Monday, August 03, 2009

Recreating MGM musical classics for the Proms

As a lifelong fan of MGM musicals, I was pleased to catch at least part of the broadcast of John Wilson's celebration of the genre in Prom 22 at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday last.

Wilson wrote to MGM several years ago asking if he could have copies of or see the original scores of the classic musicals of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Sadly these had been destroyed when the MGM library was demolished to build a carpark ( I think in the early 1960s). Wilson then decided to reconstruct the orchestral scores from scratch by watching the musicals and some of the fruits of that work were performed on Saturday evening last. To give you an idea of how much work was involved in this, it took him about a year in total (a 4 bar extract from The Wizard of Oz for example took him a day to put back together) to prepare for the concert, not just reconstructing the scores but finding the right musicians and singers to pull the whole thing together.

It's amazing to think that at least the management of MGM responsible for the demolition of the library believed that the music had no lasting value, given how much energy the studios and the music industry put into protecting and extending their copyrights. It is interesting too to compare this with the deliberate demolition of the set for Ben Hur and in particular the chariot race a few years later, reportedly because the producer, Samuel Bronston, did not want his masterpiece being used or copied in any inferior productions thereafter.

I'd really like to know the copyright saga behind this prom - how much and what kinds of negotiations went on over rights, whether Wilson (or more likely his or the BBC's lawyers) found MGM helpful with various aspects of the project; how the musicians and singers got involved and how they initially found out about the whole thing; how many artists were interested but didn't make the final cut and whether there were extensive auditions; whether, now Wilson has recreated the scores, MGM are claiming copyright/ownership of them; who was involved, at what levels and how did the final programme for the concert evolve in the planning; and is the John Wilson Orchestra going to perform again or was this a one-off for the proms?

Sadly the performance will only be available on the BBC iPlayer for a limited time.

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