John McGlinn: Recreating Musical History Conductor, arranger and musical historian John McGlinn frequently stripped classic musicals to their roots by returning to original orchestrations and reinstating lost songs. McGlinn died on Feb. 14; Fresh Air remembers him with interviews from 1989 and 1992.
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John McGlinn: Recreating Musical History

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John McGlinn: Recreating Musical History

John McGlinn: Recreating Musical History

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of orchestra music)

GROSS: I love musicals and was really grateful to conductor and music historian John McGlinn for restoring musicals, going back to the original scores so that he could include music and songs that had never been recorded before. We're listening to the overture from his recorded restoration of "Show Boat." He also recorded restorations of "Annie Get Your Gun," "Anything Goes," and an obscure Jerome Kern musical called "Sitting Pretty."

We were surprised and saddened to read his obituary today. He died Saturday at the age of 55 of an apparent heart attack. He joined us several times on Fresh Air. We're going to hear excerpts of two of his interviews. The first time we spoke was in 1989 after the release of his recorded restoration of the 1927 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical, "Show Boat." McGlinn explained why "Show Boat" is so important in theater history.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. JOHN MCGLINN (Conductor, Arranger, Musical Historian): Everybody thinks of "Oklahoma!" as the great watershed musical, the piece that, you know, finally integrated book and lyrics and music and dance and all of this. And in point of fact, many people, including myself, feel that "Show Boat" in 1927 was the work that really did that.

"Show Boat" addressed issues which for the time where absolutely unheard of in the musical theater. You simply did not address issues of racial hatred, racial intermarriage, alcoholism, desertion by a husband. Things like that were just not part of what people went to the theater to see when they went to see a Florenz Ziegfeld musical.

GROSS: How would you describe your overall vision in recording the complete "Show Boat"?

Mr. MCGLINN: It had always bothered me both as an artist and as a fan that "Show Boat" had come to be known as this sort of light, frothy operetta, and I had always suspected that there were much deeper elements to it. And the more I studied the piece and the more I was able to get back to the original material and I saw what the full original scope of their conception was, I mean, I realized that this was really something extraordinarily dark and brooding and out of the ordinary. And in the recording, I felt it was absolutely imperative to restore all of the grit and the drama of the piece.

I mean, there are several examples I can use, but the most important one and the one that's obviously caused the most discussion has been the restoration of the original language. I mean, the opening line of the show has always been a source of controversy. The curtain goes up on a levee in Mississippi. It's in the 1880s, and the stage is full with sweating black stevedores lugging cotton bales on their backs in the hot July sun. And the first words out of their mouth are, niggers all work on the Mississippi, niggers all work while the white men play.

And Hammerstein wrote that word deliberately. It wasn't just the word that everybody used then and used thoughtlessly. He wanted to pick the word that would make this complacent society audience sit up and take notice and think about what life was like for these people a hundred years ago in Mississippi.

GROSS: You know, a lot of us know "Old Man River" opening with the lyrics, colored folk work on the Mississippi, or, here we all work on the Mississippi. You restored it to the original, as you just described, but it caused quite a controversy within the cast that you were recording. A chorus of black singers who were supposed to sing it walked out. The baritone that was supposed to sing it walked out.


GROSS: Let's establish first why they wanted to walk out.

Mr. MCGLINN: Well, what happened was - it was very unfortunate because of scheduling and rehearsals, I was not able to be present at the first chorus rehearsal. What we had planned to do was to use the chorus from the Glyndebourne production of "Porgy and Bess" because I very much wanted to have a black chorus for the black music in "Show Boat." They got to the first rehearsal and they opened up their vocal scores, and of course, the first word they see staring them in the face was nigger. Now, they did not know the show. They didn't know the context. They didn't know what the dramatic purpose of the word was, and they just went, yipes, and they said, no way, uh huh, sorry, we can't do this.

