John McGlinn was a musical-theatre archivist and conductor who worked tirelessly over the past 20 years to restore vintage musicals so that they could be heard and seen with their original orchestrations and vocal arrangements, and with lost songs reinstated.
“I grew up listening to songs that originated in shows, then in college I heard some authentic 1920s recordings and realised what a distance recent recordings had strayed from the firstnight versions of these songs. The original versions often had more bite, energy and exuberance, and conveyed more the emotional power of the composer’s work, and hearing modern recordings began to seem like listening to Mozart with saxophones.”
Among the classic scores recorded by McGlinn were Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, Anything Goes and a remarkable presentation of Show Boat, which took three CDs to accommodate all the items that had been added and deleted over the years.
This achievement alone would have given McGlinn a stellar place in musical history. The New Yorker magazine called it “The show album of the past, and a show album for the future.” His work was greatly enhanced by the remarkable discovery in 1987, in a Warner Brothers warehouse in Seacaucus, New Jersey, of the original scores of dozens of musicals by composers such as Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Vincent Youmans. “It’s like opening the tomb of King Tut,” said McGlinn.
He was born in 1953 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and raised in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. He taught himself piano as a child, studied music theory and composition at Northwestern University, and after graduating in 1976 he studied singing – on several of his albums he does a cameo spot.
In 1973 McGlinn helped the veteran arranger Hans Spialek recreate his original orchestrations for a revival of Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, which was a big hit. He had his first experience of conducting with Songs of New York, a two-CD set for the Book of the Month Club, for which he also selected material. In the liner notes he set out what would come to be his trademark approach to the material. “These songs are presented in a form as close to the original as possible.
In all cases, the earliest published sources have been used, and the composer’s original manuscript – when it still existed – was consulted.
The music is not ‘stylised’ in the current fashion, but sung absolutely straight, with the pitches and rhythms that the composer intended.” The material ranged from 1894 (“The Sidewalks of New York”) to 1977 (“New York, New York”, sung by its composers, Kander and Ebb.
Kern was McGlinn’s favourite composer, and he conducted three Kern musicals in concert at the Carnegie Recital Hall, the success of which prompted EMI to offer him a recording contract. In 1988 he realised his ambition to record a definitive Show Boat, but his desire for authenticity was to cause a major problem. “The original show opened with black stevedores in 1880s Mississippi lifting stacks of cotton and singing ‘Niggers all work on the Mississippi…’ and it shocked the audience, as Hammerstein intended it to do, but it always provoked unease – the London production in 1928 and all productions afterwards substituted ‘Here we all work on the Mississippi’ or ‘Coloured folk work on the Mississippi’. I insisted we go back and restore the original word, but on the first day of rehearsal, the Glyndebourne chorus from Porgy and Bess, who had been contracted to be our chorus, walked out, refusing to sing that word. I did my best to try to explain to them why it was dramatically necessary. You do not educate people about bigotry by trying to pretend that bigotry never took place.
People want to forget how blacks were treated in the South in the 1880s, and Show Boat for its time in its small way was as tough a look at that period as they felt they could do. I cringe when that word comes, and that’s good, because that’s why it’s there, to make you cringe.” The Ambrosian Singers took over the choral work and the album was acclaimed by both critics and public.
For a time, McGlinn’s album output was prodigious – in 1989 he also recorded Jerome Kern Overtures and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1989).
Explaining the difficulties of reconstruction, McGlinn said, “Broadway composers wrote for the present, and few (certainly not Cole Porter) believed their work would survive and be cherished by a future that would regard the best of Porter’s generation as an unparalleled group of geniuses, so few took pains to preserve the scores.” Among the numbers restore Anything Goeswas “Kate the Great”, a comic song about Catherine of Russia, which was cut when the show’s star, Ethel Merman, refused to sing the lines, “She made the butler, she made the groom, she made the maid who made the room…” Kim Criswell delivered the number with appropriate gusto. “John was, in a way, a complete innocent,” she told the New York Times. “He really thought the world should be populated by those fresh, simple characters in the cute musicals of the 1920s. That was the life he was going for.”
For his album Cole Porter Overtures (1990) McGlinn scored a coup by including the world premiere recording of Within the Quota, a ballet composed by Porter for the Swedish Ballet Company and long considered lost (even by Porter).
McGlinn achieved another coup by recording for New World Records the complete score of Kern’s 1924 musical, Sitting Pretty, with lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse.
Though a gorgeous score, it was a risky commercial prospect, since none of the songs had become standards, and it was financed by grants.
I first met McGlinn in 1992 when he was recording Showstoppers, which includes four numbers from Kern and Hammerstein’s Sweet Adeline.
It turned out to be one of his finest albums, a beguiling mixture of the familiar (“Tea for Two”, “Dancing in the Dark”, “September Song”) and the rare.
In 1992 EMI failed to renew McGlinn’s contract, citing falling sales of CDs and a declining interest in vintage shows. McGlinn continued to conduct concert performances. Recently he conducted two albums of Wagner excerpts for the Naxos label, and he had been contracted to restore the orchestrations and dance music to the 1954 theatrical version of Peter Pan.
A few years ago, McGlinn anticipated the time when he “passed into the ether,” stating, “It’s nice to know that I accomplished something worthwhile for the art of my country and that I’m leaving behind things that hopefully will give people a lot of pleasure for many generations to come.”
John McGlinn, musical archivist and conductor: born Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 18 September 1953; died New York 14 February 2009.