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John McDaniel heads up the O’Neill’s cabaret conference

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published January 12. 2013 4:00AM

When it comes to music, John McDaniel just might be the definition of a renaissance man. He became a household name when he worked as composer and producer of "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" for six years and earned Daytime Emmy Awards in 2001 and 2002 for his efforts.

But his work has cast a long shadow on Broadway, too. Most recently, in 2011, he was music director for "Catch Me If You Can," and he did the orchestrations and produced the cast recording for "Bonnie and Clyde." He earned a Grammy as producer for Best Musical Show Album for the 1999 Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun"; he was supervising music director of that show.

Oh, and he even made his opera debut, conducting "The Daughter of the Regiment" at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2011.

The newest addition to his resume is becoming artistic director of the Cabaret & Performance Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

McDaniel - conductor, composer, pianist, orchestrator, record producer - was approached by O'Neill Executive Director Preston Whiteway and Board Chair Tom Viertel about possibly running the cabaret conference. He accepted, with the O'Neill announcing his appointment in December.

McDaniel visited the center earlier this week.

The conference, which develops new artists and forms of cabaret theater, will run from July 31 to Aug. 10.

When he posted on Facebook that he was taking the O'Neill job, McDaniel says, "It just went crazy, with people saying, 'Oh, I love the O'Neill! You're going to have such a great time.' Really, no one said, 'Oooo, watch out!' I mean, it's really got a wonderful reputation in the business. It's a real treat. I'm sure I'll have no problem getting really awesome entertainers and teachers."

McDaniel takes over the conference from Michael Bush. Bush left last fall, after eight years, because of "increased professional obligations directing in New York and regionally," according to an O'Neill release.

McDaniel, who lives on the north shore of Long Island, says he feels very connected to this area. To get to the O'Neill, he took the ferry from Orient Point to New London, as he had many times when he worked at Goodspeed.

"I adore Goodspeed," McDaniel says. "I have had such a wonderful time up there."

His musical adaptation of "Pirates!" played the Goodspeed Opera House in 2006, and he was involved with "Happy Days," which was at Goodspeed in 2007-8.

"I love it up here," he says.

And, of course, he loves cabaret. He just finished a week of shows with Donna McKechnie in New York City. His appreciation for the medium began when he saw Bobby Short in New York City when he was a college student. He flew from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., into New York to meet his father, a lawyer who was attending a bar convention in the city. They went to see shows, and it was Short's cabaret performance at the Café Carlyle that made a particular impression on John.

"It was so New York. It was so quintessentially New York City at night. ... There was a seed planted that night in a very meaningful way," he says.

As for defining cabaret, McDaniel says, "To me, it's a place where a performer who's perhaps often in music theater shows where they're playing a character will get a chance to be themselves for an hour and do material they love or songs that they've heard or maybe tell a story. It can really be whatever you make of it."

It's an intimate experience, McDaniel says. The audience gets a real sense of the performer through the numbers they sing and the tales they share.

"It really can take you out of your life for a minute and be transported," he says.

McDaniel is just starting to contemplate what he wants to do with the conference. After touring the O'Neill this week, though, he got to thinking about moving the open mic events from the Dina Merrill Theater to Blue Gene's Pub.

"The pub space is so charming and so sweet, and I can just imagine it crawling with people screaming and clapping. I think that's a real potential change," he says.

He likes the basic structure of the conference, where cabaret fellows take master classes with visiting artists. He thinks it's incredibly valuable for them to study with a lot of different people and get a new perspective.

McDaniel isn't sure yet of how he'll personally be involved in classes and performances at the cabaret conference.

He says he doesn't perform as much as he used to. It's a different thing when he is, say, music director and accompanying McKechnie, the Tony winner best known for creating the role of Cassie in "A Chorus Line," in her cabaret piece.

"There's nerves and jitters that happen with (starring in a performance) that I don't get when I'm music-directing the show," he says. "With Donna this week, before the show, she's all like 'Aaaaaaah!' because it's the Donna McKechnie show, but I'm backing her, so I'm totally at ease. No butterflies - I mean, I'm excited, but I'm not anxious and I'm not freaking out about stuff. I like that. For me, I like not being all nervous (like I am) when it's the John McDaniel show."

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