A shimmering showbiz spectacular!

Published by Daily Mail

Prom 59: The Broadway Sound – John Wilson Orchestra (Royal Albert Hall)

John Wilson

John Wilson conducts The Broadway Sound Prom ©BBC/Chris Christodoulou

No matter how much Beethoven, Bach, Berlioz and Bartók I take in at the Proms, I’m fast coming to the conclusion that no season would be complete without the all-singing, all-dancing Big-Band exuberance of the John Wilson Orchestra and the sensational Maida Vale Singers. Really, it’s not possible to use too many superlatives for these gigs. Yes, it’s a lot of showbiz glitter and utterly camp razzamatazz, but John Wilson is the Fred Astaire of orchestral conductors, swooning his way through each turbo-charged performance, and the feeling is electric, if not ecstatic.

In their 2009 Proms debut, the John Wilson Orchestra celebrated the MGM film musicals; in 2010 they turned Rodgers and Hammerstein film musicals; last year they gave us ‘Hooray for Hollywood’; and this year we’ve had a double bill of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady and ‘The Broadway Sound’, celebrating the 40-year period which gave us the music of Cole Porter, Jerry Bock, Jule Styne, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Meredith Wilson, Richard Rogers, Richard Adler, Jerome Kern, Jerry Herman, Frederick Loewe and Frank Loesser.

As ever with John Wilson, the composers played second fiddle to the anonymous (to us) arrangers and orchestrators who were really responsible for the unique Broadway sound: it is Wilson’s sole vocation in life to recreate their complex scores with authentic simplicity. Indeed, in his programme introduction, he makes a point of naming them all, crediting them with the creation of ‘a new art form’.

I wouldn’t go quite that far: musical arrangement, transcription and instrumentation have always demanded much of those artists who steep themselves in monophonic nuances and polyphonic complexities in order to texture and colour the composer’s bare notes. But if producing a new and distinct sound constitutes a new art form, every musical innovation would amount to one, and, however hard I try, I can’t conceive of John Cage as being responsible for a new art form.

That quibble aside, we were treated this year to excerpts from well-known pieces like Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, South Pacific, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me, Kate, along with neglected gems like Allegro, Fiorello, The Most Happy Fella and On Your Toes (all reminders that even musical legends wrote quite a few flops).

Regular vocalists like the (still) gloriously lush Sierra Boggess, Julian Ovenden and Anna-Jane Casey were joined by soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, basso profundo Rodney Earl Clarke and (bizarrely) Seth MacFarlane (the creator of Family Guy, listed as a baritone). Not being an avid fan of the programme, I didn’t have a clue who he was, but his rendition of ‘Ya Got Trouble’ from The Music Man seemed to go down roaringly well (not sure why), as did ‘Sue Me’ from Guys and Dolls, in which he duetted with Anna-Jane Casey.

Seth MacFarlane

Seth MacFarlane performs with John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra in The Broadway Sound Prom ©BBC/Chris Christodoulou

MacFarlane has apparently released Grammy-nominated albums, but he’s no Baz Luhrmann: his cartoon and writing skills don’t stretch to filling the Royal Albert Hall with vocal charismatic theatricality. And the song was an odd choice: Guys and Dolls is packed with fantastic numbers including some scintillating duets, and ‘Sue Me’ isn’t one of them. Indeed, it’s not a song that should ever be performed in the RAH because it’s simply impossible to make out the lyrics which proceed at such a rate of knots that the force of an 80-strong orchestra trying to fill the void renders them almost incomprehensible.

Thankfully, MacFarlane was shunted into the shadows by Rodney Earl Clarke’s rich, velvety ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Show Boat, and Anna-Jane Casey’s ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ from Funny Girl. The ‘Balcony Scene’ from West Side Story was sung beautifully by Sierra Boggess and Julian Ovenden. No, scratch that: it wasn’t merely sung; it was acted to perfection with all the passion and exhilaration of young love, complete with Peurto Rican twang. Together, they injected a moment of dramatic vibrancy into the froth and fizz of the evening.

Broadway Sound

(L-R) Elizabeth Llewellyn, Julian Ovenden, Sierra Boggess, Seth MacFarlane, Anna-Jane Casey and Rodney Earl Clarke with John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra in The Broadway Sound Prom ©BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The Maida Vale Singers took more of a back seat this year, and seemed a little under-used. But that’s the risk you take when you try to compile a repertoire to span 40 years of Broadway. They were great in ‘Little Tin Box’ from Fiorello, a neat comic piece about the politics of expenses fraud (!), and climaxed perfectly with the toe-tappingly-infectious ‘Mame’.

After thunderous applause, there just had to be an encore, and Anna-Jane Casey gave
us the show-stopping ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’ from Mack and Mabel, in which 14 dancers descended the stairs and flamboyantly tapped their top hats and tails away. Curiously, this is what I (humbly) suggested was missing from last year’s ‘Hooray for Hollywood’, but wrote that it would be completely impracticable on just four feet of forestage. Hurdles were evidently overcome by talented choreographer Josh Prince.

All in all, another shimmering showbiz spectacular. I can hardly wait to hear what
John Wilson pulls out of his magic musical hat next year.