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Great music and Looney Tunes: George Daugherty’s remarkable career in concert
Hello, George – I’m very excited to be doing this; thank you for making time.
Oh, it’s my pleasure; my pleasure.
Well – you say that now… Let’s see how you feel halfway through! So… You’re a producer, director, writer, composer, and music director for film and television. You have an Emmy award – kudos – and five more nominations. So the obvious question is: how did you, George, get into classical music?
Well, you’re asking the perfect question for the subject matter, because I really did grow up watching Looney Tunes cartoons… As a four- and five-year-old, they introduced me to the joys of classical music. I’d sit in front of the television on the floor of my parents’ living room and I’d watch these cartoons every Saturday morning.
And just to orientate readers, George, what kind of cartoons?
Oh! The Rabbit of Seville, What’s Opera, Doc?, Baton Bunny, A Corny Concerto… All these incredible Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes cartoons. And at that age, of course, I didn’t realise that they were based on the music of Richard Wagner, Teatri Rossini, Gioachino Antonio Rossini, Johan Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Franz Van Supe, Gaetano Donizetti, Franz Liszt…
You know, just from your listing these names I’m aching to revisit these cartoons! I don’t think I’ve fully appreciated their depth – even to this day…
Right! And as a kid, I certainly didn’t realise I was getting this wonderful musical education. But over the following years, as I grew up, I learned to play the piano and the cello, and – very early on – I wanted to become a conductor. And my parents bought me a record set; gigantic LP discs that came in a huge box… Well, this particular box came with a conductor’s baton! And so I would sit and start conducting when I was a little kid!
That’s incredible! You really were role playing it?
I really was. And that meant I had an absurdly early start to being a conductor. I was conducting professionally by the time I was 19 or 20. I was conducting all over Europe: opera houses in Rome, Argentina, New York… And I wasn’t much thinking about cartoons at all. I was thinking about my wonderful career as one of the youngest conductors in the world.
That’s absolutely remarkable. And was that frowned upon by other conductors, George? Did other conductors expect to see much more ‘long-in-the-toothedness’ from their brethren?
Oh, yes. Today, there’re a lot of really young conductors… But back then – when I was at the Munich State Opera, say – the nearest conductor to me wasaround 45 years older than I was. So I always felt I had to be ten times more prepared; ten times more talented, ten times more everything than my older colleagues… Because I figured I had about 30 to 60 seconds to prove myself from the moment I stepped on the podium. And there’s one other thing I learned, as a really young conductor, that helped me… Be nice.
Just be nice! I needed to be nice because I never was a disciplinarian. I was never one of those conductors you see caricatured or lampooned… You know? The grouchy, dictatorial conductor. But at that age, I had to learn to be really nice, which I like to think I’ve carried through my whole career. Being nice counts for a lot in this business.
Well, you do have that vibe. And in terms of your Emmy win, George… That also relates to an incredible mix of symphony music and recognisable characters. Tell us a little about that!
Well, that comes down to Looney Tunes and Bugs Bunny too, because when I was about 30 years old, I was reacquainted with those cartoons as home video blossomed. Suddenly, people could see old films and cartoons in a way that had never been possible before. And I decided, wow, I wanna do these in concert! We started putting Bugs Bunny at the Symphony together in 1989 – 1990 saw the first performances.
Almost 35 years ago…
Right. But back then, Chuck Jones was still working! And as you might know, Chuck Jones was the absolutely unsurpassed director of all of these cartoons He virtually created Bugs Bunny, he certainly created Daffy Duck, and Wile E. Coyote, the Roadrunner… So many more characters! And now his cartoons uniquely make up the bulk of our concert, because Chuck was a real classical music expert. Is it okay to digress ever so slightly? I can undigress immediately after…
You can digress as much as you like – believe me, no one’s reading this because of my questions…
Ha! Well, I only wanted to say that, when you look at the music Chuck put in What’s Opera, Doc?, for example, it’s amazing. It combines all the main themes from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which normally takes about 30 hours. As well as that, it takes the main themes from Der fliegende Holländer – The Flying Dutchman – and Die Walküre… In effect, it takes eight Wagner operas and compresses them – brilliantly – into seven and a half minutes. Which, actually, a lot of people think is the best way to experience Wagner.
Ha! Very good! Ha! Good line! And you say Chuck Jones was still working… You worked with him directly on this?
