July 28--Most people know John McDaniel as the genial Grammy and Emmy Award-winning music director who led the band during the six years of TV"s "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" starting in the mid-'90s.
But McDaniel is also a composer, conductor, arranger, orchestrator, musical adapter, performer and recording, tour and Broadway producer.
Now add one more title: artistic director of the Cabaret & Performance Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford.
McDaniel programmed the 10-day conference, which begins Wednesday, July 31, with friends and colleagues who will guide the eight adult and eight student performers as they shape their "acts."
He also tapped into those he knew and admired with established acts of their own that have filled small stages around the world and who will be performing for the public during the O'Neill run: Tony Award winners Donna McKechnie, Tommy Tune, as well as Barb Jungr, Ben Rimalower, Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill. A new work being developed n a show celebrating the centennial of songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen is also a highlight.
"I was approached last fall by the O'Neill to see if I was interested [in the position, following the departure of artistic director Michael Bush]," says McDaniel recently from one of the old rambling houses on the center's large campus that overlooks Long Island Sound. "I thought, 'Oh my god, this is so perfect and exciting. I just adore cabaret."
The conference first began at the O'Neill in 1989 and continued until 2000. After it was disbanded during lean economic years for the center, the conference started up again in 2005 with "performance" added to the conference's name. Broadway shows such as "[title of show]" and "The Story of My Life"as well as scores of cabaret acts began their life at the conference.
McDaniel remembers the first time he saw a first-class cabaret show. It was 1980 and he was a college freshman when his father took him to see singer-pianist Bobby Short at the Cafe Carlyle in Manhattan.
"I didn't really know what that kind of experience could be," he says. "I was exposed to opera, ballet and concert halls but never to this raw, vulnerable, delicate, immediate type of entertainment. I'm getting chills just thinking about it. [Short] commanded that room like a king and it was so exciting. I fell in love with the whole genre right then and there and I have loved it ever since."
In his multi-tasking career he also "dabbled a little in it myself," either as a performer or as music director for others such as Patti Lupone, Cab Calloway or Betty Buckley.
How would McDaniel define what cabaret is? "Well, it's a bunch of folks in a room who come to see someone perform," he says. "They could come to see a lady in a red dress at the piano; it could be stand-up; it could be a jazz trio. The show might have an arc, or a point of view, or storytelling though songs but it could also be just a collection of favorite numbers, too."
By calling it Cabaret and Performance Conference, McDaniel says it expands the definition of what can be presented on stage that can embrace a wider range of entertainment.
He points to Rimlower's show "Patti Issues," which is a narrative that is about his obsession with singer-actress Patti Lupone coupled with his own coming out story. McDaniel also varioes the lineup by featuring a show by United Kingdom performer Barb Jungr and jazz performers, Wes Whitfield and Mike Greenwill.
The conference participants will also have two nights to show their stuff, too, with the adult performers trying out their act and younger ones using Steve Wonder as the focal point to their shows. Some fellows, says McDaniel, come with a fully developed acts while others are looking to the conference for input.
McKechnie, Whitfield and Greensill are the teachers for the adult fellows while Brad Simmons leads the junior fellows.
McDaniel, 52, grew up in St. Louis, the son of a piano teacher and a lawyer, greatly influenced by the music in which his family surrounded itself. He studied piano at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. One of his first jobs out of college was music directing for a cruise line which offered entertainment by such performers as Cab Calloway, Carol Burnett and Shirley MacLaine.
"Working with Cab Calloway I felt like I had died and gone to heaven," says McDaniel. "Though it was toward the end of his life he was still incredible and still wore that great blue turquoise zoot suit."
McDaniel later worked with in their concert, cabaret or recordings with performers such as Bette Midler, Frederica von Stade, George Burns, Sutton Foster, Malcolm Gets and Davis Gaines.
But his high-profile break came when Rosie O'Donnell, whom he met while both were working on the hit revival of "Grease," asked him to become music director of her new syndicated talk show.
"She called me and said, 'I want you to be create a band and be its band leader." I asked her, 'How do you do that and what do you want?' She just said 'Just do your thing' and that was the only direction she gave me."
"Though I worked on Broadway a few times, what that show did was give me visibility and gave me an opportunity to work with some great performers," including Billy Joel, Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond, Dick Van Dyke, Dolly Parton, Liza Minnelli, Rosemary Clooney, Barry Manilow and Madonna.
"My favorite thing about my career is that I've been able to do many, many different things. But what I've discovered about myself is that I'm not an eight-shows-a-week guy. I prefer to be the one putting the shows together and creating something new."
McDaniels was involved in the development of the musical "Happy Days" at the Goodspeedd Opera House as well as "Pirates!" a new take on the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta 'The Pirates of Penzance" which has had future life at other regional theaters across the country.
He is now producing an updated version of the touring concert show "Four Girls Four," which was a hit in the '70s and '80s playing in such venues as the Oakdale Music Theater in Wallingford. That version starred Helen O'Connell, Rose Marie, Margaret Whiting and Rosemary Clooney. The new version, which will be launched this spring will star Andrea McArdle, Faith Prince, Maureen McGovern and Donna McKechnie.
"Right now," says McDaniel, "I'm living my dream."
THE CABARET & PERFORMANCE CONFERENCE runs Wednesday, July 31 to Aug. 11 at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford. The schedule of the conference is: Free opening day show on July 31; Barb Jungr performs "Stockport to Memphis" "on Aug. 1; "Come Fly with Me: the Music of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen" with Jeff Harnar, Jennifer Sheehan, Nicholas King and Linda Hart" on Aug. 2; Ben Rimalower in "Patti Issues" on Aug. 3; "An Evening with Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill" on Aug. 4; Donna McKechnie in "Same Place, Another Time" on Aug. 6; Cabaret Junior Fellows on Aug. 7; Cabaret Fellows on Aug. 8; Tommy Tune in "Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales" on Aug. 9; Cabaret Grand Finale on Aug. 10.
All the shows, except Tommy Tune's show is $35 general admission; $28 members; Tune's show is $50, $45 members. Information: 860-443-1238 and http://www.theoneill.org.
Read my blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. Friend me on Facebook at Frank Rizzo. And be the first to know by following me on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.
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