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John Miller: Stage Door Johnny

If at any point over the past three decades you’ve seen a Broadway or off-Broadway musical, John Miller likely influenced the experience. As musical director, Miller has worked on more than seven dozen productions, ranging from Tommy, Big River and the Will Rogers Follies to such current hits as Jersey Boys, Grey Gardens and Young Frankenstein. Away from the Great White Way, he has, as a freelance bassist, worked alongside close to 100 of the biggest names in pop, rock, folk and jazz, including Madonna, Sinatra, James Brown, Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach, Les Paul, Gil Evans and Ornette Coleman.

Now, at age 63, Miller has released his first solo album, built around a dozen vintage delights (the newest of the 12 pieces dates from the early ’60s) that, he says, reflect his “earliest memories and affections” for show tunes. Result: one of the smartest and most delightful Broadway salutes ever crafted. Miller’s gruffly appealing voice carries obvious hints of Kenny Rankin and James Taylor (particularly on lilting, folk-rock readings of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “We Kiss in a Shadow”) with distinct undertones of Steve Tyrell, Dr. John, Peter Allen and Bob Dorough.

Not interested in standard interpretations, Miller works alongside guitarist David Spinoza (who assisted with arrangements and production) to shake things up in truly magical ways. With sparkling vocal assistance from Dorough and Janis Siegel, Guys and Dolls’ “Fugue for Tinhorns,” usually taken at a frenetic pace, is slowed to a leisurely lope. “Hey There,” from The Pajama Game, and Little Me’s “Real Live Girl” are transformed into shimmering sambas. Most intriguing are the transformation of the pouty Peter Pan lament “I Won’t Grow Up” into a surly, hard-driving rock anthem (which, surely, is precisely how a 21st-century Peter would express the lyric’s defiant sentiments), and the startling reinvention of “Secret Love” (which, for the record, wasn’t written from a Broadway show, but for the 1953 Doris Day film Calamity Jane), complete with a pounding bassline that shifts to retro, horn-fueled Busby Berkeley grandiosity and back again.

Originally Published