I’d been wondering what the atmosphere would be like at one of these ‘event’ Proms. John Wilson and his orchestra (and they do seem to be, literally, his orchestra – presumably he got them off eBay, or something) are now a regular feature of the season, finding a mass audience – a sell-out, I understand – for his painstaking reconstructions of showtunes and musical numbers.
I had seen his variety concerts from previous years on TV – one tackling MGM musicals, another Hollywood tunes – and enjoyed them, but this would be the first one, focusing on Broadway songs, that I’d got to in person. (Well, ish – Wilson was also the architect of the ‘My Fair Lady’ Prom I went to earlier in the run, but as a complete performance, that was clearly a totally different enterprise.)
Wilson always seems to make sure key elements are in place. He assembles a crack team of vocalists – a trio of women who between them cover soprano and sass, with three male counterparts for tenor, baritone and bass. Not forgetting the splendidly-named Maida Vale Singers as back-up.
As for approach – there are the big hits (‘Another Op’nin’, Another Show’, ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’), but even more prominent are the relatively obscure gems unearthed from shows that are – perhaps – justly neglected these days (that’s you, ‘The Boys From Syracuse’), but which threaten to take with them into oblivion one amazing set-piece or number. Wilson is on a rescue mission for these pieces.
When not conducting, Wilson is – inevitably – a slighter-looking man than his telly appearances might suggest, and has the look of an impish scholar. Serious, but with tuck concealed somewhere about his person. Once he starts batoneering, though, it’s all change. There is absolutely no question that he loves this music. He is clearly dancing on the podium, feet constantly in a waltz-style shuffle, torso swaying in a non-existent breeze. The orchestra is his partner, and they love him, too. We could see the beams on their faces, and we were in the circle.
Two solo performances stood out for me, but the first for perhaps a slightly odd reason. Rodney Earl Clarke, the bass, gave a show-stopping rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’. I have a bit of ‘form’ with this song. The first Christmas after my nan died, my mum and I made what you might call ‘the mistake’ of watching ‘Showboat’ on the telly. This song’s incredible lyrics (‘I get weary and sick of trying, I’m tired of living and scared of dying’) are of course about something so much larger than a single life (or death), but who knows what has the power to push particular buttons? The two of us ended up in floods. Hearing it again – live, inescapable – reminded me of that, so that could well be my first and last experience of wiping away a few tears at a Prom. (Mind you, I’m going to see ‘Nixon in China’ later in the season, so who knows, it might happen again...!)
Seth MacFarlane – yes, that one, who created ‘Family Guy’ – sang baritone. He is a very accomplished vocalist, but perhaps more importantly for tonight’s purposes, his default setting – as you might expect from his other job – is ‘wise-ass’. His numbers not only demanded someone in fine voice, but also presented technical challenges, like ‘Ya Got Trouble’s near-rapping, ten-to-the-dozen rhyming delivery which he carried off in exhilarating style. Everybody sang beautifully, but MacFarlane seems to inhabit the songs more like an acting performer would, bringing the character alive as well as the music.
But the real stars were the orchestra. A significant part of the programme was made up of soundtrack or ‘overture’ music where the band had the chance to really shine. I have to single out the drummer. In his head, this guy is in a touring rock band, probably from the 70s. He would thrash out complicated rhythms, stop at the exact moment necessarily to turn the page of his score, before switching to or from woodblock or tom-toms back to the main kit. Also extra points for shoving one his drumsticks in his mouth to assist in a particularly tricky manoeuvre.
Overall, though – and I have no idea how this effect is achieved – the music sounded ‘old’. In my mind’s ear, I could easily supply the shy thrum of the radio or the crackle on my dad’s old vinyl. The strings have that woozy elision that make all the notes flow into one curve of sound, and the Maida Vale Singers have perfected the old-fashioned tones that you only seem to get if someone is singing into one of those huge mics that hang down from the ceiling.
Final mention to the rather delicate-looking couple who tried to leave before the encore. Their ‘nearest exit’ happened to be the brightly-lit staircase next to the stage. A few titters went round the Hall as some onlookers realised that the pair had chosen the most conspicuous place possible to sneak out. Imagine everyone’s delight, then, as a few steps above the horrified escapees, a legion of tap dancers started pouring down the stairs, pushing past them to get to their positions. Inevitably, a round of applause began, as the luckless twosome progressed gingerly upwards, no doubt thinking, ‘Surely....just one more dancer to negotiate, then all this will be over...’
You can still hear the concert on iPlayer for a bit (link to part 1 here), but take note that on Saturday night, it’s being televised. If this kind of music is your cup of tea, you will appreciate the skill and affection that all the performers poured into it. As a parting shot, please enjoy this picture of an illustration in the programme of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and – for it is he – Jules Munshin (?) apparently yelling in each other’s faces in ‘On The Town’.