(Soundbite of song "Cotton Blossom")

Unidentified Choir: (Singing) Niggers all work on de Mississippi Niggers all work while de white folks play -Loadin' up boats wid de bales of cotton, Gittin' no rest till de Judgement Day.

Git yo'self a bran' new gal, A lovin' baby who's de apple of yo' eye. Coal black Rose or high brown Sal, Dey all kin cook de sparrer grass an' chicken pie!

GROSS: There's an irony here, I think, and that is that you ended up having to use a white chorus to sing "Old Man River" because the black chorus didn't want to sing the original text. And this is part of your attempt to get the most authentic recording possible.

Mr. MCGLINN: Well, not only authentic but I would like to think the most socially conscious.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Ms. MCGLINN: Anything that happened like that, whether it would be racial prejudice or genocide or anything, if we forget about it, it can happen again. And I think it's very dangerous to try to pretend that things like this never happened.

GROSS: In your recording of "Show Boat," you reinstated a very beautiful song, and I think this is the perfect example of the dark and brooding atmosphere that you found when you found the complete manuscript for "Show Boat." The song I'm thinking of is "Misery's Coming Around," and this is a song that foreshadows that tragic turn of events about to happen. It's very beautiful. Why was it deleted?

Mr. MCGLINN: First of all, at the first performance in Washington, the first preview out of town, the show ran over four hours, which was simply not feasible within the format, an economic market of a Broadway musical. So things had to go. And anything - I mean, the first casualties, of course, were anything that was not absolutely essential to the progression of the plot, and "Misery," as beautiful as it is, is six minutes of atmosphere and mood painting rather than something specific happens that moves the plot along. That's the practical aspect.

The other side of it is that Florenz Ziegfeld was terrified of it. And Ziegfeld absolutely was so afraid that it was going to kill the show stone cold, smack in the middle of the first act. And I can see him, you know, at rehearsal in my mind, you know, sitting there chewing on a cigar going, it's a downer, boys. It's a downer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGLINN: But it's very interesting about "Misery" because its cutting is tragic because its themes are uses underscoring throughout the entire show. And you hear all these references to this dark, brooding theme without ever hearing its original statement and knowing what its context is.

Unidentified Choir: (Singing) Misery is coming around. The misery is coming around. I know it' coming around, Don't know to whom Misery is coming around. The Misery is coming around. We know it' coming around. Don't know to who...

GROSS: Do you think that your recording is an example of a trend in reevaluating the place of the musical theater in American musical life?

Mr. MCGLINN: Boy, I sure hope so. I mean, so much of my career has been devoted to that, not just with "Show Boat" but with all the shows that I've work on. When these shows were being written, nobody thought of them as great art. There were commodities. They were designed to make the authors and the producers money, and that's really all anybody thought about it.

Now I'm convince that in, you know, late at night, in the dark recesses of their studies, the composers themselves did think of it as art. They knew they were creating beautiful music. But even so, they still treated it very much as a commodity. Orchestrations were not preserved. Manuscripts were not even preserved. If a song or a complete show wasn't a big hit, nobody felt that it was important to preserve it in case it were going to be reevaluated by posterity 50 years later.

What was the miracle that created people like Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern and Cole Porter and Arthur Schwartz? All at this one time, these incredible people, an artistry like that - quite apart from the style has changed - but just like that kind of artistry doesn't seemed to exist en masse today. People just didn't think that it was all going to end. So I think now, you know, people are realizing that we've lost something incredibly precious, and we'd better find it and reclaim it and preserve it as fast as we can.

GROSS: John McGlinn recorded in 1989 after the releas of his recorded restoration of "Show Boat." He died Saturday at the age of 55. Coming up, we'll hear the interview we recorded after the CD release of his restoration of "Annie Get Your Gun." This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering conductor and theater music historian John McGlinn. He died Saturday at the age of 55 of an apparent heart attack.

