Sunday, 2 August 2009

Straight from the Lion's Mouth - The MGM Film Musicals Prom

The Royal Albert Hall was bathed in the glow of Golden Age glamour last night as the BBC Proms celebrated the great MGM Film Musicals. The hall was something of a time machine as we were whisked back to a bygone age, with the John Wilson Orchestra, the Maida Vale Singers, and a host of vocal stars performing show-stopping numbers from the great Studio’s glittering heyday.

The project has been a labour of love for Wilson – a lifelong fan of the classic MGM sound – and the concert was the culmination of many months, if not years, of work reconstructing the original scores, literally raising from the dead the notes once put on paper by some of Hollywood’s most talented songwriters and orchestrators. With the decline of the original MGM studio and the subsequent buying and selling of its major assets, the music department archives found themselves out with the trash as developers cleared space for a new parking lot. It almost brings tears to your eyes when you think of the gems – largely notes on a page – that were discarded and probably used for landfill. All that remains are the original conductors’ books, held within the Warner Bros. archives in Burbank and it is those musty, but magical, pages that formed the basis of John Wilson’s restoration. Of course those books held only so much information about the orchestration and arrangement of the music, and so Wilson quite simply had to sit down, listen to the recordings and watch the films to transcribe note for note every part and every second of music.

The result is a tremendous feat and the show put on last night was truly a marvel as this hand picked orchestra, replete with dance band and chorus, managed to quite convincingly recreate the sound of the MGM Studio Orchestra before our eyes and ears. Opening with the swirling ‘MGM Jubilee Overture’ (arranged by then head of music, Johnny Green) I was left in no doubt that we were in for a very special evening. The scintillating strings, and those chorus voices, just smacked of another time and you couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear. From the overture we arrived at the first song, ‘The Trolley Song’ (from Meet Me In St. Louis). Once again I was bowled over by the immense sound coming out of the 95+ ensemble on the stage, while the lead vocal by Broadway/West End star Kim Criswell was as bright and peppy as it should be. If we were in any doubt of her skill at ‘becoming’ Judy Garland, her performance of ‘Over the Rainbow’ – which followed – was sublime, and enough to reduce my friend to tears.

Each of the solo vocalists embodied the original performers admirably, while at the same time bringing their own personality to the pieces. Curtis Stigers cut a fine figure as he stepped out onto the stage for the Astaire number ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby’ (from Berlin’s Easter Parade), while the higher brow figures of Sarah Fox and Sir Thomas Allen (soprano and baritone respectively) raised hairs with their beautiful, velvet tones on the likes of ‘More Than You Know’ (from Youmans’ Hit The Deck) and the classic ‘Stranger in Paradise’, as featured in 1955’s Kismet. Prior to these we were treated to the wonderfully rambunctious ‘Barn Dance’ from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The performance was an early highlight and the orchestra proved themselves even further, turning out a dazzling performance. At one point the string section took to their feet, while members of the chorus – not to mention soprano Sarah Fox – let out the odd ‘Yee Haw’. The piece, originally arranged by Adolph Deutsch, is a classic example of just how intricate and indeed difficult some of this music is; the pace was unrelenting and the players were put through their paces and no mistake, but they rose to the challenge and knocked our socks off with their energy. The smiles on their own faces were evidence enough that, while it was hard work, it was worth every bead of sweat.

One of the surprises of the evening was the last vocalist, one Seth MacFarlane. Known rather more widely for creating, writing and voicing the TV hit Family Guy, MacFarlane proved himself to be quite the crooner also. Doing a very fine impression of Frank Sinatra, he brought to life – with a little help from Criswell and Stigers – the likes of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’, ‘You’re Sensational’ and ‘Well, Did You Evah?’ from the classic Cole Porter musical High Society. The latter saw Stigers take on the Bing Crosby role, and both tuxedoed stars bounced off of one another well, champagne in hand.

There were plenty more highlights and surprises, from musicals both beloved and relatively unknown to the layman. 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather and the previous year’s Deep in My Heart were examples of the latter, though both provided further brilliant turns from MacFarlane, Fox and Sir Thomas Allen. The latter star had his big moment in the Lerner & Loewe classic ‘Gigi’ from the 1957 musical of the same name, while Criswell brought the house down with the uber-classic ‘Get Happy’ which, if you didn’t know, was composed by Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen and featured in the 1950 musical Summer Stock (coincidentally Judy Garland’s final bow for the studio).

It was 1952 which saw the film that would embody the MGM Musical ideal and Singin’ in the Rain remains the jewel in the crown, not just for the talent on display (on and off screen) but also for its iconography. Seth MacFarlane took on the title song, this time doing his very best Gene Kelly impersonation, while the hardy group of regular ‘Promenaders’ standing down at the front twirled their umbrellas. It was something of a magical moment, Conrad Salinger’s beautiful, bouncing arrangement filling the air and epitomising the night we’d shared with this brilliant band and the music of the golden age. That wasn’t all though, as the show closed with Singin’ in the Rain’s ‘Broadway Melody Ballet’, a tour de force on screen as Gene Kelly – convincing studio bosses of his latest idea – descends into the fantasy world of that idea and dances his way through set piece after set piece. We were treated to the entire routine – sans footwork – with the company singing and having a ball. This of course resulted in rapturous applause and cries for more, with the stars returning to the stage for ‘That’s Entertainment’. MacFarlane made fans of Family Guy very giddy by singing a couple of his lines as ‘Stewie’, a nice touch for those in the know.

I’ve seen many shows in my time, musical and otherwise, but I can’t remember a time when I’ve been so captivated and so uplifted. The artistry on display, both on the page and on the stage was truly awesome and John Wilson’s dream – finally realised live at the Albert Hall – was nothing short of a triumph, straight from the Lion’s mouth.

With thanks to Bethan Bide at BBC Proms.

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