Kern, his favourite composer. In the ’80s, after the success of Leonard Bernstein’s recording of West Side Story with opera singers, other record companies were looking to do the same thing, and McGlinn sold EMI on the idea of doing Kern’s Show Boat — arguably the greatest American musical — with a mostly operatic cast and the original orchestrations. Furthermore, he talked the company into making a recording of every note of the score, including all the songs that had been cut before the premiere or written for later productions: the whole recording was three full-priced discs, each running over 70 minutes.

The recording sold extremely well; it came along at just the right time, when Broadway was booming and the relatively new format of the compact disc had increased sales of recorded music all over the world. McGlinn was signed to a contract with EMI, recording show tunes with the original orchestrations in London (where recording fees were cheaper) but with mostly American singers, a mix of opera singers (Frederica Von Stade, Thomas Hampson) and New York theatre singers who had the purity of style that McGlinn was looking for (Rebecca Luker, Brent Barrett, George Dvorsky, and above all Kim Criswell, an Ethel Merman-ish belter who had had limited success in New York but became famous in London). The recordings included the complete original scores, with the original orchestrations, of Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me, Kate, and Brigadoon, plus various highlights recordings: a recital of Rodgers and Hart songs by Von Stade, a Cole Porter album for Hampson, and a “Broadway Showstoppers” and “Jerome Kern Treasury” potpourri. The last recording he made for EMI was an album of Kurt Weill rarities, including a huge chunk of Weill and Ira Gershwin’s bizarre flop operetta The Firebrand of Florence. His biggest ambition was to record Love Life, a 1948 flop written by Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner that helped create the “experimental” musical, but EMI dropped plans for the recording after it became clear that the CD boom was over and they couldn’t spend a ton of money on rarities any more.

His advocacy for original orchestrations did musical theatre fans a tremendous service. It used to be assumed that the great standards of musical theatre, particularly the ones that came from ’20s and ’30s shows, needed to be “updated,” either performed as jazz standards or given a more up-to-date sound. But while that’s a legitimate way to do them, it’s not the only way. Jerome Kern hated jazz and railed against the way jazz musicians and dance bands distorted and changed the melodies he worked so hard on; Rodgers and Hart wrote a song called “I Like to Recognize the Tune” where they complained in song about wanton re-interpretation of their songs. Hearing the songs of Anything Goes with the original orchestrations, the original, un-cleaned-up lyrics, and no interpolated songs from other Cole Porter musicals, was a revelation: it was like being taken back in time to understand what these songs were like to the audiences that first heard them. These recordings also made people aware of the work of some of the great Broadway orchestrators, like Frank Saddler, Robert Russell Bennett, and particularly Hans Spialek (an immigrant who orchestrated Rodgers and Hart and Porter in a gossamer-light, almost Mendelssohnian style). Some of the post-Oklahoma! musicals, though, had less of a point to them, because there were already cast albums available to give a sense of the “authentic” style; all the new recordings did was give somewhat more music in better sound but with less interesting performances. But as I understand it, EMI demanded more post-1943 musicals because they were better-known.

The downside was that McGlinn wasn’t exactly a great conductor. He was a great advocate for these songs, but his execution was only so-so. You could hear that more clearly when other people started doing recordings and performances with the original orchestrations, like the people who conduct for the City Center Encores! series: people with more orchestra-pit experience were able to produce a sound with more bite to it than McGlinn did, as well as giving more room for the singers to interpret the songs (without actually allowing them to change the notes). McGlinn’s recordings are often great as sheer sound, but don’t really make these songs sound like theatre — and so something of the original is lost, even with the orchestrations intact.

If there’s one album of his I’d recommend getting above all if you can find it, it’s the Broadway Showstoppers album, which features two long songs from Leonard Bernstein’s last Broadway musical (the Bicentennial bomb 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, written with Alan Jay Lerner), original-orchestration versions of standards like “Tea For Two” and “September Song,” and a ton of rare Jerome Kern, including four astounding numbers from his first post-Show Boat score, Sweet Adeline.

There was an announcement a few years back that McGlinn had received a grant to record previously-unrecorded scores by Jerome Kern; apparently he actually did record some of them, but none of the recordings have ever been released. Maybe they’ll turn up sometime, or maybe not.