Yes. Happily, I – along with my husband, David Wong, who’s also my creative and producing partner – became very good friends with Chuck in the early days of the project. In fact, we were having lunch with Chuck and his lovely wife, Marian, one afternoon, and Chuck started opening all these drawers in his studio. Well, these drawers contained incredible treasures! Unproduced characters, stories, concept drawings, notes… Everything. And he pulled open one drawer, and inside were the drawings for his concept of Peter and the Wolf – based on Prokofiev’s great musical tale.
Ah! We’re back to the Emmy!
Yes, I’m undigressing! I don’t talk in soundbites; I’m really sorry…
Don’t be – you’re the gift that goes on giving; I’m not doing any work!
Ha! Anyway, instead of just shutting the drawer and going onto the next thing, he pulled out these drawings. And of course, there was Peter and the duck, the cat, the wolf, the bird, the grandfather, the hunters… They were all there; all these incredible characters. I mean, our eyes became like saucers! Because I could see his incredible concept just from looking at these drawings. And he just handed them to us and said, “You know what? I don’t have time to do this. Why don’t you guys do it? Take ’em; they’re yours.”
Wow. I’m curious, George: to what do you attribute Chuck’s largesse?
Well, by that point, he’d already seen – over the course of two and a half or three years – the absolute care, love and respect we showed toward his cartoons! Because we’d started doing Bugs Bunny at the Symphony – originally called Bugs Bunny in Concert… When we took it to Broadway in 1990, it was called Bugs Bunny on Broadway. Then after a couple of years, it became Bugs Bunny at the Symphony again.
Got it! He’d already seen the reverence with which you treated his work…
Reverence is a great word! Reverence, respect, adulation, awe – all of those things. But also, we took it to a new place where it hadn’t been before in terms of reaching audiences. So he had an understanding and respect for that, and I think he trusted us with his babies; his characters. And that respect extended, through knowing him, to so many other people that were part of the characters’ creation… Mel Blanc, the incredible voice genius; the great artists, the animators, the background artists, the writers – all these people. Of course, many of them were at the very end of their lives at this point while we were just starting our careers. So there was this wonderful overlap where, through Chuck, we were able to meet all these people.
So he trusts you to take his Peter and the Wolf material and – within reason– do what you like with it?
Yes. And you know, with his support, help, and – of course – name, which is no small thing, we pulled together this one-hour production. Now, it happens that Prokofiev only wrote 25 minutes of music for Peter And the Wolf, but I thought we could wrap another story around it. So we basically wrote and created a live-action story around the animated one.
Wow. And that was a tremendous success?
Oh, it was just amazing. I’m not patting myself on the back when I say that because it was this incredible team effort. But it was the most honoured children’s television special in decades – maybe ever. We got six Emmy nominations, won one, and won the Prime Award for a primetime children’s television program. We won a Writer’s Guild Award, we got a Peabody nomination – all kinds of awards. But mainly, it was just a phenomenal experience. And the fact that Chuck loaned us his name and credentials, in order to get it made – that made all the difference in the world.
Brilliant. And coming right up to date, you’ve got two concerts coming up this weekend, George; Saturday September 30th and Sunday, October 1st. Let’s give them a shameless plug! What are they, and where?
Well, it’s our incredible concert, Bugs Bunny at the Symphony, playing as part of the Rome Film Music Festival, at the Auditorium della Conciliazione. We bring these cartoons to life in a way that most people have never seen before… We have a gigantic screen above almost 100 symphony orchestra musicians. As we show the cartoons – with the dialogue and the sound effects coming from the projection – we play the original scores live, in perfect synchronisation… In our world, perfect synchronisation means within one frame of accuracy, which is one 24th of a second.
Incredible precision! And when you’re looking to pick the cartoons to include in an evening of entertainment like that, I’m guessing you have to produce it like any other show… But from a very specific pool of material. How on earth do you decide which cartoons to include? And in which order?
Well, you’re absolutely right. They made 1,000 Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons in the ‘Golden Era’ of Warner Bros. animation, which roughly ran from the early to mid 1920s until the early 1960s. So it gives us a lot of material to choose from. But our criteria for the cartoons in this concert is – first of all – they have to be brilliant, and they have to feature symphonic music in a way that really is part of the overall hook.
Got it. Because you don’t want – as sometimes happens at mixed-media concerts – the orchestra sitting there waiting for something to do!
Exactly. You know, back in 1989; 1990, we were the first-ever concert in the world to actually marry a live symphony orchestra to a projected medium of any kind. Now there are something like 250 live orchestra and movie concerts out there… But I still think my criteria holds. In order to do a symphonic concert on stage, with live symphonic music, in front of thousands of people, the music has to be brilliant – and pivotal, whether it’s a long film or a short film. And really, in my humble opinion, there are a bunch of movie concerts out there where music is not a pivotal force. In our concert, the orchestra plays from beginning to end for two hours and 15 minutes.