(Soundbite of Broadway muscial "Annie Get Your Gun")

Mr. THOMAS HAMPSON: (As Frank Butler) Now little lady, if you step up to the parapet, I'll give a you lesson in marksmanship.

Ms. KIM CRISWEL: (As Annie Oakley) You couldn't give me a lesson in long distance spittin'!

(Soundbite of song "Anything You Can Do")

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything Better than you...

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) No, you can't.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) Yes, I can.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) No, you can't.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) Yes, I can.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) No, you can't.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) Yes, I can. Yes, I can.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) Anything you can be I can be greater. Sooner or later, I'm greater than you.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) No, you're not.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) Yes, I am.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) No, you're not.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) Yes, I am.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) No, you're not.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) Yes, I am. Yes, I am.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) I can shoot a partridge With a single cartridge.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) I can get a sparrow With a bow and arrow.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) I can live on bread and cheese.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) And only on that?

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) Yes.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) So can a rat!

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) Any note you can reach I can go higher.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) I can sing anything Higher than you.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) No, you can't.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) Yes, I can.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) No, you can't.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) Yes, I can.

MR. HAMPSON (Singing) No, you can't.

Ms. CRISWEL: (Singing) Yes, I can.

GROSS: That's Kim Criswel as Annie Oakley and Thomas Hampson as Sharpshooter Frank Butler in John McGlinn's recorded restoration of "Annie Get Your Gun."

McGlinn's specialty was returning to the original scores of classic and obscure Broadway musicals, reinserting music passages and songs that had been deleted over the years and had never been recorded. My second interview with him was recorded in 19992 after the release of his recorded restoration of "Annie Get Your Gun." He told me why he restored the score of this popular show.

Mr. MCGLINN: "Annie Get Your Gun," I should explain, exists in two entirely separate and discrete versions. There's the original show that opened in 1946 at the Imperial Theater in New York City, and there was a very famous revival supervised by Irving Berlin in 1966 at Lincoln Center. That production also stared Ethel Merman and was recorded by RCA Victor.

And for that production, the original orchestrations were thrown out. New orchestrations were done by Robert Russell Bennett. And some of the score was dropped, the new song was added, the book was shortened to - subsidiary characters were eliminated entirely. And that version, what I would call the Lincoln Center version, is the one that is, in fact, the only version that is currently available for rental and performance. And so I realized there was a real palpable need, a real reason to go back and record the original 1946 version.

GROSS: You were talking about the 1966 version and how that's been the only one available in terms of the score. Let me play the overture, the opening of the overture from the 1966 version and compare that to the restored version that you've done. And I think our listeners will hear that the 1966 version is very heavy on strings and harps, whereas yours is crisper and there's more horns in it.

Mr. MCGLINN: Well, you know what there is in the original that there isn't in the '66 version is five saxophones.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MCGLINN: The saxophones were completely eliminated from the '66 version.

GROSS: And were replaced by violins, probably.

Mr. MCGLINN: No, and more brass.

GROSS: I'm going to start with the 1966 and then I'll go to your new restoration.

(Soundbite of orchestra music)

GROSS: So how would you compare this tune?

Mr. MCGLINN: Well, first of all, let me say that I don't want to be seen in any way to be knocking the 1966 version. It's worth remembering, first of all, Irvin Berlin supervised the '66 version, and it was orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett, who had done a large portion of the orchestrations of the original production.

It was reorchestrated for one definite reason and a second reason that I suspect, which I didn't realize until last year. First of all, this production was designed for the New York State Theater, and that is a big house. And I think they felt that orchestrations were needed that would be louder, heavier, punchier and more in the style of the 1960s. Broadway orchestrations, even though they were very peppy in the '40s, tended to be more delicate. By the '60s, we were into the age of amplification, and it was a huge hall that needed a great deal of sound to fill it.

That, I think, is partly the reason. Also, I think it was felt that the sound of the saxophones and that whole 1940s sound would sound dated to '60s mentality.

