Arts & Culture » Theater

Home to conduct for Opera Theatre, Kirkwood High alum John McDaniel keeps Company with RFT



This week and next, local audiences have a rare opportunity to see the New York Philharmonic's recent concert staging of the groundbreaking 1970 Broadway musical Company at area movie theaters. Lots of stars (Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone and a surprisingly persuasive Stephen Colbert, among others) came together to perform the seminal score by Stephen Sondheim. But it's worth noting that despite the many pleasures of the Philharmonic version, the definitive Company concert occurred eighteen years ago when the original Broadway cast reunited for one performance only in Long Beach, California. That now-legendary 1993 concert was conducted by Kirkwood High School grad John McDaniel, then a fledgling musical director with nary a Broadway credit to his name — but who, as the adage goes, happened to be in the right place at the right time.

By 1993 McDaniel had graduated from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and was the music director for the Long Beach Civic Light Opera, where the Company concert occurred. "Working at Long Beach was a great preparation for everything that lay ahead of me," McDaniel says. Actually, though, his musical-theater learning curve began when he was a teenager sitting in the free seats at the Muny. "In 1976 alone," he recalls, "I saw Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof, Angela Lansbury in Mame, Yul Brynner in The King and I and Patti LuPone in The Baker's Wife. Talk about an education. I have a real soft spot for the Muny."

As he now does for Company. "Some of those rehearsals were very emotional," McDaniel says. "There was a lot of love in that room. I know it sounds corny, but the theater really is like a family. We become very close. Then when the show ends, we often never see each other again. Here was this remarkable cast being reunited after more than two decades. Then there was the added dimension that this was the first time many of them had seen Dean Jones [the original Bobby, Company's pivotal role] since he left New York." (Jones abruptly quit Company two weeks after the Broadway opening.) "Now here he was, 23 years later, singing 'Being Alive' better than ever. So the evening ended up being incredibly emotional for both the actors and the audience. The applause for every single musical number was deafening. It was a magical night."

So magical that, although the Company concert had been billed as a one-time-only event, three months later it moved to New York for three performances at Lincoln Center. "Sondheim was not involved in Long Beach," McDaniel says. "He flew in at the last minute. He was blown away. I think it was a really meaningful night for him. But at Lincoln Center, he did get involved. This was my first New York gig, and I was getting notes from Stephen Sondheim. How amazing is that? I remember that he wanted the opening number to move more quickly. Frankly, these actors were no longer spring chickens. So I had been careful with them in rehearsals. But he said, 'No, let it rip.'"

For McDaniel, Company marked the beginning of a triumphant New York career. Within a year he was conducting Grease on Broadway — and he hasn't stopped since. Currently he is conducting Catch Me If You Can — though right now he's on hiatus so that he can conduct The Daughter of the Regiment, which continues in repertory through next week at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. "Opera is a wildly different experience from Broadway," McDaniel says. "There's much less rehearsal time in opera, so you have to come in the first day knowing the opera cold. In no time at all, you're rehearsing with the orchestra. Next thing you know, there are paying people in the house and it's opening night — though I think of that as the first preview. And even as I'm conducting that first public performance, I'm hoping against hope that the performers and the musicians and I will all know how to get to the end together, and somehow we do."

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.