26 May

Hooray for Hollywood : John Wilson's 2011 BBC Prom

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"HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD"
John Wilson and his Orchestra at the BBC Proms

Yet again John Wilson has given us another magnificent Prom Concert with his recreation of the glory days of Hollywood Musicals on Monday 29 August. The Prom was sold out within four hours of the tickets going on sale, and the audience reaction heard via Radio-3 was astounding. It must have been so exhilarating if you were lucky enough to be among those enthusiastic ‘Prommers’.

Last year we were treated to the delights of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but this time John reverted back to the formula that made his MGM Prom such a resounding success in 2009. As well as MGM he featured music from the other major studios, so we also heard some of the best from the likes of Warner Bros, RKO and United Artists.

No doubt everyone will have had their favourite moments from this year’s wallow in musical movie nostalgia. High on my list were This Heart Of Mine from "Ziegfeld Follies" and Put On Your Sunday Clothes from Hello Dolly". Whoever described "Ziegfeld Follies" as Fred Astaire’s swansong must have suffered from a sudden mental block! He was on screen for many years thereafter, in both serious roles and musicals such as "Easter Parade" (1948) and his last outing with Ginger Rogers in "The Barkleys of Broadway" (1949) – to name just two.

But such minor ‘fluffs’ in no way detract from this glorious occasion. We have come to expect some extra treats from John, and after the ‘last’ piece in the programme the orchestra and singers suddenly launched into Hooray For Hollywood, quickly followed by There’s No Business Like Show Business (this arrangement was from the 1954 Twentieth Century-Fox film of the same name starring Ethel Merman, Dan Dailey, Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe) . Rarely can such brilliant encores have been so ecstatically received!

The British press was similarly enthusiastic. In the Guardian, John L Walters wrote:

Without the tap dances, chorus girls and (often flimsy) plots, the music had to stand up for itself. Wilson, who has brought a passion for authentic performance to movie soundtracks, shone a glittering spotlight on arrangers such as Ray Heindorf, Conrad Salinger and Lloyd "Skip" Martin. They were Hollywood's invisible men, who toiled behind the tinsel to stretch three-minute ditties into extended suites (This Heart of Mine) or craft subtle tone poems that became huge hits (Secret Love, sung beautifully by Clare Teal).

A tag team of vocalists interpreted familiar songs from movies made between 1935 and 1969 – from

(of Warner Bros cartoon fame).

A suite of Heindorf arrangements from the Judy Garland vehicle

interpreted two of the more classical tunes: Serenade (The Student Prince) and One Hand One Heart (West Side Story) with soprano Sarah Fox.

The Maida Vale Singers sang lustily on showstoppers such as Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat and Put On Your Sunday Clothes. But the stars of the evening were the (until now) unsung arrangers, whose work was reinvigorated by Wilson's scholarship – and the musicians, who performed the demanding scores with affection and exuberance.

Similar praise was heaped upon John Wilson by Ivan Hewitt in the Daily Telegraph:

John Wilson and his now famous orchestra made their first Proms appearance only two years ago. Yet, when Wilson swept on stage and the orchestra burst into his own specially composed overture – a cunningly constructed medley of great Hollywood musical tunes, giving a foretaste of what was to come – it felt as if we were welcoming back a much-loved Proms institution.

Lots of factors conspired in that comfortable feeling, one of which is the way Wilson embodies an old matinee-idol archetype. He’s just the right slender shape for tails, with a beat that’s as shapely as a chorus girl’s ankle. More than that, the orchestra resurrects something we all remember and love but haven’t heard in a long while, in all its pristine splendour: the sound of the great studio orchestras.

For this survey of the movie musical from the Thirties to the Sixties, the band seemed even more lavish than usual, with two harps and pianos adding their lustrous magic to the singing strings and muted brass.

Best of a very good bunch for me was Caroline O’Connor, who gave a tremendous performance of The Man That Got Away from Judy Garland’s comeback musical, A Star is Born.

If everything flowed in such an easy and irresistible way, it was because Wilson had given such care to even the tiniest detail. One example: in the final show-stopping number, Put on Your Sunday Clothes, from Hello, Dolly! – the movie musical’s swansong – everybody sang the words "All aboard". Just as they did, somebody somewhere in the orchestra blew a whistle that was a fair imitation of a train’s whistle.

It was over in less than a second, and it was almost lost in the brassy din. But, when you’re dealing in fantasy, half-heard things are as important as heard ones, something John Wilson understands very well.

Former BBC producer Anthony Wills has just a few reservations about this year’s offering from the amazing John Wilson.

John Wilson and his wonderful orchestra, together with the Maida Vale Singers, returned to the Royal Albert Hall on 29 August for what is now becoming a traditional (and much appreciated) appearance at the BBC Proms. This year’s concert covered nearly 40 years of movie musicals from 42nd Street to Hello Dolly!, and this time the doors were flung open to include the best of the output from Warner Brothers, RKO, Columbia and 20th Century Fox as well as (of course) MGM. Sadly, in my opinion, Hooray for Hollywood (composed by Richard Whiting with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and performed here as an encore) is not one of the strongest songs around, though it certainly made for an arresting title.

Given that the purpose of these concerts is to recreate note for note the superb arrangements and orchestrations heard on the original soundtracks, it did seem slightly bizarre to begin with an overture made up of songs from a whole host of different pictures scored by different composers. The problem of course was that many of the songs were originally built around Busby Berkeley and Hermes Pan tap routines. An incomplete performance of the title number from 42nd Street was followed by another medley, this time from various Astaire/Rogers RKO pictures, that conflated the music of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Harry Warren into a single suite. Of course Fred and Ginger could have had a whole concert devoted to their music, but if a choice had to be made I would have liked the complete (and magically arranged) song and dance sequences from Top Hat including the title song, Cheek To Cheek and The Piccolino – and if John Barrowman had been hired to perform them we could have had the taps as well! This would also have served as a trailer for the new stage adaptation of the film, which is currently touring the UK.

