Grammy and Emmy winner John McDaniel, who spent six seasons good-naturedly leading the band on the Emmy-winning The Rosie O'Donnell Show, most recently was the music director and orchestrator for NBC's acclaimed, star-studded birthday tribute to stage and screen icon Carol Burnett, 90 Years of Laughter + Love.
An artistic director at the Tony-winning Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, McDaniel's Broadway credits as a musical director, musical arranger, musical supervisor, conductor, and/or arranger include Bonnie and Clyde (Drama Desk nomination for Best Orchestrations), Catch Me If You Can, Brooklyn (also a producer), Annie Get Your Gun (Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album), Taboo, Chicago, Grease, and Patti LuPone on Broadway.
The Missouri native, who produced and directed a virtual concert of his musical Sticks & Stones, is also a camp director of Kristin Chenoweth’s Broadway Boot Camp and part of the Playbill Travel family of artists who regularly entertain on the Playbill Cruises around the world. McDaniel, in fact, is musical director for the Broadway in Alaska cruise (which concludes July 28) and will also be part of the upcoming Broadway in Tahiti cruise (March 28-April 7, 2024).
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—McDaniel shares how a Broadway disappointment allowed him to take a six-year gig and why it's always important to take risks on new projects. The versatile artist, who has collaborated with Cab Calloway, Shirley MacLaine, George Burns, Joel Grey, Betty Buckley, Bette Midler, Shirley Jones, and Katy Perry, also recalls a memorable encounter with the late Tony Bennett.
Where did you train/study?
I went to Carnegie Mellon University as an actor, and I have a degree in drama.
Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor standout?
My high school choral teacher, John Owen, was a tremendous influence in my life. He had a captivating style that grabbed the class and made us want to be better singers and musicians. Years later, one of my great joys was to be able to fly him to New York for an appearance on The Rosie O'Donnell Show, and to thank him on national television.
What made you decide to become a music director?
When I was at CMU, the then head of the drama department, Mel Shapiro, recognizing my musical abilities, took me aside at the end of my sophomore year and suggested that they create a program for me that included more music study. I'm profoundly grateful for that change, of course, which pointed me on a more focused life path.
Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
I worked on a musical for years that was finally heading to Broadway. The St. James Theatre was fully painted yellow with giant lettering (and a giant Tommy Tune—is that redundant?) proclaiming, Busker Alley! Just one week before Broadway, Tommy fell and broke his foot in Tampa, effectively shutting down the show. Heartbroken, I returned to New York with the thought that I might never work again. A few days later, Rosie called me to see if I might want to be the bandleader on her upcoming talk show. Life...
What are the duties of a music director/music supervisor before the show opens? What are the responsibilities after it's running?
Truly, it varies show to show. But generally my work as a music supervisor on a Broadway show has me overseeing the entire music department, including everyone from the orchestrator to the keyboard programmer to the musicians. Creating the show from the ground up is an enormous and a joyful job. Once the show is running, maintaining the level of musical excellence has its own challenges, but is equally rewarding.
How did you get your first job in the theatre?
My first "big boy" show with Broadway vets was Mail at the Pasadena Playhouse. My pal, Bradd (BD) Wong, asked me to play for him at his audition, and we both got jobs on the show!
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Say yes! You never know who you'll meet or who will be listening, so grab opportunities when they come along. That low-paying, downtown show may prove to be the one that changes your life.
What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
Trust yourself; it's going to be fine.
Can you share a favorite moment from working on The Rosie O'Donnell Show? And a favorite moment from one of the Playbill cruises?
There are honestly too many to be able to sort out a favorite. But when Tony Bennett agreed to be a last-minute replacement on a Christmas show, and his long-time pianist, Ralph Sharon, was on the West Coast with no time to travel east, Tony said, "That's OK, I'll work with John." My heart stopped for a moment. It turned out to be quite a significant and gratifying moment in my life.
Similarly on the Playbill cruises, which have included more stars and ports than you can imagine, it's hard to choose just one. However, recently in Europe, Max Clayton, having just wrapped his stint covering Hugh Jackman in The Music Man, began an unplanned "Marian the Librarian" during his show. So naturally I began the vamp, and it wasn't a moment later that Jessie Mueller was slinking up to the stage to be his Marian. Unforgettable!
What is your proudest achievement as a music director/music supervisor?
I feel so fortunate that opportunities continue to come my way. Earlier this year, I orchestrated and music directed Carol Burnett's 90th birthday celebration on NBC, which included a cavalcade of stars who were mostly already friends. Carol and I have been buddies for decades , and I treasure our relationship. The show was very well received and, in fact, NBC reaired the special later in the week! We've just been nominated for five Emmy Awards, so the love keeps flowing.