And the music in these cartoons is, as we touched on earlier, of a high-enough calibre to warrant that?
Right. I don’t think we yet mentioned the composers of these cartoons… But these scores weren’t just send ups. They aren’t parodies. They’re complete deconstructions, then brilliant reconstructions, of the original music. Two phenomenal Warner Bros. composers did this work: Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn – who started out as Stalling’s assistant. Then, when Carl retired, Milt became the principal composer and brought his own magic to the scores. They were immensely talented composers.
And I’m curious about that then, George… Is there a prejudice around people that compose music for animations? And when I say prejudice, I mean it in the literal sense of the word: a prejudgement. Do some people look at that and say, “Oh, they’re just doing cartoons?”
Absolutely. And you know, I was 30 when I first started with Bugs Bunny at the Symphony and Bugs Bunny on Broadway… And I know some of the musicians were thinking, “Why are we playing cartoon music?” But that very quickly changed when the great symphony orchestras started to play it. There was an immediate respect for a couple of reasons, I think…
First, a lot of classical musicians had already figured out that Carl Stalling was one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century. Second, it was a huge epiphany for the musicians when they went from just admiring this music that they’d heard once or twice, perhaps when they were kids, to actually trying to play it.
Ohhhhh, yes. I get it…
Right? Suddenly, as they’re playing it, it’s, “Wow, this is incredible!” So getting them to actually play it was a huge deal. Then, suddenly, we were working with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Pops… We were at the Sydney Opera House, the Hollywood Bowl.
Astonishing! And for the last 35 years, you’ve never looked back! But let me ask this: In terms of other licenses, is there anything you’d love to have worked on but haven’t got round to?
Well, yes, of course! Fortunately, I’m still really in love with this particular project. And, with 1,000 cartoons to choose from, we can continue – every few years – to swap in new cartoons; swap others out. But yes, there are things I’d love to do… I’d love to make a fantastic Carnival of the Animals with animation. I’d love to do the movie musical My Fair Lady with a live orchestra… I love that movie!
Oh… Wouldn’t it be loverly?!
Ha! But you know, Deej, I’m very content doing what I’m doing; I’ve had an amazing career and I still have an amazing career! I just love it. If I spent the rest of my career only working with Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies, I’d be very, very happy. Because this allows me to do things that very few other conductors, creatives, writers, producers – whatever – get to do.
That’s fantastic to hear! And you know, George, I think when you’ve pretty much created a niche, you’re at liberty to do what the hell you like in it! Alright, final question… What’s the one thing I could’ve asked you today but didn’t?
You know, you’ve covered pretty much everything, which is fantastic. Great questions!
Oh! Thank you. Truth be told, I ascribe that to Hayley and your team! They made me rework all the questions!
Ha! The one thing I guess you could’ve asked, is: why have I stuck with this for so long? And the answer to that is not just because of what it’s done for me and my career, and David’s career and everything else, but also because the underlying material is so incredibly brilliant. And we’re now coming the proverbial full circle; the inspiration being music: Wagner, Rossini, Johan Strauss… All those works that Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn molded into this entirely new medium.
But it’s also the brilliance of these animated shorts. And I don’t say that lightly… If you think about it, I’ve probably looked at these cartoons more than any person in the history of the world. I’ve watched every one of these cartoons thousands of times at this point. And I always make a joke that Carl Stalling only conducted his own scores one time – the day they recorded it in the studio. I’ve conducted What’s Opera, Doc? 2,500 times… And counting! So I have a intimacy with his music that he even didn’t have.
Wow. I hadn’t thought of it like that.
And yet, I can still look at every one of these cartoons and it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time. To this day, I see things I never noticed before: a little moment here, a little bit here… What a character is doing in the background, something that’s written on the side of a building, something a background character is doing… The level of complexity these great animation geniuses created – and not just Chuck Jones, I meant to say earlier… Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett – all of them! The level of complexity was astounding.
It’s a joyful answer, George, thank you – and it’s been a joyful conversation, too. You’ve been such a pleasure… Wonderful energy, huge passion, tremendous knowledge.
Well, of course Hayley prepared me too.
Yes. She’s actually driven us quite hard, hasn’t she? Is it okay to go, Hayley? Are we done?
She says yes.
Yes. Alright! Then thank you both again! Break your leg with the concert; I’ll be sure to catch it when it comes back to London. And actually, since you’re touring, people can find out about Bugs Bunny at the Symphony here.
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