A Celebration of Classic MGM Film Musicals

From: Meet Me in St Louis; The Wizard of Oz; Easter Parade; Brigadoon; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; An American in Paris; High Society et al

Kim Criswell, Seth MacFarlane & Curtis Stigers (vocalists); Sarah Fox (soprano) & Sir Thomas Allen (baritone)

Maida Vale Singers

John Wilson Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 1 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Though rain poured for the entire day, inside the Royal Albert Hall Californian sunshine, and that ‘feel-good’ factor, was omnipresent. This was a concert of some of the music from classic Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals covering the immediate post-World-War-Two era to the mid-1950s, ‘Over the Rainbow’ (from “The Wizard of Oz”) was the exception, dating from 1939.

Celebrating its 85th-birthday earlier this year, MGM is tied (with Columbia Pictures) as the fifth-oldest movie studio. In its heyday, from the end of the silent-movie era through the Second World War, the studio was releasing about one film a week. After the War, when other studios backed away from the musical, MGM increased its output. However, the public penchant for popular musicals waned and MGM was pushed close to financial ruin. Though well-regarded now, musicals such as “Brigadoon” and “Kismet” were a box-office disaster. “Gigi”, the studio’s last success, won nine Academy Awards and Best Picture in 1958; however, by 1960, and the demise of the so-called “Freed Unit”, the era of the MGM musical was over.

As a celebration of its 30th-Anniversary in 1954, MGM released a short medley of hit songs from its musicals. Poignantly, seeing as 1954 was a milestone in the studio’s history (the settlement of a government restraint of trade action), this celebration included ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, ‘Trolley Song’ and ‘Over the Rainbow’, but also nestling amongst the stars were lesser know gems – Rudolph Friml’s ‘The Donkey Serenade’, for instance, perhaps now remembered better from Peter Jackson’s cult masterpiece “Heavenly Creatures”.

The MGM Studio Orchestra that performed the original arrangements was superbly mimicked by John Wilson’s hand-picked players; rhythms are tightly performed and the sound is a blend of Palm Court and Swing. Often forgotten is how difficult these musical parts are and how accomplished the musicians were then. The full scores and orchestral parts were lost in 1969, because the music library and its contents took up too much space. A new car park was needed and so some of the greatest music of its type was relegated to landfill for a Californian golf course!

This BBC Proms concert was not a simple affair to arrange. Many hours of careful listening and study, by Wilson, of the “MGM Conductor Books” (two or sometimes more stave reductions of the full score that were used by conductors at the time to keep page-turns to a minimum) has gone into these reconstructions, and the attention to detail is evident.

Virginia-born Kim Criswell, and a star of musicals since her 1981 Broadway debut, as always stole the hearts of the audience with her infectious smile and jaunty shrug of her shoulders with ‘The Trolley Song’. Sadly, though, all the performers used microphones (not a problem in itself); the speakers however were high above, which separated the voices from the orchestra. Nevertheless, Criswell, the orchestra and chorus were clearly having a ball – with the chorus even donning an American accent for added verisimilitude.

‘Over the Rainbow’ is a more plaintive number, which showed a softer side to Criswell’s voice, so well-known for her brash Mermanesque style, which returned in the Gershwin brothers’ ‘I Got Rhythm’. Reflecting upon jazz-band influences, the upper strings stood in the second half of the Gershwin, taking solos as a trumpeter or saxophonist might do.

American jazz vocalist Curtis Stigers initially pursued a career in rock music, with his self-titled 1991 debut album receiving multi-Platinum awards. Recently he has returned to the music of his teenage years, playing and performing jazz and blues. This pedigree shows as his easily-swung rendition of ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby’ tripped lightly around the walls of the Royal Albert Hall. As with many of the arrangements, the piece is in two sections with the second an extended orchestral ballet that showed off fine solos by orchestra members – in this case by trumpeter Mike Lovatt. Stigers returned in a sassy rendition of ‘Love is Here to Stay’, which was the last song written by George Gershwin before his untimely death in 1937.

Soprano Sarah Fox took the role that Jane Powell made her own as Milly in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. Fox’s light operatic touch was in keeping with Powell’s original, even if a little character-less. The delicately beautiful duet from “Kismet”, with Sir Thomas Allen, that followed was much better. Allen, one of the leading lyric baritones of his age, is no newcomer to musical theatre (he has taken the title-role in Sondheim’s “Sweeny Todd”). A poor choice of music meant Allen’s voice, chosen to sing the roles personified by Howard Keel, was generally under-employed; a shame as he has in his recital repertoire the songs of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter.

Three numbers from Cole Porter’s “High Society” introduced American multi-talented Seth MacFarlane, though his performance showed him not as secure as in his solo shows. In ‘Well, Did You Evah?’ MacFarlane’s and Stigers’s improvised banter was not altogether successful and certainly not all together. Unfortunate as Robbie Williams and Jon Lovitz, as recently as in 2001 on the hit album “Swing When You’re Winning”, recorded this same arrangement.

As a finale for the full company, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ was never going to make it. The soloists were under-used, though the orchestra clearly had a good time. The encore, ‘That’s Entertainment’ from “The Band Wagon” (1953) was the perfect finale as each soloist in turn took a line. Seth MacFarlane, better known as the creator of animated sitcom “Family Guy”, took his line in the voice of his character Stewie!

Although there are obvious limitations in staging a purely musical celebration of a genre that is also visual, this was a concert that made good use of the music, forcing the listener to focus on it and the performers. To this day, MGM struggles to survive financially, but with its musicals of the mid-twentieth-century it has left a legacy of such quality. Almost sixty years on, the music is as popular as it has ever been.

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