Music Man

John McDaniel now heads the Cabaret & Performance Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. (Brad Horrigan, Hartford Courant / July 28, 2013)

Most people know John McDaniel as the genial Grammy and Emmy Award-winning music director who led the band during the six years of TV"s "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" starting in the mid-'90s.

But McDaniel is also a composer, conductor, arranger, orchestrator, musical adapter, performer and recording, tour and Broadway producer.

Now add one more title: artistic director of the Cabaret & Performance Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

McDaniel programmed the 10-day conference, which begins Wednesday, July 31, with friends and colleagues who will guide the eight adult and eight student performers as they shape their "acts."

He also tapped into those he knew and admired with established acts of their own that have filled small stages around the world and who will be performing for the public during the O'Neill run: Tony Award winners Donna McKechnie, Tommy Tune, as well as Barb Jungr, Ben Rimalower, Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill. A new work being developed n a show celebrating the centennial of songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen is also a highlight.

"I was approached last fall by the O'Neill to see if I was interested [in the position, following the departure of artistic director Michael Bush]," says McDaniel recently from one of the old rambling houses on the center's large campus that overlooks Long Island Sound. "I thought, 'Oh my god, this is so perfect and exciting. I just adore cabaret.'"

The conference first began at the O'Neill in 1989 and continued until 2000. After it was disbanded during lean economic years for the center, the conference started again in 2005 with "performance" added to the name. Broadway shows such as "The Story of My Life" as well as scores of cabaret acts began their life at the conference.

Short Introduction

McDaniel remembers the first time he saw a first-class cabaret show. It was 1980 and he was a college freshman when his father took him to see singer-pianist Bobby Short at the Cafe Carlyle in Manhattan.

"I didn't really know what that kind of experience could be," he says. "I was exposed to opera, ballet and concert halls but never to this raw, vulnerable, delicate, immediate type of entertainment. I'm getting chills just thinking about it. [Short] commanded that room like a king and it was so exciting. I fell in love with the whole genre right then and there and I have loved it ever since."

In his multi-tasking career he also "dabbled a little in it myself," as performer and as music director for others such as Patti Lupone, Cab Calloway or Betty Buckley.

How would McDaniel define what cabaret is? "Well, it's a bunch of folks in a room who come to see someone perform," he says. "They could come to see a lady in a red dress at the piano; it could be stand-up; it could be a jazz trio. The show might have an arc, or a point of view, or storytelling through songs but it could also be just a collection of favorite numbers, too."

By calling it Cabaret and Performance Conference, McDaniel says it expands the definition of what can be presented on stage that can embrace a wider range of entertainment.

He points to Rimlower's show "Patti Issues," which is a narrative that is about his obsession with singer-actress Patti Lupone coupled with his own coming out story. McDaniel also varies the lineup by featuring a show by United Kingdom performer Barb Jungr and jazz performers, Wes Whitfield and Mike Greenwill.

The conference participants also will have two nights to show their stuff, too, with the adult performers trying out their act and younger ones using Steve Wonder as the focal point to their shows. Some fellows, says McDaniel, come with a fully developed acts while others are looking to the conference for input.

McKechnie, Whitfield and Greensill are the teachers for the adult fellows while Brad Simmons leads the junior fellows.

Varied Career

McDaniel, 52, grew up in St. Louis, the son of a piano teacher and a lawyer, greatly influenced by the music in which his family surrounded itself. He studied piano at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. One of his first jobs was music directing for a cruise line that offered entertainment by such performers as Calloway, Carol Burnett and Shirley MacLaine.

"Working with Cab Calloway I felt like I had died and gone to heaven," says McDaniel. "Though it was toward the end of his life he was still incredible and still wore that great blue turquoise zoot suit."

McDaniel later worked with Bette Midler, Frederica von Stade, George Burns, Sutton Foster, Malcolm Gets and Davis Gaines.