Does scholarship have to be stuffy? Not when it is applied to that treasure trove we call the American musical theater, and not when the one doing the applying is conductor John McGlinn.
This weekend he demonstrated that with the Utah Symphony, in a program of "Broadway Show-Stoppers" Friday at Symphony Hall. Thus for two hours symphony patrons were treated to ultraflavorful renditions of the music of Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter, largely in the original orchestrations.And not just the music but the lyrics, from two of the wittiest, most sophisticated wordsmiths ever to have turned their attention to the Great White Way, namely Lorenz Hart and, again, Cole Porter.
Which meant not only the introductory verses to the songs in question but things I suspect a good many members of the audience had never heard before, like the original, unexpurgated version of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (from Rodgers & Hart's "Pal Joey"), here a spicily suggestive portrait of a self-absorbed society matron. Or three songs from Porter's almost-forgotten 1943 musical "Something for the Boys," tailored for Ethel Merman but just as surely designed to tap into the swing-era tastes of America during World War II.
In this McGlinn was assisted by soprano Kim Criswell, whose wide-ranging vocalism brought both the music and the texts alive. At the beginning her singing may have taken a while to open up. But by the time the evening was over she had managed to encompass everything from the insinuatingly seductive ("My Funny Valentine" and "Begin the Beguine") to the brassy ("Oo-La-La"), with Merman's legendary 16-bar high C in "I Got Rhythm" (from Gershwin's "Girl Crazy") thrown in for good measure as an encore.
Nor did the orchestra let down in the brass department, from the muted wah-wahs in "The Lady Is a Tramp" to the idiomatic slurs in "Johnny One-Note" (both from "Babes in Arms"), which here zipped along merrily.
Elsewhere came such delights as the poignant isolation of "Ship Without a Sail," the movie song "You're Nearer" (with an exceptionally lovely lyric by Hart), the low-register nostalgia and harmonic downturns of "I Love Paris" and Criswell's delicious Gertrude-Lawrence-style delivery in Porter's clever Hans Christian Andersen sendup, "Two Little Babes in the Woods."
At the same time there were reminders of why some of these songs may not have clicked the first time around. Certainly "Begin the Beguine" lends itself better to the male voice (and maybe Artie Shaw's clarinet) than the original setting for June Knight can have suggested. And however inventive Porter's work in "Something for the Boys," these songs clearly do not come from the heart, much less the top drawer.
That cannot be said of the score for "Kiss Me, Kate," whose unflagging inspiration was apparent even in McGlinn's zesty reading of the overture (here, typically, unabridged). "That's a great song," whispered my seatmate as "Too Darn Hot" gave way to the strains of "Why Can't You Behave," "Wunderbar" and "So in Love." "In this one," I countered, "they're all great songs." And if that doesn't make for a classic, I don't know what does.