My Dinner With John McD.
John McDaniel talks about life before Rosie and his current projects, including a show at Joe's Pub.
Had dinner at Joe Allen with John McDaniel, best-known as the musical director of Rosie O'Donnell's TV show. Though I'm there to interview him, he's asking the questions. That's because I'm 15 years older than he, so I got to see many of the shows whose window cards grace the walls. When John points posters for Prettybelle, A Broadway Musical, or Come Summer, I'm off and talking.
Suddenly, he gets a bit embarrassed. "I'm still such a baby about all this stuff," he says. "You'd think after all this time I wouldn't be, but I am. I'm still crying over the Merrily concert." Well, Mr. McD, it's okay to be a baby -- if you're a Broadway baby. And indeed, John McDaniel is, as audiences will see for themselves when he comes to Joe's Pub this weekend.
It all started partly because McDaniel's mother taught him to play piano when he was five, and partly because there was a terrific library in his native St. Louis. "By the seventh grade, I was at a children's theater, music directing The Wizard of Oz with the little kids and acting with the bigger kids in West Side Story." But that wasn't enough for young John. "I set up a theater in my basement, too. I did two full seasons! I built a full proscenium curtain and had lights. I'd go to the library and check out plays for kids -- non-royalty murder mysteries. I didn't make money because I didn't know about marketing." He pauses. "And if I had known about it, I wouldn't have made time for it, because I was writing background music for these plays." McDaniel also did a romantic-themed revue of Broadway material whose title also showed some astonishingly precocious acumen: Ribbons and Beaus.
Young McDaniel frequently visited the record section of the library -- at least, the part that included the words "original," "cast," " and "album." "Some I heard once and didn't want to hear again," he admits, "but for every one of those, there was Subways Are For Sleeping, The Golden Apple, Kwamina, and High Spirits. I even love the title song of To Broadway With Love," he says, referring to the musical revue that played at the 1964 World's Fair.
Finally, in 1975, when he was 14, his folks took him to New York. "Of course, I wanted to see Chicago and A Chorus Line, but we didn't know anybody in power who could get us seats." So it was off to The Magic Show. "I loved it and was mesmerized -- not by the magic," he stresses, lest we think him easily dazzled. "It was Anita Morris who made the big impression one me. I mean, come on! She was great, singing her little heart out."
McDaniel then attended Kirkwood High School in St. Louis, where he appeared in Meet Me at the Fair ("a rip-off of Meet Me in St. Louis," he readily admits). His father offered to send him to a private school but John chose to stay where he was -- "because," he says, "my school had a program where kids could direct their own shows, and that's what I wanted to do. Sophomore year, I directed Bells Are Ringing with sets by James D. Sandefur, who'd go on to design Fences on Broadway."
But McDaniels wanted to get on stage, too. "The rules were you couldn't direct and be in a show, but you could be in it if you just choreographed." So the following year's production was The Boy Friend, with choreography by McDaniel, who played Tony as well. "It was a stellar performance," he says mock-heroically, "but not quite as ravishing as my Tevye in senior year. Funny thing; later, at my same high school, Scott Bakula played Tevye, too."
After his own Tevye triumph, McDaniel felt cocky enough to audition at Carnegie-Mellon with no less than the entire "Soliloquy" from Carousel. "They not only let me do it all," he says, with amazement still permeating his voice, "but they also accepted me for the program." In his third week of school, he was playing in a piano bar, and was approached by a student who was staging a revue called City Lights (named after the Kander and Ebb song, natch) with Pam Klinger (later Maggie in A Chorus Line, both on Broadway and in the movie). "They didn't like their piano player and offered me the show," McD relates. That director-choreographer, by the way, was Rob Marshall, who later wanted McDaniel to do his Chicago movie -- "But it was happening during Rosie's last year and I just couldn't walk away from her," he says ruefully.
Ah, yes, Rosie. She is, after all, the reason much of the nation knows John McDaniel's name. Until she hired him for her daily TV show, only the most staunch of musical theater enthusiasts could tell you that he was the rehearsal pianist for the Los Angeles production of Mail in 1988 ("But I wasn't asked to come to Broadway with it, which was a heartbreaker") or the musical director for the Company reunion concert in 1995 ("Everyone welcomed Dean Jones back, and were they ever impressed that he could sing the songs in their original keys"). Later that year, he was music director, vocal and dance music arranger for the ill-fated Busker Alley ("Hey, it really was getting better, especially when Peter Stone came in to write the book.")
In 1996, McDaniel did musical supervision and vocal arrangements for the Applause revival that bowed at the Paper Mill Playhouse -- and he had to fasten his seat belt, for it was going to be a bumpy fright. "Stefanie Powers was really a handful," he says. "I don't speak ill of very many people, but," he says, before deciding to put a better spin on it. "I think that all came from -- no, I know it all came from -- fear." By then, though, he was doing The Rosie O'Donnell Show, thanks to his hitting it off with the lady when he met her at a party, and from their subsequent involvement with Grease. "What was best about the [TV] show," he says, "is that I could get people like Klea Blackhurst, Mimi Hines, Donna McKechnie, and Julie Wilson on national TV. I also love that people are still coming up to me and saying, 'Thank you for telling me about such-and-such a show, because I'd never have seen it had you not mentioned it.'"
Life after Rosie does have its pluses. "I like that I don't have to get up at 6:30 -- sometimes 6:00 -- in the morning. I was used to doing Broadway shows, which meant going to bed at 2 and getting up at 10." But once he's up, he's busy. As John McDaniel nears his 42nd birthday (on February 26), he has co-produced a Maury Yeston collection for PS Classics that'll be out in April; perhaps it, too, will win a Grammy, just as the Annie Get Your Gun revival cast album did for him. He'll be musical director when Rosie O'Donnell's production of Taboo arrives on our shores. He's co-producing a new musical called Brooklyn, about homeless people who live under the Brooklyn Bridge. (Look to hear some of it this weekend at Joe's Pub, for Eden Espinosa, who was in the show's workshop, will be on hand.)
McDaniel has also recorded three CDs of piano music and gives much of the money to such organizations as Broadway Cares-Equity Fights AIDS, the Robin Hood Relief Fund (which helps victims of the World Trade Center attacks), and the Grammy Foundation (which supports music in schools). "Every kid should stand behind a curtain and get the thrill you get just before it goes up," says McDaniel, whose experience doing just that started him on the road he still follows.