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Take Five: John McDaniel back home to conduct 'Daughter'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 26, 2011 - Emmy Award-winning band leader for "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." Grammy-winning record producer. Musical director of the Tony-nominated "Catch Me if you Can." Composer. Conductor. Class of '79 Kirkwood High School graduate.

John McDaniel is or has been all of these things -- and many more. After leaving St. Louis for Carnegie Mellon University following high school, it was on to LA four years later, and -- 10 years after that -- to the magical place he'd dreamed of as a child: Broadway. He's been there ever since.

Now, in the midst of his illustrious career, McDaniel, 50, has returned to St. Louis to do something he's never done before: conduct an opera. His debut with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' "The Daughter of the Regiment" is Saturday night, May 28.

McDaniel spoke with the Beacon about this new challenge, his success (which he often refers to as "luck") and growing up in the Gateway City.

How did your early experiences shape your career path?

McDaniel: My mom is a piano teacher, and I started playing when I was 5. The first stage I set foot on was the Webster Groves Theater Guild. I did all the shows at Kirkwood High School. And I also was in musicals at Nerinx Hall, the Catholic girls' school; they always needed guys. And the St. Louis Civic Ballet was my other performance outlet -- I was terrible but it was fun. At the end of my high school years, Opera Theatre was just kicking off; I saw shows there and I went to tons of shows at the Loretto Hilton and I saw a lot of touring Broadway theater.

I was a theater kid from the get-go. But while I was at Carnegie Mellon, the head of the drama dept said, "Your acting is OK, but your music is extraordinary; and you should consider focusing on that." They created a program for me including conducting and orchestration and more of an emphasis on music.

What are you most proud of?

McDaniel: I guess it would be the cast recording of "Annie Get Your Gun," the Broadway show I did with Bernadette Peters. It was the very first record I've ever produced and I won the Grammy Award, which was really exciting, right out of the box. I have to tell you it's wonderful to be nominated — but it's more fun to win. People say, "Oh, it's enough to be nominated," but it's not really true. I've been nominated for things I didn't win, and winning those big awards is very exciting.

I'm also proud that I've been able to make my living making music. It's extraordinary, and I don't take it for granted.

So how did this Opera Theatre gig come about?

McDaniel: I've always wanted to do an opera and I'd been talking to Opera Theatre for about five years about it. Three years ago, they said, "Why don't you come and do something with us in 2011?" I thought, "Well, that sounds great; that's far away." And then the time passed and it's here!

I'm having the best time. It's really not that different than working in theater. It's story telling with music, which is what I love to do. It's certainly more classical than theater; and I honor and respect and adore that. It's really a perfect first opera to do: It's rather light, kind of funny and there are even some dialogue scenes, which I'm very used to.

You've worked with a lot of celebrities. Could you talk about some of your favorites?

McDaniel: One of my favorites -- I met him on the Rosie O'Donnell show -- was Tony Bennett. He was a cool professional; he knew exactly what he wanted: no drama, no BS; he was relaxed and he had a good time. I learned a lot from him about keeping it easy and cool.

Rosemary Clooney was the same way. I also had a great time working with Madonna, who turned out to be whip-smart. She knew exactly what she wanted. I can see why she's such a huge star; she's super-smart, super-present in the room. And Celine Dion, the same thing: really, smart, and very musical of course.

I just loved getting the chance to work with Billy Joel because I've admired him forever and we did a couple of numbers together on the show. And Carol Burnett -- I treasure our friendship and our working together. We've been friends now for almost 20 years and she's just an extraordinary lady.

What are you doing next? Is there anything else you'd like to do that you've never done?

McDaniel: I'm the musical director for "Catch Me If You Can" on Broadway, which is nominated for a Tony for Best Musical. I have a couple of days off in mid June and I will go back to New York and perform with the cast on the Tony Awards on June 12, then fly back to St. Louis for remainder of the Opera Theatre run and then go back to "Catch Me If You Can" for July and August.

It looks like in the fall I'll have another Broadway show. I'm crossing my fingers as I say this because it's not been announced yet. I'm the arranger and orchestrator of "Bonnie and Clyde" which was written by Frank Wildhorn and Don Black. We've done a couple of regional productions, one in La Jolla and one in Sarasota. We think it's ready for Broadway, so we are hopefully bringing it there in the fall.

I'm sure there is something else I could do that I haven't thought of it yet. Life is a great journey and I'm sure more things will pop up -- I hope. When you answer the phone you never know what's going to be on the other end.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.