The Summer Stage at Lees-McRae
As a conductor, John Clanton has performed with the National Symphony Orchestra, the U.S. Army Orchestra, the U.S. Army Chorus and myriad others.
His musical adventures have brought him before many a dignitary, from the funerals of former U.S. presidents to a White House state dinner for the Queen of England.
This summer, he can add another to the list: King Arthur.
As Arthur, in “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” takes the Lees-McRae Summer Theatre stage, Clanton will provide the music. And there was much rejoicing.
2014 marks the conductor’s third year at Lees-McRae Summer Theatre, having first been recommended for the duties to artistic director Janet Speer by a mutual friend.
“We didn’t think we’d get him, but we did,” Speer said. “And we’ve been thrilled, so lucky.”
Clanton, himself, has been thrilled with this summer’s lineup.
“Kiss Me, Kate” opened June 29 and runs through July 6, to be followed by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “A Grand Night for Singing” July 16 to 20 and “Monty Python’s Spamalot” Aug. 6 to 10.
“I love it,” Clanton said. “It covers a wide range. The first show, of course, is all Cole Porter, and it’s just a big, old-time Broadway musical. ‘Grand Night for Singing’ is more of a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue, an intimate kind of show, and ‘Spamalot’ is absolutely over the top — one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life. I really can’t wait to do that show.”
Written by Monty Python alum Eric Idle and collaborator John Du Prez, “Spamalot” is a musical based on the 1975 hit comedy, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
“Even though (audiences) may or may not be Monty Python fans, they’ll like this show, because the music is just so great,” Speer said. “A lot of people will say, ‘I’m not a Python fan, so I won’t like it.’ That’s not necessarily true.”
The Python fans, however, will love it, she said, adding that the show has multi-generational appeal.
“It’s challenging in its own way,” Clanton said. “There are all kinds of styles of music in there that you can imagine ... but I love it. It asks for a little bit of everything from the kitchen sink, but at the end of the day, the music is not a joke. The music is really good, and that’s probably what makes the show the success it’s been.
“I saw this show on Broadway, and I laughed so hard, literally my sides were hurting the next day. It takes every joke you can think of and goes about a step further. It’s so well done, and I’ve never laughed so hard at a show. When Janet said she was going to do it, I was on for that one.”
Speer, though, was anxious to bring Clanton back for another season, regardless of the lineup.
“The friend of mine who first brought him in said she knew this guy who is one of the best conductors in the country and that he just retired and just might come to the mountains,” Speer said.
Clanton’s first season at LMC found him providing music for “Seussical” and “Show Boat,” although his professional career goes well beyond the stage.
Clanton earned his musical degree from Furman and went straight into the U.S. Army music program, where he wound up conducting a band in Germany. His military career brought him stateside, and he attended graduate school at the Eastern School of Music. From there, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he spent the better part of the last 15 years conducting some of the military’s most esteemed musical ensembles, including the U.S. Army Orchestra and the U.S. Army Chorus.
“In our business, it doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. “Those groups … they are capable of everything I can imagine them to do musically, so it was an awful lot of fun to be in those groups and perform for who we played for.”
Those include the guests at the state funerals of presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, along with the White House state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II.
“Those are the three that topped it,” he said in an interview with Lees-McRae. “It’s not just the music that makes it special, but the people for whom you perform. I was there in the middle of history. It is unbelievable to look out at the crowd and see the heads of state. There I was in front of them, conducting ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”
Clanton retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel and now enjoys a different set of challenges on Lees-McRae’s summer stage.
“I’m conducting from the piano, so I play the piano and direct, which adds another layer of complexity,” he said. “But I actually prefer to do it that way. It’s definitely its own challenge, and when (Speer) added a third musical this summer, I went up to about 900 pages of music to learn, but it’s all fun stuff to learn. I just love performing, so everything that has to do with playing, performing or leading music, I really enjoy it.”
Speer and Clanton hope audiences will feel the same.
Lees-McRae Summer Theatre is a program of Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.lmc.edu/conferencing_and_events/summer_theatre.