George Daugherty was a young guy on his way up the conducting ladder — when Bugs Bunny bit him. And while Daugherty continues a career as a classical conductor (he was Music Director of the Louisville Ballet from 1985-90), he is most associated with his hit show “Bugs Bunny on Broadway,” which plays Saturday at the Louisville Palace with the Louisville Orchestra.
Daugherty has brought the original Looney Tunes cartoons, which most of us have seen only on television, back to the silver screen, for which they were originally produced — and added live orchestral accompaniment. In its largest-ever showing, 160,000 fans saw it in Times Square, with Daugherty’s orchestra playing from the roof of a three-story building while the cartoons showed on the giant Times Square diamond-vision screen.
But it all started on a VCR.
“This was back in the early 1980s before everyone had VCRs and cable television,” Daugherty recalled. “If you wanted to see a cartoon, you had to get up at 8 o’clock on Saturday morning and watch it on TV. Needless to say, I hadn’t seen a cartoon in years.
“At the time,” he said, “I was conducting ballet for PBS and working on a very artsy production of ‘Narcissus and Echo’ with some independent filmmakers and animation artists. After work one day in Chicago, we were eating pizza and drinking beer, and one of these guys, Ed Newmann, had a VCR. He popped in a bootleg tape of Bugs Bunny cartoons, with all those classics like ‘What’s Opera, Doc’ and ‘The Rabbit of Seville.’
“It brought back all the magic,” said Daugherty. “And for the first time, I realized how truly exceptional the music is.”
Daugherty spent years piecing the musical orchestrations together from dusty files in studio warehouses and Hollywood attics. He discovered the musical genius at Warner Bros. was Carl Stalling (and his successor, Milt Franklyn), who had arranged the classical scores of Rossini, Wagner, Debussy, etc. for the animations. Stalling, in fact, had played the piano accompaniment for Warner Bros.’ silent-era premiere of the very first animated movie.
Daugherty loves the music’s theatricality.
“Like Wile E. Coyote, when he suddenly realizes he has run off a cliff. As he drops down and down, the orchestra speeds through all these downward chromatic scales, faster and faster, and the audience is expecting this huge fortissimo splat! But instead, there’s just a tiny poof. Then a couple notes from a bass flute and a xylophone clink-clink.”
The show, said Daugherty, is a test for the orchestra, “with notes that go so fast it’s like playing ‘The Rite of Spring’ backward.”
But for an experienced ballet conductor, it would seem keeping an orchestra in sync with a cartoon would be similar to timing music to dance.
“Yes,” laughed Daugherty, “except Bugs and Elmer have the same tempo every night.”
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‘Bugs Bunny on Broadway’
Saturday, April 5
$20-$60; 1:30 & 7:30 p.m.