Bringing Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the gang to Dublin’s National Concert Hall is a sort of homecoming for George Daugherty. Paul Byrne chats to the award winning composer.
Over his 25 years as one of America’s most celebrated, and award-winning, conductors, George Daugherty has worked with just about every major American symphony orchestra, has played just about all of the world’s great concert halls and opera houses, and has waved his stick at such classical luminaries as Luciano Pavarotti and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
For the last 19 years though, Daugherty’s biggest musical thrill has been playing with Bugs Bunny. And Daffy Duck. And Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester and Wile E. Coyote.
Making its debut in 1990, Bugs Bunny On Broadway sees Daugherty recreating, with a live symphony orchestra, the great works of the late Carl W. Stalling, the man responsible for soundtracking those classic Warner Brothers cartoons known as Looney Tunes. Debuting in 1930, and running until 1969, these wild and wacky cartoons were a typically twisted response to Disney’s Merrie Melodies from Chuck Jones and the rest of the cartoon crusaders holed up on the outskirts of the Warner Brothers’ lot (in a hut the inmates dubbed Termite Terrace). Looney Tunes were The Goons to Disney’s Leave It To Beaver.
Having played to two milion people worldwide, Bugs Bunny On Broadway now finally makes it to Ireland, Daugherty conducting the RTE Concert Orchestra at The National Concert Hall on Friday August 7th and Saturday August 8th, with a 2.30pm matinee on the second day. Like Chuck Jones, Daugherty is of Irish descent. So, naturally, he’s a little excited and delighted about his upcoming visit.
PAUL BYRNE: This is pretty wacky music that doesn’t leave much room to take a breath. How was it for you?
GEORGE DAUGHERTY: When we started doing the production, technologically, things were not the same as they are now. So, a lot of things had to be done manually that we can do by computer today. We had to figure it all out, and the biggest thing was how to keep it all in sync with the film. You’ve got a film that runs at a fairly frantic pace and it never pauses for two-and-a-half hours. But the music itself is so incredible – it’s frantic and crazy, but it’s fantastic as music.
People like John Zorn have taken on old cartoon soundtracks before, especially Carl Stalling’s…
John Zorn was one the first people who brought attention to the music of Carl Stalling, who wrote all these scores for Warner Brothers. He was one of the people who really celebrated Stalling’s music, and telling people that he was one of those composers that belonged up there with Stravinsky and Aaron Copeland, and people like that. That was really important to the renaissance of acknowledging this music. The thing about it is, this is really legitimate composition. Carl Stalling was really talented, and his work was really exceptional. It’s not schlock, by any means. It’s very, very extraordinary music.
Would you say Carl Stalling has now gained that respect he should have had when he was alive?
The people on the inner circle of music, especially here in California, and especially Los Angeles, studio musicians always knew. Especially the ones who have played his stuff. There’s a stuffiness in some quarters about ‘cartoon music’, but musicians – including orchestral musicians. know what’s going on here. I don’t think the general public thought about it a lot back then, and that’s the way it should be – the music should never stick out disproportionately. Of course, our concert plays huge emphasis on the music – seeing the orchestra on stage changes the balance – but these guys blended everything together perfectly. I think once people see our concert, they’ll never look at a cartoon the same way again.
At least Chuck Jones lived long enough to see a rebirth of his Looney Tunes work, but Carl Stalling passed away in 1972. At the time, these guys were pretty much hidden away by Warners, in their little hut, Termite Terrace…
You’re exactly right, they were out on the edge of the lot, in their ramshackle building, which was being half-consumed by the termites. I’m not sure that Carl would have recognised the Looney Tunes revival looming before his passing, but he was a very confident guy, from what I understand. Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng would have been somewhat aware of that revival. Friz lived to 1995, Chuck to 2002, when Looney Tunes came back through video in a big, big way. I was lucky enough to know both of them, especially Chuck.
Chuck was like a second father to me, and Chuck was really involved with Bugs Bunny On Broadway. Both Chuck and Friz were at our opening on Broadway. The very first time we performed this concert, at the Gershwin Theatre in New York.
It wasn’t like there wasn’t enough pressure on me already. We had only ever done it once before, giving it a test performance in San Diego the night before. So, the Broadway night was an incredible amount of pressure for me. To have a sold-out house, The New York Times and all the other critics are there, it’s your first night on Broadway, and then someone comes up to me and says, ‘Guess what!? Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng are both here!’. We brought them backstage before the concert, and we brought them out onstage in the middle of the performance too. I’ve conducted with a lot of great people in my life – Pavarotti, Barishnikov and many great artists, so, I’ve heard great audiences explode before, but I’ve never heard a sound from an audience like when we brought Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng out.
