- “The Story So Far, with Conductor John Wilson”
- “The Story So Far; Or, Conductor John Wilson—His Limits”
- Read my comic novel of Hollywood COLD OPEN here
- Find my album JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here
That however you live
There’s a part of you always standing by
Mapping out the sky
Finishing a hat
Starting on a hat
Finishing a hat
Look, I made a hat
Where there never was a hat
Taken by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (Waterland, Paris Trout) one Sunday afternoon May 2006. Steve gave me this pic the following month and he’s not getting it back. He just doesn’t understand what a good shot this is.
John and O don’t always perform semi-staged fully-voiced musicals badly at their BBC Proms appearances at the Royal Albert Hall—their 2012 My Fair Lady was pretty much all right, no shenanigans there (pronounced The Guardian, “John Wilson’s adapted score—which borrows from Andre Previn’s movie arrangement—adds a sparkle to even the most drearily expository songs: the flutes somehow sound cheekier, the brass ruder, the strings zingier”). And in fact their 2014 Kiss Me Kate was as it was meant to be: big, sexy and playful. Winsome John even gets a speaking part!
Above John and the hilarious Louise Dearman as singer/sexworld adventuress Lois Lane (Yes I swear to God, that’s the name the writers of this classic 1948 Broadway musical gave her): The entire audio recording of BBC Proms 2014’s Kiss Me Kate.
Now, we all know about “Too Darn Hot” with its descriptions of nice normal congress (“I’d like to sup with my baby tonight / Play the pup with my baby tonight”) and “Tom, Dick or Harry” with its lyrics “I’m a maid mad to marry and would take double quick / Any Tom, Dick or Harry, any Tom, Harry or Dick” and the lilting refrain “A-dick-a-dick dick dick, a-dick-a-dick dick dick”…
But did you ever stop to think about the song “Always True to You in My Fashion”? Which was one of my party pieces years and years ago (alternating with “I Cain’t Say No” from Oklahoma). I’ve given it some thought and what I worked out is this: Lois isn’t just your ordinary sex supplier—no, she specializes in those extra-special somethings that make a man (well, certain men) happy and willing to pay top dollar for them. Not to mention that in every verse she pretty much announces her rates for rough stuff, plus a type of sex play I could never get into:
…ending always with the last line, “But I’m always true to you darling in my fashion / Yes I’m always true to you darling in my way.” Which to me is the number-one indication she keeps it hot with her boyfriend because with him it’s, like I said, nice normal congress. You know, vanilla. But with her clients? As you may recall I was in The Business, where scenarios abound. (Remember Basingstoke?) All this to say it amuses me to no end to watch Lois size up within two seconds The Conductor, cunningly portrayed by my beloved John Wilson. Because I know exactly what’s going on in her head, in descending order:
But don’t blame me, take it up with Cole Porter.
About 15 or so years ago, I was somebody’s plus-one on an industry pass to go to a preview of the showbiz biopic Beyond the Sea, which was being shown in a really good theater with an above-average sound system. I wasn’t a particular fan of Bobby Darin or even of Kevin Spacey (for all that he is the definitive Jamie Tyrone of our generation and frankly I don’t care about anything else); actually I just wanted to find out how cheesy the production could get. Well honestly, it did start off pretty cheesily, every element that should’ve contributed some genuine worth—like, you know, the lead acting, the directing, design, (makeup! prosthesis!) etc—was utter bad-phony, not good-phony, bullcrap…and then they struck up the soundtrack orchestra…
Above Spacey: “Beyond the Sea” as only my beloved John could do it.
If I could’ve exclaimed “Holy mackerel!” out loud the moment that gorgeous snap hit my ears I would’ve exclaimed it out loud, but you don’t do that at an industry screening, so I exclaimed it in my mind. I hadn’t heard a commitment like that coming from a track orchestra in a very long time. This was no pick-up crew, this was one tight unit, and they were hitting the musical values like nobody’s business. I vowed to remember the name of this bright new conductor-arranger—which of course I promptly forgot (There are a lot of John Wilsons in the world, as Anthony Burgess would be the first to tell you) and didn’t remember again until last May. Recorded by my darling and his O for the Warner Bros film at Pinewood Studios, 2003. A 2006 Grammy nominee in the Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media category (composers Charles Trenet-Jack Lawrence, arranger Dick Behrke, producer Phil Ramone). Available on Rhino Records, that notorious niche label, and I really must find out who at Warners moved it to that catalog.
Completely bummed out that John’s 21 January concert with the LSO at the Barbican was completely canceled, so here’s my bonny lad at the 2012 BBC Proms with his eponymous orchestra in a really classy semi-staged concert of the complete 1956 Broadway musical, My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe; orchestration (for the movie score) by Andre Previn, orchestration enhancement by John Wilson. Cast: Anthony Andrews, James Fleet, Alun Armstrong, Julian Ovenden etc, and as Eliza, Annalene Beechey.
