Composer George Daugherty gets a little “Looney,” so to speak. Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.
“It is so sad,” Elaine Benes once bemoaned. “All your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.” Like any of the more memorable Seinfeld quotes, it was a pithy observation that rang true, speaking to whole generations who can pass in high society thanks to the reference points that have been passed down through cartoons and Hollywood movies. (If you’ve ever burned Carlos Gardel’s “Por Una Cabeza” onto a CD and labelled it “Tango Song from True Lies,” then you know what we’re talking about.)
All the hopelessly middlebrow Jerry Seinfelds of the world may be able to get away with this kind of thing. But what about an Emmy-winning conductor who’s worked with most of America’s major symphony orchestras?
This weekend, conductor George Daugherty is bringing Bugs Bunny at the Symphony, and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, to Toronto. Building on the success of his previous production, Bugs Bunny on Broadway (which had a live symphony orchestra scoring Looney Tunes cartoons in front of sold-out crowds), Daugherty continues his mission to bring the symphony to the masses. The blurring of high art and low culture may seem a bit cheeky, until you remember that Warner Bros. has been doing that for the better part of a century. In fact, it’s all the classical music (and immediately recognizable original compositions) that have helped enshrine these doodles as certified classics.
We chatted with Daugherty over the phone about classing Bugs up, his interest in Looney Tunes, and the breadth of his new production.
Torontoist: Where did this idea of plopping Bugs Bunny into the symphony come from? You’ve done a similar show before, right?
George Daugherty: Well for 20 years I’ve done Bugs Bunny on Broadway, which actually played Toronto twice and sold out Roy Thompson Hall. So our 20th anniversary is this year and we thought we’d have to do something a little different, but still celebrate those indelible Looney Tunes that people come over and over to see in this concert. So we took a lot of the music and cartoons from Bugs Bunny on Broadway and added a whole bunch of stuff that wasn’t in the original concert. It really pays homage to that golden era of Warner Bros. cartoons where music was really the huge driving force. They all have these brilliant scores by Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn, and they’re filled with classical music.
What do you think makes these concerts so popular? Is it the feelings of nostalgia wrapped up in the cartoons themselves?
Most of us who grew up in Canada and the U.S. grew up on these cartoons and really got our first introduction to classical music through them. When Warner Bros. produced them, they had this gigantic symphony orchestra performing the music. It wasn’t like other cartoons, where they had tiny jazz bands or funny little ensembles. Warner Bros. used the full power of their symphony orchestra, so it really works perfectly to transition to a symphony orchestra concert.
Were Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies your first exposure to this kind of music?
It sure was! I’d turn on the television every Saturday morning and even when I was five or six years old, I was drawn to the music immediately. One thing that people say is that the Warner Bros. sound is recognizable immediately. And it really is. I could tell the music immediately, before the image even warmed up, on those TVs way back in the 1960s.
So compared to the original show, is this a whole new production, or just a few added numbers?
It’s about 60 per cent new. We still have some classics, like “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “The Rabbit of Seville,” which are probably the two most popular cartoons ever produced in the history of animation. And they’re also so musical, one being based on Wagner and the other on Rossini. But there’s lots of new things that we haven’t had in there before. We’ve added some great Tweety cartoons, and a new Road Runner cartoon called “Zoom and Board,” which is unbelievable. So it’s a new show, but with a few of the old standbys.
Beyond just conducting the symphony, it also seems like it’s an added challenge because you have to conduct to the screen.
Oh that’s huge. With a regular symphonic concert, you can go with the flow and be spontaneous. If the oboe solo is particularly gorgeous one night, you can take it slowly. We can’t do that with this. And the other element is not just the image but the sound effects. The sound effects and the music work in total harmony. With these cartoons it’s hard to know where the music stops and the sound effects start, and vice-versa. So the music has to be absolutely in-sync. We can’t even get a couple of frames behind. And on top of that are the voices. When Bugs starts singing three minutes into a cartoon, we have to be there.
So does this suck any of the normal spontaneity out of it?
Well, there are other ways to be spontaneous. I’ve been doing this kind of a concert for twenty years and I’ve figured out how to make it work. We’re able to make it work without losing the music in the process. We’re not automatons. We don’t want the music to become robotic. What we’re doing is no different from what an orchestra does when they go into a studio and record a soundtrack for a movie. Except we’re doing it live and uncut for two hours.
Dust off your tux and Bugs Bunny bow-tie and check out Bugs Bunny at the Symphony Saturday, April 9 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts (1 Front Street). Tickets are available at the box office, or via Ticketmaster.