And yet, these guys were making cartoons that were, in many senses, disposable…
You’re right, when they first did these cartoons, they were just cartoons. In those days, the Looney Tunes were just one part of the evening’s entertainment at the cinema – there’d be the news reel, the coming attractions, the live action short, the cartoon, then the main doublebill, with the big release followed by a B movie. So, it was just a part of the evening, and they made over a thousand cartoons. And these were the days before video, before DVD, before television. So, they never necessarily expected these cartoons to have any kind of life after they’d been through the cinemas. So, you’re right, they made them just for themselves. Just for the sheer laughter factor, the comic genius of the whole thing, and they made them to entertain people. Simple as that.
Was it tough putting this show together. Were Warners a tough nut to crack?
I’d like to say they were, but Warners said yes to us within five minutes. We pitched the idea to them, and they just said, ‘Wow’. Which was the wonderful part, the easy part. It was difficult then. The easy part was getting Warner Brothers to say yes. The difficult part was figuring out how to do it. And the most difficult part was finding all the elements. A studio like Warner Brothers put out a tremendous amount of film – it was like a factory during World War 2, and so, a lot of things had not been saved. We had to search for the musical manuscripts, the scores – we ended doing a great deal of transcriptions. Only two of the cartoons came with a complete set of orchestra scores. And then we had to remaster all of the voice tracks of the great Mel Blanc, and all of the other great voice artists. There wasn’t archive space to save all these things, and then, a lot of it was done on nitrate, which disintegrated. So, for a lot of them, we just had the one single-stripe track, and we had to work out a way of removing the music from that original track, and then remaster the voice track to combine it with our live orchestra. So, it was all quite tricky.
There had been a few live orchestra and classic film concerts up to this point, but this was a little different, right?
Right. All of the film concerts before us were generally silent films – Battleship Potemkin, and such – they just had to play a score. We were really the first concerts that took talking movies and did this.
A part of you must have felt, at more than one point, what the hell have I taken on here?
Absolutely. Especially when you get to something like What’s Opera, Doc? That is so brilliant, and it’s kinda like the apex of the genius of these guys, when they took the entire Ring cycle, which is four nights of Wagner opera that takes about 30 hours to normally perform. And then they added to it four more Wagner operas – Tannhauser, The Flying Dutchman, Renzi and Lohengrin – and then condensed the whole thing into seven minutes. And it’s absolutely, from beginning to end, Bugsy and Elmer singing Wagner, along with tonnes of sound effects – thunder and lightening… The whole Ring cycle! It’s got it all there! That was all hard going. Sometimes we could only complete one second of completed audio in an entire day’s work. And it was during that period that I though, ‘Wow, what did I get myself into?’. But we knew we had to include that one in there, just one of the great masterpieces of the genre. Along with The Rabbit Of Seville. Naturally, both of these had no surviving material. The one thing we found was, the greater the cartoon, the least likely it was to find much surviving material, as people had taken it as a memento.
You’re putting together a new show for next year too, Bugs Bunny At The Symphony…
There’s about 75% new cartoons, that haven’t been part of our concert before. We’re keeping, of course, What’s Opera, Doc? and The Rabbit Of Seville – there would be a riot if we didn’t. And we’re adding Tom & Jerry, which has a similar importance really, when it comes to the music of cartoons. Scott Bradley, who did the music for Tom & Jerry, was the main competitor to Carl Stalling. When they created, Tom & Jerry were over at MGM, but, thanks to Ted Turner, MGM is now owned by Warner Brothers, making Tom & Jerry part of the Looney’s extended family. There’ll be new Looney Tunes as well, such as Jumping Jupiter. That one made it onto our album, in 1990, and we had intended to include it in this show, but never actually got to finish it. It’s one of the quintessential Carl Stalling scores.
You’ve said that this is a sort of homecoming for Bugs…
Yeah, Chuck’s daughter and his grandson, who are keeping Chuck’s legend alive, are coming over, and they’ll be at the performances. They’re going to present an original oil painting to RTE and the National Concert Hall that Chuck did before his death. So, it’s going to be quite meaningful, and very exciting. He’s part Irish, and he had a great love for Dublin, and all things Irish. And I’m Irish, so, this is a homecoming. Bugs O’Bunny. According to Chuck, they dropped the O when they arrived on Ellis Island.
Words : Paul Byrne
Bugs Bunny On Broadway plays The National Concert Hall, Dublin on August 7th and 8th. Log on to www.nch.ie for full details.