‘ Nothing good & worthwhile in life comes instantly…’

Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin – they’re the big names from the golden age of musicals. But don’t forget the great John Wilson, says Melonie Clarke
The start of the production of musicals by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) marked the beginning of the golden age of musicals on the big screen. Despite this, and their clear importance in cinematic history, the musical scores were destroyed in 1969.

According to John Wilson, composer, and saviour of musicals as we know them, the attitude at the time was that these sheets of paper had served their purpose. The films were made, the soundtracks recorded, so who would need to look at dusty old sheet music again?

How wrong they were. It is only due to the diligence and dedication of Wilson that we are able to go and see newly staged versions of these epic musicals. After all, with no score to follow, how would the band know how to strike the right note?

Wilson is one of our best composers and arrangers, and his love of music started from an early age. Now a film-music specialist, he has painstakingly and single-handedly reconstructed the scores of a number of MGM musicals after he wanted to play some of the music and discovered there were no scores to follow.

‘I was always obsessed with music,’ he says. ‘Even when I was a toddler, things would come on the television or the radio and I’d apparently go crazy in my highchair.

John-Wilson-Oct10-01-590High Society, the 1956 musical starring (from left) Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Louis Calhern

‘When I was four or five I had an aptitude for the piano. I didn’t have any lessons but I could just go and pick tunes up on my granny’s and my school’s piano. My mother gave me some rudimentary lessons but it wasn’t until I was about 11 that I started to take proper lessons.’

Despite his stellar reputation, his passion for conducting arose by chance. ‘I started to get into playing the drums for amateur theatricals and orchestras, and then I got into writing music and arrangements for them, and playing piano in rehearsals. That led eventually, in a roundabout way, to conducting; somebody pulled out from a production of a musical and I was asked to step in and conduct it. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing; I was about 15 but I got the bug then.’

His interest in MGM musicals also came early. ‘They used to be on the telly on a Saturday afternoon when I was a child. I remember listening to them and not caring about what was in them or the plot or who the stars were. I was interested in the music.

‘I didn’t know why then, but years later I realised I was listening to some of the most sophisticated music in the world. My passion, my enthusiasm, is only really for those musicals of a certain era, and specifically the songs. I’ve always been fascinated by songs by Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter… those great songwriters who flourished in the first part of the 20th century. We now know that it was an era of such expertise and such talent that the music speaks for itself. It’s the highest standard of composition we’ve ever known.’

This passion led to him taking on the task that has become his life’s work. ‘I went to Warner Bros who had bought MGM by that point, and I said, “I want to cover this music; I know it’s all been destroyed. Will you let me do it?” They said, “Well, who are you?” and “Show us what you can do.’’

‘They gave me a test piece, something from High Society. I sent it back and then I got a phone call from the original librarian at Warner Bros. He was impressed enough by what I’d done to give me a free reign to restore whatever pieces I wanted to do. So I’ve spent the last 15 years doing it.’

Wilson’s work on writing out the score for High Society took him a year. ‘I never watched the film, I just listened to the soundtrack, but I do particularly like that film,’ he says.

John-Wilson-Oct10-02-5901. Kiss Me, Kate at the Royal Albert Hall 2. Film poster for Singin’ In The Rain (1952) 3. The Wizard Of Oz (1939), starring Judy Garland

The orchestra he assembled has become something of a staple at the Proms, where it has consistently received outstanding reviews since its first performance there in 2009.

‘It was assembled over a 20-year period but it’s been settled for about 10 years now. It was trial and error. Nothing good and worthwhile in life comes instantly; you have to work really hard at playing together, getting the right people in the right seats . Once it was established the challenge has been funding it. We don’t get any public subsidies so every concert could be our last, unless it’s sold out; unless we really deliver. So there is no complacency at all.

‘There is an added pressure with my orchestra,’ he continues, ‘because people’s expectations are so high. I have to try and do my best, not only for the audience but for the musicians too. I feel a responsibility for them; I have to give them my best as well.’

A string of accomplished singers perform with the John Wilson Orchestra, from Joyce DiDonato to Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. And as Wilson revealed in an earlier interview, there was once a very famous dancer in the audience, whose appreciation surely sealed his place alongside names such as Rodgers and Hammerstein.

‘Once, when playing for tea at the Grosvenor House hotel, an elderly lady in a wheelchair smiled, applauded each number and then bought me and the violinist tea. We thanked her, ate our tea and carried on playing. Only when she had left did I discover it was Ginger Rogers.’ 

The Cole Porter In Hollywood album is out now and the orchestra starts its UK tour in November: www.johnwilsonorchestra.com