There followed a complete change of style as Charles Castronovo and Sarah Fox took us into the world of operetta as Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald, with Sigmund Romberg’s Will You Remember? A sequence entitled Hollywood Goes To War began with Strike Up The Band from the film of the same name (made in fact two years BEFORE America entered the war), stylishly performed by Caroline O’Connor. Annalene Beechey trilled prettily as Deanna Durbin in Kern & Yarburg’s title song from Can’t Help Singing, then we hopped forwards to 1949 with On The Town before returning to Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s You’ll Never Know (introduced by Alice Faye in Hello Frisco Hello (1943) rather than Four Jills & A Jeep the following year as claimed). The non-chronological running order was presumably devised to allow all of the soloists to get their turn.

Leading up to the interval we heard the extended musical sequence This Heart Of Mine from Ziegfeld Follies. At the risk of being shot down in flames may I say that in my humble opinion this is one of Conrad Salinger’s worst arrangements, amounting to no fewer than 16 choruses of a rather mediocre tune in a plot-less movie. In any case it was most definitely NOT Fred Astaire’s "swansong" as stated by the presenters, since he continued to appear in musicals until Finian’s Rainbow in 1967, and thereafter in straight roles such as The Towering Inferno well into the ‘70s.

After this slightly shaky first half the concert really sprang to life after the interval, when we enjoyed a whole gamut of different composers, and it can fairly be said that the musical selections fitted the vocalists like a glove. Thus we heard Caroline O’Connor magical as Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, Doris Day sound-alike Clare Teal in Secret Love - the No. 1 hit from Calamity Jane - and the wondrous tenor of Charles Castronovo as Mario Lanza in the Serenade from The Student Prince and (with Sarah Fox) One Hand, One Heart from West Side Story. On the lighter side there was Annalene Beechey as Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, Matthew Ford taking the place of Stubby Kaye in Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat and a trio of "babes in arms" in Triplets from The Band Wagon. The magnificent Overture from Gypsy – released in 1962 not 1964 as stated - was the icing on the cake.

A particular pleasure for me was the inclusion of lesser known numbers by Meredith Willson and Leslie Bricusse. I have long been a champion of Mr Bricusse’s music and lyrics, from Out Of Town onwards, and the extracts from his score for Dr Dolittle were a fitting tribute in his 80th year. Something In Your Smile is a real curiosity. It was cut from the movie (though can be heard in the overture) but was later recorded in London - as was the complete score - by Sammy Davis Jr., in a lush arrangement by Marty Paich.

John Wilson brought the show to a glorious climax with the tremendous Barbra Streisand production number Put On Your Sunday Best from Fox’s Hello Dolly! This was really the dying gasp of the great American movie musical, though the genre certainly went out in style, and its stable of stars, directors, designers, choreographers, arrangers and musical directors dispersed, retired or moved on to other things. In came movies such as Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Mamma Mia: huge box-office successes though not, perhaps, the kind of music John will want to spend a lot of time reinventing.

Once again the BBC, having mounted this spectacular concert, shot itself in the foot with regard to presentation. Apart from the errors noted above the Radio Times BBC2 billing was a nonsense, implying that Top Hat and Shall We Dance weren’t Astaire/Rogers movies. Astonishingly, the names of the six soloists weren’t listed in the Proms prospectus and, worst of all, there was no mention on air or in the programme notes of several of the lyric writers. Thus "Yip" Harburg, Howard Dietz and Paul Francis Webster never received a credit, even though they contributed to their songs’ immortality just as much as the composers. Why the Corporation cannot use experts in the field I cannot imagine: there are plenty in the Robert Farnon Society!

The television presentation of the concert on BBC2 was visually acceptable, though a number of my acquaintances have complained about the sound quality, some remarking that it was at times out of sync with the pictures. Be that as it may, viewers once again suffered the cutting of four songs. Would this happen with Beethoven, I ask? Hopefully they will be restored in the DVD.

May I add in conclusion that, despite the reservations mentioned above, the actual performances from players and singers were flawless and left the Proms audience screaming for more. I’m sure that John and his team are already working on next year’s extravaganza and I for one can’t wait! Meanwhile, a condensed version of this year’s Prom will be touring the UK in late November and early December.

The full contents:

Hooray For Hollywood Overture
42nd Street medley
Fred and Ginger at RKO
**Maytime – Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy
Strike Up The Band
Can’t Help Singing
**Main Street – from ‘On The Town’
You’ll Never Know – ‘Hello, Frisco, Hello’
This Heart Of Mine - ‘Ziegfeld Follies’
Judy’s Comeback – ‘A Star Is Born’
The Man Who Got Away
Secret Love – ‘Calamity Jane’
Serenade – ‘Student Prince’
Clap Yo’ Hands - ‘Funny Face’
Gypsy Overture
One Hand, One Heart – ‘West Side Story’
**Being In Love - ‘The Music Man’
Triplets - ‘The Band Wagon’
**Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat – ‘Guys & Dolls’
Jolly Holiday - ‘Mary Poppins’
When I Look In Your Eyes – ‘Doctor Doolittle’
Put On Your Sunday Clothes - ‘Hello Dolly’
Hooray For Hollywood
There’s No Business Like Show Business
** omitted from the TV broadcast

This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ issue 190, December 2011.

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.