The Passing of John McGlinn
As I'm writing this, seven minutes ago Michael Jackson—who was (and may still be) a mesmerizing musical talent—announced a series of appearances in London, and perhaps around the world. I say good luck to him.
I simply cannot look at Michael Jackson. Too much deeply intimate stuff about him has been shoved down my gullet by the media: his admitted proclivity for sleeping with young boys, the photograph of him dangling a baby out a hotel window, the apparently botched surgery that disfigured his elegant face, the child’s fantasy world of Neverland Ranch, the lurid court cases and the endless speculation about his health. All these weird associations run through my head at the mention of his name. I would never pay money to see him perform, and I switch channels the instant he appears on TV.
This is the era of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, texting, “sexting” (sending salacious self-portraits over the Internet and cell phones), blogs and memoirs where tens of millions of us glory in “letting it all hang out.” As a March 5 headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed: “Stars Micro-Blog Their Lives on Twitter.”
Somehow we feel it's our God-given right to know everything about everybody—Britney, Lindsay, Alec, Tom and Katie, Monica and Bill, Octo-Mom ...
So why am I deeply saddened by the death of a little-known, young musicologist, researcher and conductor whom I never met and about whom I knew absolutely nothing?
His life’s work touched many deeply.
John McGlinn, 1953-2009
I was startled to see my old sparring partner John McGlinn turn up in the obituaries column last week. He was only 55, and died in Manhattan apparently of a heart attack. He was a marvelous conductor who loved opera and was beloved by opera singers, and could have had a good career, up to his neck in Wagner and Verdi. But he loved musicals — or, more precisely, musical comedies. A lot of the highbrow cats dig Sondheim, West Side Story, Carousel, Porgy And Bess. But John McGlinn was a great musician who loved the frothy stuff, the ditsy musical comedy scores of the teens and twenties, and he believed not in the cut-'n'-paste approach of current revivals — kick out this song, replace it with that one — but rather that as much as there was a version of Don Giovanni chiseled in stone, so too there were "authentic" versions of 90-year old Broadway shows with the original songs in the original orchestrations with original dialogue over original underscoring, and all in the right order.
—Mark Steyn, “The Land Where the Good Songs Go,” Feb. 27, 2009
At Kenyon College in 1954, I attended a party at the Alpha Delt's fraternity lounge, where a bunch of guys and their dates watched "The Colgate Comedy Hour" television version of Cole Porter’s "Anything Goes" starring Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra and Bert Lahr. Of course it was in black-and-white and live—everything was in those days. Merman—who played Reno Sweeny in the original 1934 production—blasting out “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and “You’re the Top” is etched in memory, as is “I Get a Kick Out of You” and the title song with its catchy melody and dizzyingly brilliant Porter lyrics.
Fast-forward 38 years. My wife, Peggy, and I sold our cranky little newsletter about junk mail and moved to Philadelphia to take over Target Marketing magazine. To celebrate no more hassles of running our own business, and coming away with a wee bit of money, we splurged and bought ourselves an upmarket, high-tech, bookshelf-sized CD/AM/FM/Cassette player by Bang & Olufsen.
The very first CD I bought to try out this grand new rig was a recent recording of the original version of "Anything Goes," conceived and reorchestrated by the brilliantly talented young John McGlinn. He also did the casting, musical direction and conducting. McGlinn’s passion was sleuthing down old musicals and reviving them as they originally sounded.
It's a stunning CD that includes a 144-page book of the show—the history, portraits of the writers, a biography of Cole Porter, the original Playbill program, complete lyrics and much more, including commentary in French and German.
All his life—right up to his penultimate show, "Out of This World"—the naughty Cole Porter ran afoul of the censors. For example, you can bet the full lyrics of "Anything Goes" were not included in the sanitized "Colgate Comedy Hour" production back in 1954:
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like,
Or me undressed you like,
Why, nobody will oppose.
When e’vry night the set that’s smart is in-
Truding in nudist parties in
Many years ago I knew a guy named W. Roosevelt (Tommy) Thompson, the alcoholic son of advertising titan J. Walter Thompson, who lived in a huge house next to Gillette Castle overlooking the Connecticut River. Thompson's single claim to fame was that in his lifetime, he had seen every play of William Shakespeare performed. He confessed to me that he had once traveled to London for the singular purpose of seeing a rare production of "Titus Andronicus." I was appalled. Yet 50 years later, I did the same thing.
