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Being John McDaniel

Rosie O'Donnell's music man, John McD, talks to David Hurst about turning 39, winning a Grammy Award, and the divas he loves.

By New York City
Over the past several years, the whole country has gotten to know John McDaniel as "John McD," conductor of "The McDLTs" and the cutie-patootie sidekick to "Ro" herself on The Rosie O'Donnell Show.

Fresh off a Grammy win for the new Broadway cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun (starring Bernadette Peters), and with mounting requests to conduct major symphony orchestras piling up on his desk, McDaniel sat down for an informal interview with TheaterMania. As he spoke candidly about his pal Rosie, his career thus far, upcoming projects, and life in general, JMcD revealed facets of a fellow we may not know as well as we think we do.

TM: First of all, let me wish you a belated Happy Birthday.

JMcD: Thanks so much. I just turned 39.

TM: ...for the first time.

JMcD: (laughing) First and last! I'm actually looking forward to my 40s.

TM: Well, the Grammy award must have been an incredible birthday present for you.

JMcD: Oh, yes. But something hilarious happened at the Grammy ceremony. Lalo Schifrin gave the award. He read off the nominees and he said, "And the winner is Ste..." He just got that much out, and my co-producer Steve Ferrara and I jumped out of our seats. Then [Schifrin] said "Steven Ferrara and John McDaniel," so it was fine. But, later, I realized that Steven Trask wrote the music to Hedwig [and the Angry Inch]." If [Schifrin] had been saying "Steven Trask," I would have been mortified!

TM: It would have been one of those horrible moments.

JMcD: Horrible. But we were really thrilled to win.

TM: This was your first time producing a Broadway cast recording. Tell me a little bit about that experience.

JMcD: Well, it was great fun. I'm indebted to Barry Weissler--the producer of the show on Broadway--who had the idea that I might do the album. I did all of the arrangements for the show, so I was really familiar with it, and I realized it would be such a great first record to do because I know the material inside and out. If anything, I was a little too close to it. But, of course, I said I would be thrilled [to produce]. I paired up with Steven Ferrara, who works for Angel Records, and we proved to be a really great team.

TM: Were there any major problems that you, as a producer, had to deal with?

JMcD: Not at all. Angel was a terrific company to work with. And Bernadette [Peters] gave it her all. She really bent over backwards to make it a great album.

TM: Recently, you've been performing with symphony orchestras and philharmonics around the country.

JMcD: My favorite thing. I'm from St. Louis and, when I was a kid I would go with my mom to see the St. Louis Symphony. They had a Saturday afternoon series and we'd go, like, five times a year. I can remember getting bundled up with my mom and we'd go to Powell Hall, this magnificent symphony hall. We'd sit up in the dress circle, and this guy would walk out on stage. He would turn around and bow, and then he would conduct magnificent music. That had such an impact on me. Fast forward to years later: I'm on television, I have some visibility, and the St. Louis Symphony asks me if I would be interested in conducting the St. Louis Pops.

TM: I'll bet you fell out of your chair!

JMcD: I really did! I had just begun to dream about doing that kind of thing you know? So, a couple of years ago, I did my first concert with the orchestra. It was "home town boy comes home," and it was a big success. I brought a dear friend of mine to be the guest star: Anne Runolfsson, who's done a million Broadway shows.

TM: What kind of repertoire do you program?

JMcD: We do a lot of music from Broadway. Last year, we did a Halloween program that was great fun. I've done a tribute to big bands, and quite a lot of Christmas programs. But, whenever it's my first time with an orchestra and they ask my favorite type of music, I always say "Broadway."


TM: Speaking of Broadway, are you working on any new projects in New York?

JMcD: I'm still the supervising music director of Annie Get Your Gun, so when Bernadette departs this summer, I'll put in the new star--whoever that may be. And we're working on putting together a national tour.

TM: I've heard that Bernadette and Tom [Wopat] are both going to tour.

JMcD: At one point, they were talking about that. I'm not sure if it's still going to happen.

TM: Do you want to give us any teasers on who might be replacing Bernadette on Broadway?

JMcD: Well, you know Rosie [O'Donnell] considered it for a bit, but she realized it was going to be too much, with the TV show coming back in September. The timing was not quite right. But I've been telling her for a long time that she should do Annie Get Your Gun on television. She'd be so great.

TM: Do you have any "dream" Broadway shows?

JMcD: Some folks have batted around the idea of doing revues on Broadway with rotating leading ladies, a Ziegfeld kind of a show. I think that would be a lot of fun. I'm so hooked on variety now! It would be great to do a real "follies" on Broadway--you know, Angela Lansbury coming in for three weeks, then Carol Burnett, then Tyne Daly. It could be a really exciting, "I'd better buy my ticket now because you never know who's going to be there" kind of thing.

TM: In an interview a couple of years ago, you talked about a musical that you were writing. Is there any update on that that?

JMcD: I have some ideas. It's all about finding the time to create it.

TM: What about Broadway regrets? Were there any shows that got away? Things that were heartbreakers? I know that you worked on Busker Alley with Tommy Tune.

JMcD: (sighs) I did...from the very beginning. The thing that really kills me about that show was that it was getting really, really good. We worked so hard on it, and it was such an audience pleaser. The reviews were kind of mixed, but they were getting better. We were ready to come in...

