Digging up the lost scores of golden era of musicals
John Wilson is bringing his recreations of some of Hollywood’s biggest musical numbers to Yorkshire. Kane Fulton talks to the composer.
WHEN world renowned conductor, arranger and film music expert John Wilson called Warner Bros to ask for the scores to the MGM film catalogue for a forthcoming concert, the last thing he expected to be told was that they were buried under a golf course.
In 1969 the scores were sent to a landfill, which was then covered over by a golf course. The scores now lie somewhere underneath the car park built for the course.
The scores to every MGM film musical since the late ‘20s and early ‘30s – including High Society, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St Louis and An American in Paris – were lost. Where most composers would have turned to another project, John saw a challenge, and embarked on the Herculean challenge of reconstructing the scores note-by-note.
Using only a few surviving piano parts sent by copyright holders Warner Bros as a guide, he sat down to rewrite the scores simply using those piano guides and his own finely-tuned ear. It was the musical equivalent of single-handedly restoring the interior of the Sistine Chapel.
“When you’re given the parts, you’re lucky if all the pages are there – something like 85 per cent of them were missing from Easter Parade,” he says.
“When recording, instead of using full scores, which were cumbersome, difficult to read and made a noise every four bars due to having to turn the page, early studios used a simplified score. These are what I was given to use as a basis, filling in the rest from remembers being enchanted as a child watching MGM double bills on Saturday afternoons on BBC2.
“I remember being caught by the sound of the films and I was always into the music,” says John. “I just liked the noise they made, but I wasn’t sure why when I was so young because I didn’t know anything about music.
“It wasn’t until years later that I discovered songwriters and fantastic arrangers. From George Gershwin to Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, it was hearing those songs in that