GROSS: What's interesting is that it's the 1966 version that I think really sounds dated.

Mr. MCGLINN: Now, it does because you know what it is? It's very interesting. I found this applies to so many of these shows that people go back and doctor. It's what I call malice of hindsight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGLINN: And when something is created new, you're simply creating it. You're doing what is in your heart, what is all around you musically and culturally. You are going with the flow of what you're in the middle of living in. You're not consciously second-guessing yourself. When you go back 20 years later - they did this with "Show Boat," as well - and you try to do new arrangements which are not so much in the style of the 1940s as in what they think people think the style of the '40s was, it never sounds right. It always sounds slightly ersatz, slightly artificial.

GROSS: Do you sing anymore? I mean, you have a small credit on the "Annie, Get Your Gun" recording. You're on at the reprise of "There's No Business Like Show Business." I'm not sure if you're just speaking a line there or if you're actually singing.

Mr. MCGLINN: I sing at rehearsal. I sing when someone's missing. I have, I say modestly, a very pretty, little teeny-weeny tiny tenor voice, but it was much too small to do anything with operatically, which is what I wanted to do. And I stopped singing for a very practical reason, which is that it terrified me so that, I mean, I would shake and I would vomit. And oh, it was just horrible, and I thought this is no life for an adult human being.

I'm terribly glad that I went through that. I studied voice for eight years. I took three lessons a week, and I performed in college and all of that. I know what kind of hell singers go through when they perform. And that's terribly useful to me as a conductor. I can hear before it happens when a singer is about to run out of breath. I can hear coming out of the throat when the singer needs just that little bit of extra room to get over the register break for a high note. And I think it's one of the reason singers like working with me so much is that unlike some conductors, I'm extremely sympathetic to the physical demands of what a singer has to endure in order to produce the sounds they do.

GROSS: Now, I have to ask you about "There's No Business Like Show Business," which is, you know, the anthem from the show. Did you go into this still loving that song or was the song really tired for you and did you have to work to make it fresh?

Mr. MCGLINN: No. It wasn't tired for me at all because you see, I have a trick. Whenever I feel something is getting tired for me, I avoid it like the plague and I go away from it. And in that way, it stays fresh. I mean, I haven't spent all of my life doing "There's No Business Like Show Business," so it isn't old for me.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. MCGLINN: Now, sure, you hear it all the time. You hear it sung at the end of every Tony Award ceremony, all that kind of stuff, and it's become so much, you know, a part of our bloodstream that you don't think of it. But when you're doing it in the context of the play and you're using the theater orchestration, you're suddenly - instead just everybody sort of getting up and singing a song they half know - you're dealing with a song that suddenly has a very specific emotional and theatrical point, which is they are trying to persuade Annie to leave home, to leave Darke County, Ohio and come with them, join the circus, join the Wild West Show, and she is very unsure. So they use this song to get her excited about going into show business.

So the situation was unique and fresh and how a dramatic need - there was a reason the song needed to be sung. And when you're working under those kinds of circumstances, something can't get old.

GROSS: Well, John McGlinn, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. MCGLINN: Well, my pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "There's no Business Like Show Business")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) There's no business like show business Like no business I know Everything about it is appealing Everything the traffic will allow Know when, when you get that happy feeling When you are stealing that extra bow There's no people like show people They smile when they are low Yesterday they told you, you would not go far That night you opened and there you are Next day on your dressing room they've hung a star Let's go on with the show The costumes, the...

GROSS: Our interview with conductor and music theater historian John McGlinn was recorded in 1992 after the CD release of his restoration of "Annie Get Your Gun." McGlinn died Saturday at the age of 55. He also conducted and recorded restored versions of "Show Boat," "Anything Goes," "Kiss Me, Kate," the Jerome Kern musical, "Sitting Pretty," as well as overtures and songs by Kern, Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart.

Coming up, John Powers reviews an epic crime film from Italy. This is Fresh Air.

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