In the musical sense, it’s no laughing matter when George Daugherty returns to town Friday to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II. For the past 30 years, Daugherty has led some of the world’s most illustrious orchestras as they accompany classic screwball Warner Bros. animations.
In 1988, Daugherty had a “crazy idea,” he said, to present iconic American cartoons with their classical music scores, live. Today, more than 2.5 million people have attended his Bugs shows, proving the conductor’s plan to be anything but loony tunes.
Except, of course, that it is literally Looney Tunes. And in that sense, it is absolutely a laughing matter.
Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II is the third in a series that began with Bugs Bunny on Broadway and continued with Bugs Bunny at the Symphony. The new program adds the head-spinning Zoom and Bored to favorites like What’s Opera, Doc? and The Rabbit of Seville. There’s also more Daffy Duck, and CGI/3D versions of I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat and Coyote Falls.
The reason the Bugs-in-concert phenomenon has endured, keeping elite international musicians returning to their chairs to play the parts of Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck, Road Runner, Elmer Fudd, and foes is simple.
It’s the music, Doc.
On-screen high jinks may seem the only point of Warner Bros. early animations, which were created as preludes to movie-house feature films. But classically-attuned ears recognize the music underscoring and punctuating the walking-off-a-cliff, running-up-a-cloud-of-dust, dropping-an-Acme-bomb action: iconic compositions by Wagner, Rossini, Liszt, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, von Suppé, Donizetti, and Mendelssohn.
Golden age composers provided both the score and, in the cases of short films What’s Opera, Doc? and The Rabbit of Seville, the story line, for Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes from the 1930s through the 1950s.
Classical music was such a part of early animation, that 1949’s Chuck Jones-directed Long-Haired Hare depicts Bugs Bunny as famed Philadelphia Orchestra maestro Leopold Stokowski. Daugherty recalled that during the first Philadelphia performance of Long-Haired Hare, orchestra and audience members joined the cartoon orchestra in chanting “Leopold! Leopold! Leopold! Leopold!”
Aficionados are careful to point out these cartoons may have been irreverent, but the works have maintained the musical integrity of the original compositions.
Tom Di Nardo, former Daily News critic and author of Listening to Musicians: 40 Years of the Philadelphia Orchestra, said Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes musical directors Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn considered their mission as “subversives … bringing classical music to a wider audience. The music is straight. It’s the characters that are goofy,” he said.
Daugherty, a cellist turned opera and ballet conductor, rediscovered Stalling and Franklyn while visiting the home of some animator friends, who were playing some old Bugs Bunny videos. His reaction: “I thought: Oh my God. Now I know why I love this music. These guys are the real thing,” he said. “The playing — the soaring instrumentation — is magnificent, virtuosic.
"I immediately got this idea to do a concert of the music, and immediately realized it had to have the visual.”
He took his idea to Warner Bros. and in 1990 it debuted it to a sold-out San Diego audience, whom he compared to the boisterous fans of the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He then chanced upon premium real estate, Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre, after it was vacated by a short-lived Warner Bros. production of Show Boat.
Bugs Bunny on Broadway had a slow start until Leonard Maltin covered the concert on Entertainment Tonight. Sellouts ensued.
Daugherty took the show to the big five — the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra. Bugs Bunny on Broadway became, he said, “one of very first — if not the first — touring concert to have projected video or film and live music. Now, there are literally hundreds of concerts out there that are touring full-length movies and everything else. It’s become part of any orchestra’s standard season.”
In recent years, the Philadelphia Orchestra has performed and screened Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, among others. Films typically show in summertime at the Mann Center for Performing Arts.
Musicians who played for the original Warner Bros. animation did so under tough conditions, said Di Nardo. “They were cranking out one show every week in ‘termite terrace,’ ” the nickname for their rundown studio.
Conditions for modern orchestra members are decidedly better, but live players don’t have retakes or an editing studio. “We have to do the cartoons straight through, from beginning to end," said Daugherty. "Not only that, but we do 15 cartoons in one concert.”
“These cartoons are so fast. The voices and sound effects still come from the original cartoon, but they have to line up with the music. … If the sound effect and the voice are there, and the music is a half a second late, everybody in the audience knows it,” said Daugherty.
‘What’s more, he added, “Everybody knows these cartoons intimately. People are frequently singing along to the Rabbit of Seville, ‘Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!’ … People have high expectations that we’re doing it right.”
Philadelphia Orchestra first assistant concertmaster Juliette Kang said the experience is “more energizing than exhausting.”
“It really does feel like a different muscle you are using for something that’s similar but related,” she said. “I’m terribly unathletic, but it’s as if you’re a competitive swimmer, and you switch to synchronized swimming, with four people.”
Switching things up for programs like Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II opens a door for first-time orchestra goers, giving them a familiar — or, at least, somewhat familiar — starting point.
Said Di Nardo, “It’s just like if you take somebody to The Nutcracker. They see those people dance, and they say, ‘What else you got?' "
Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II