TM: And then Tommy hurt his foot.

JMcD: Yes. I watched him fall, and his face went white. It was shocking to witness that.


TM: You've worked with some amazing performers and artists in your career. For me, certainly, the Company reunion concert at Lincoln Center in 1993 was a shattering experience. I think I wept through the entire thing.

JMcD: So did I.

TM: Donna McKechnie doing "Tick-Tock..."

JMcD: Oh, my God!

TM: ...Pamela Myers singing "Another Hundred People," Elaine Stritch singing "The Ladies Who Lunch"...

JMcD: Beyond belief. We first did the concert out in California at Long Beach Civic Light Opera, where I worked as the resident conductor for a number of years. I had been a fan of Company for such a long time, and to have the original cast back together was breathtaking. We didn't have Merle Louise in L.A., because she had another commitment; but in New York we had everyone except Charlie Braswell, who had passed away. Every living cast member was there. Hal [Prince] and Stephen [Sondheim] and all those folks became involved at that point, so it was an amazing experience. I wish it could have lasted longer. But, because we only did three performances, each performance was really special.

TM: You've worked a lot with Patti LuPone. What's she like?

JMcD: Well, the concert that we did at the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles--which was recorded--is one of my favorite times with her. I met Patti in 1985 when I was the music director on a cruise ship called The Fair Sea in the Caribbean. I was just a kid--I was 24--and she came on as the headliner. I was dumbstruck. It was Patti at the beginning of the cruise and Cab Calloway at the end, and I was just in heaven. Patti and I hit it off; we had buffet lunches together, we laughed and drank into the night and had such a good time. We kind of kept in touch a little bit after that, but we really reunited when she moved back out to L.A. to do Life Goes On. Then we created this show, Patti LuPone Live, at about the same time the Company concert was happening in L.A. I was bouncing off the walls, but I was so in my element. I flew to London to see Patti in Sunset Boulevard. I'd go anywhere to see her.

TM: She's such a force of nature on stage. When I met her, I was struck by the fact that she's quite diminutive. Not unlike Bernadette and a lot of our female icons.

JMcD: It's true.


TM: Speaking of female icons...how about Stephanie Powers?

JMcD: (lets out a scream) You'd better stop! (convulses in laughter)

TM: I have to ask. I saw that production of Applause that you both did out at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

JMcD: I'm sorry.

TM: I actually had a good time, because I had never seen a professional production of the show before.

JMcD: You still haven't!

TM: Okay. Let's move on to the next diva. Dixie Carter?

JMcD: What a sweet lady. A gentle woman. I love her.

TM: Carol Burnett?

JMcD: Carol is a dear friend. While she was here doing Putting It Together, we got to see one another quite a bit. She's a real "bud" to me; we talk often. But I did pinch myself when I invited her out to my house in the country for lunch last year. I went inside to freshen our drinks, and I was like, "Carol Burnett is sitting by my pool!"

TM: Now, what about Tyne Daley?

JMcD: I'm so glad we skipped over Stephanie Powers! (laughs) Tyne is another great lady, and a hard worker. She worked her ass off when we did a production of Ballroom together in L.A.

TM: Naturally, I have to conclude with Rosie O'Donnell--the woman who, I guess, has changed your life.

JMcD: Hello!

TM: Give us a few words about Rosie.

JMcD: She's the kindest, most supportive, one of the truest friends I have. And I think it's a mutual support system going on. It's very, very special. I wouldn't change it for the world.

TM: What has it been like for you to evolve over the last couple of years into a celebrity? Are you always recognized in public now, or do you still have some degree of anonymity?

JMcD: You know, once in a while I feel like I'm slipping into anonymity, and then the celebrity sneaks up behind me. I had dinner not too long ago at a restaurant with a friend of mine. At the end of the meal, the waitress came over and said "We just want you to know that we love your show, and we're so thrilled you're here." Then she said, "That gentleman over there didn't believe it was you, but we told him it was." So this whole thing had been going on in the restaurant, and I didn't even know it. People were aware that I was there, which is so odd for a music director. It's not something I could ever really dream up for myself.

TM: How do you balance the fame with your image of yourself?

JMcD: I don't think about it much. Rosie and I have a very similar outlook on the show: We realize that it has a far-reaching impact but, when we're doing it, it feels like it's just us and 120 of our close friends. I mean, the audience is quite small. It's very intimate, and Rosie and I talk back and forth just like we were in an office or a restaurant. You know, if you start to think about the fact that there are millions of people watching and listening to you, it can be a little creepy. So we kind of keep it to what it is, and we're just ourselves. We get excited about the show, but we don't get nervous anymore. It's fallen into a very comfortable morning hang.

TM: What's next on the horizon for John McD?

JMcD: I just started talks with a major artist to produce an album for her; I can't really say who it is yet, because it's just in the planning stages. And Rosie's hosting the Tonys again, so I'll probably work on the opening number for that with her. We're going to be doing numbers from lots of Broadway shows on our show leading up to the Tonys; I think we'll have one every day leading up to awards.

TM: Will you have time to take a vacation at some point?

JMcD: I'm going to Tahiti in June for a couple weeks. I've never been, and I'm looking forward to it. I'll just put my feet up and...

TM: ...sip on something cool?

JMcD: (laughing) Yeah!


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