After waiting 45 years to see "Anything Goes" live, I spotted a 2004 revival in London that was running during the week of the big Reed Direct Marketing Fair at Earls Court. In addition, my best clients would be attending the show, so I manufactured an excuse to fly to London and stay at the Ambassadors Hotel & Flophouse on the cheap, cheap, cheap and take my clients to see this legendary musical. My God, it was worth every penny! In the 2004 biopic of Cole Porter—"De-Lovely," starring Kevin Klein—the "Anything Goes" sequence was filmed at that revival.
What was the life force deep in John McGlinn's psyche that drove his career? As he said to the brilliant NPR interviewer Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" in 1992:
When these shows were being written, nobody thought of them as great art. They were commodities. They were designed to make the authors and the producers money. That’s really all anybody thought about it. Now I’m convinced that late at night in the recesses of their studies, the composers themselves did think of it as art. They knew they were creating beautiful music. But even so, they still treated it very much as a commodity. Orchestrations were not preserved. Manuscripts were not even preserved. If a song or a complete show wasn’t a big hit, nobody felt it was important to preserve it in case it were going to be re-evaluated for posterity 50 years later. What was the miracle that created people like Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, Dietz and Schwartz? All at this one time these incredible people! And artistry like that—quite apart from the style has changed—doesn’t seem to exist en masse today. People just didn’t think it was all going to end. So I think now people are realizing that we’ve lost something incredibly precious. We better find it and reclaim it and preserve it as fast as we can.
As a researcher, McGlinn was a veritable bloodhound, sniffing out original material hidden for decades in libraries, vaults, musty warehouses and private collections. One treasure that Cole Porter believed lost forever was the score for his 16-minute ballet, "Within the Quota," first performed in Paris in 1923. Scenery, plot and costumes were by his party-animal buddy Gerald Murphy, scion of the Mark Cross department store, who was unflatteringly portrayed by Scott Fitzgerald as Dick Diver in "Tender Is the Night."
McGlinn searched for this work all over the world and finally traced the original to the archives of the Royal Swedish Ballet in Stockholm. He persuaded the Swedes and the Porter estate to let him include it in the album of Porter overtures. A fusion of classical and jazz, it predated Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" by a year. If a ballet company presented it today, I'm convinced it would create huge buzz.
The Missing Link
When I read that McGlinn had been found dead of a probable heart attack in his New York apartment, I went to my CD collection and found that I had acquired five of his albums over the years:
"Anything Goes" — "Brigadoon" — "Gershwin Overtures" — "Jerome Kern Treasury" — "Cole Porter Overtures"
While listening to these masterpieces and reveling in McGlinn's deft touch, I started reading the little brochures that accompanied the albums and realized that something was missing. While I found exhaustive material on the composers, singers, orchestrations and history of each work, John McGlinn was represented only in a photograph; there was nothing about him personally. Was he gay, straight or neuter? Married or single? Where did he grow up and get his musical education? From The New York Times obituary:
John Alexander McGlinn 3rd was born in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and grew up in nearby Gladwyne. A self-taught pianist, he studied music theory and composition at Northwestern University, from which he graduated in 1976.
Beyond those bare-bones facts, all other coverage about McGlinn—or writings by McGlinn—dealt with his work, how he did his research and stories of the musicals that he restored. In one of his interviews with Terry Gross, the listener got a tiny peek into McGlinn's personal life when she asked about his singing:
I sing at rehearsal. I sing when someone’s missing. I have—I say modestly—a very pretty, little teeny-weeny tiny tenor voice. But it was much too small to do anything with operatically, which is what I wanted to do. And I stopped singing for a very practical reason, which is that it terrified me so, that I would shake and I would vomit. Oh, it was just horrible and this was no life for an adult human being. I’m terribly glad I went through that. I studied voice for eight years, I took three lessons a week, and I performed in college and all of that. I know what kind of hell singers go through when they perform. And that’s terribly useful to me as a conductor. I can hear before it happens when a singer is about to run out of breath. I can hear coming out of the throat when a singer needs just that little bit of extra room to get over the register break for a high note. And I think that’s one of the reasons singers like working with me so much in that, unlike some conductors, I’m extremely sympathetic to the physical demands of what a singer has to endure in order to produce the sounds they do.
I am thrilled to know nothing—zippo, nada—about the nitty-gritty of John McGlinn's life. By guarding his privacy—for whatever reasons—he enabled us to become intoxicated by his splendid work with no gaudy personal baggage to detract from it.
This consummate professional died at age 55 on Feb. 14, 2009—Valentine's Day.
John McGlinn's life was a valentine to all who love the American musical theater.