In an episode of this television series (available on my YT channel here), originally broadcast exclusively in New York City, Sondheim speaks before a workshop of NYC high school students, discussing the genesis of such songs as “Small World”, “I Feel Pretty”, and “One Hand, One Heart,” which are performed by Martha Wright and Ralph Curtis.
This show also includes question and answer period with Irwin Kostal, arranger and conductor for West Side Story. Hosted by Earl Wrightson. Produced by Ned Cramer. Directed by Neal Finn.
Above: Lyricist-Composer Stephen Sondheim, Baritone/Host Earl Wrightson, Orchestrator-Conductor Irwin Kostal. Again, here’s the clip on YT that provides a rare glimpse into the creative life of Sondheim and Kostal.
Here’s an excerpt transcription:
Mr Kostal, what is the difference between an orchestrator and an arranger?
It refers specifically to what you find on the music. When a composer composes a piece of music, we hope that it’s a complete piece of music, and when a man like Mr Bernstein composes the music (short laugh) it is. So all you do, you just discuss with him what he’d like to hear, flutes, violins…and you follow exactly what is written on the paper. This is what I call orchestration. Now, I get to do very little of that kind of work…because nowadays composers don’t bother with too much detail…
Steve [Sondheim] here is the kind of man we need because he’s studying music, and believe me that is a rarity on Broadway, because most composers don’t… At one time in history, composers actually did their own orchestration. They had the time in those days…but also, they could do it. For instance, Victor Herbert was a tremendous orchestrator. On one television show I did recently I actually used Mr Herbert’s scores as he wrote them in 1916—I couldn’t do ‘em any better. He knew what he was doing. Kurt Weill was the last one to do this. George Gershwin never did it on Broadway, but he—after he became a successful songwriter—studied music and learned how to orchestrate so that by the time he did Porgy and Bess he was able to do a very good job on the orchestrations.
Now, in arranging—if the composer does not do his job properly, the orchestrator has to come in and finish the job for him. Now, you’d be surprised how many times I do Broadway shows where I get roughly a one-line melody, a lead sheet, and I have to add the bass line, the harmony, the chords, and if it goes on for four minutes or a routine I have to think of things for the flutes to play and the violins to play etcetera, and it becomes a hefty job and I really feel like I am a composer’s partner when I do this*… You know, the more you do of this sort of work, the less the composer likes it. Because he’s kind of mad at you because he didn’t do it himself, I think anyway. And it serves him right. He should do it himself. I think he should go to school himself and learn. We have too many lead sheets—sure, the melody is the most important thing in music, but too many of our composers have decided to write only the melody. They have separated melody from music. Now, the art of melody writing is not a separate art from music, it’s a part of music. And when they have written this top line and leave the rest to me, they’ve got to be dissatisfied because they didn’t do it themselves. Let them get down to their business and go to school and learn to write!
[*I wonder who’s he’s talking about. Shinbone Alley’s George Kleinsinger? Fiorello’s Jerry Bock? Surely not The Music Man’s Meredith Willson—Willson went to Juilliard.]
Sondheim: The use of songs in it I hope will be different than the so-called “integrated musical” where the songs and the story constantly flow in and out of each other. It’d been going on for so many years now, I think a rather tired formula, that…
Host: Well, it was a good thing when it happened. I remember all those years in operetta, bursting into song for no reason… But that’s not what you’re going to do with this.
Sondheim: Oh, we might. It’s fun as long as it works.
Above Carol and Bronson: Jason Alexander and LA cast sing “Comedy Tonight”.
Here’s the show’s most lascivious number, cunningly retooled for modern times, from the 1999 Broadway revue highlighting Sondheim’s music, Putting It Together:
Everybody ought to have a maid
Everybody ought to have a working boy
Everybody ought to have a lurking boy
To putter around the house…
The indication “burlesque strip style” was actually written on the music right around 4:00. Both Ramin and Ginzler cut their teeth writing swing arrangements; lead trumpet in the original Gypsy pit was Dick Perry, late of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Solo trumpet Mike Lovatt here lays it down fine. Some people obviously know something about burlycue. Composer Jule Styne was pleased with this overture’s orchestration.
Above the man of my desire: The entire audio recording of The Broadway Sound. Plus at 4:00 of this clip on YT of the Overture John shimmies like a brazen hussy. This is the moment one year ago today when I fell in love with you, John mi vida. That lovely luscious moment when I stumbled onto that clip above of you at the Royal Albert and got your number…
Three years after Man of La Mancha was a major hit on Broadway, Belgian music legend Jacques Brel licensed the staging rights, adapted the book, translated the lyrics, directed the production, and starred as Don Quixote with the original Dulcinea herself, Joan Diener.
Here’s a song that’ll tear your heart out (English lyrics by Joe Darion; music by Paul Hindemith-trained Mitch Leigh; French lyrics by Jacques Brel):
This nine-minute medley sung by Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett, called “History of Musical Comedy”, is a variety-show tour de force enough for the first six minutes; then at 6:00 it rises to high art in the most affecting soprano duet in the repertoire of American lyric theater.