Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
That's an old actors' adage. The musicians of the Richmond Symphony would do well to remember it as they prepare to rehearse for "Bugs Bunny on Broadway," Saturday night's sprint down the memory lane of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, the animations produced for Warner Bros. from the 1930s through the '60s.
The show, in which a live symphony orchestra plays along with the exploits of Bugs, Elmer Fudd, Road Runner and other characters, sounds like great fun. "But it's not easy music at all," says George Daugherty, a San Francisco-based conductor who has toured with the production since its inception 18 years ago.
The musicians onstage "have to stay in synchronization with a film that's charging ahead like a freight train out of control," Daugherty says. "And they're accompanying characters that, unlike human singers, don't wait for cues. Playing these scores requires tremendous concentration."
"Bugs Bunny on Broadway" reprises a dozen of the Warner animations, 10 of them with live orchestral accompaniment. (The two others are being screened with their original soundtracks.) The original soundtracks were converted to digital audio files, from which "we've whittled away the music, leaving dialogue and sound effects," Daugherty says. "For some animations, we had access to the original orchestra scores; for others, the original was lost and we had to restore it from bits and pieces. It's painstaking work -- preparing one of these shorts can take months."
The music was created mainly by Carl Stalling, a pianist and theater organist who got his start accompanying silent films. For his cartoon soundtracks, Stalling could call on a full symphony orchestra Warner, like other major studios, maintained an in-house orchestra during Hollywood's golden age as well as the studio's sound-effects department.
Stalling and his assistant, Milt Franklyn (who took over the series after Stalling retired in 1958), used these forces as few composers have ever used an orchestra. "Some of these scores sound absolutely chaotic impossible to play but they're not," Daugherty says. "Stalling may sound like an ax murderer let loose on an orchestra, but he was a master orchestrator, a real musician's composer. What he wrote falls logically under a player's fingers."
Stalling and Franklyn also were miraculously efficient music editors. In "The Rabbit of Seville" (1949), Stalling packed every significant tune from Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," a two-and-a-half-hour opera, into seven minutes, with plenty of time for Bugs to give Elmer the shave and haircut from hell. In "What's Opera, Doc?" (1957), Franklyn condensed about 20 hours' worth of Wagner's music dramas into six minutes.
To Daugherty's ears, though, "the absolute zenith of Carl Stalling at his most masterful and at his craziest" comes in "Zoom and Bored" (1957), one of the great Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote escapades. "Neither character speaks it's all music," the conductor says. "That gives Stalling a huge blank canvas to fill. Boy, does he fill it, especially with woodwind music. Wind players love this one."
Chuck Jones, the animator, screenwriter, producer and all-round maestro of Looney Tunes, "would always say, 'These are not for kids,'" Daugherty recalls. Unlike cartoons from Disney, Hanna-Barbera and other studios, the Warner animations had a rebellious, even anarchic edge.
"When we first starting touring this show, and especially when it played on Broadway in September and October of 1990, there was barely a kid to be seen in the audience," Daugherty recalls. "It's not that these cartoons don't play well to kids they do. I think the grown-ups wanted to enjoy them without having to explain the humor. Now, though, they're bringing the kids." S
The Richmond Symphony presents "Bugs Bunny on Broadway" May 3 at 8 p.m. at the Landmark Theater. Tickets are $25-$60. Call 788-1212 or visit www.richmondsymphony.com.
Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com