We’re only a couple of minutes into our interview, and already conductor George Daugherty has used the world brilliant no less than six times to describe Bugs Bunny on Broadway, his travelling tribute to the great Looney Tunes cartoons of the 1940s and ’50s. And he’s about to use it again.
"They’re brilliant," he says, referring to Chuck Jones, Friz Frehling, and Robert Clampett, the virtuoso animators behind Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, and more. "I’m being redundant, but that’s the word for it."
Even over the line from San Francisco, where he lives when he’s not on the road or tending to his duties as music director of London’s Sinfonia Brittania, Daugherty’s enthusiasm for the program is palpable. Surprising, too, given that he’s been giving more or less the same show-which he’ll present, with the assistance of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, at the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday and Monday (December 28 and 29)-for 18 years. But, as he notes, working with the Wascally Wabbit has given him access to some of the best orchestras and most prestigious venues in the world. He and Bugs have headlined the architecturally iconic Sydney Opera House and the gilded confines of the Kremlin Palace Theatre-and everywhere they’ve gone they’ve been greeted with delight.
"Most people in America and Canada grew up on these cartoons, and a really significant amount of the general population knows them in and out," he explains. "So it’s sort of a slam-dunk in America and in Canada, and in Australia, where we’ve had tremendous return engagements. But when you go to Russia and China and Korea and Japan-countries where the Looney Tunes are relatively new to the cultural scene-we notice that people laugh just as loudly."
Daugherty’s secret weapon, apart from the slapstick genius of the cartoons themselves, is that numbers such as "What’s Opera, Doc?’, "The Rabbit of Seville", and "A Corny Concerto" are based on beloved selections from the classical repertoire. These are not necessarily played straight; in fact, they’re often chopped and cut up to fit the action in seemingly irreverent fashion. Daugherty, though, believes that Warner Brothers soundsmiths Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn rank with the finest arrangers of the last century.
"Their scores are not a half-baked condensation of classical themes kind of hurriedly thrown together," he notes. "They’re real works of art-and this is why major symphony orchestras love to play this concert over and over and over again. We’re not asking them to bastardize what they do on a daily basis into some cartoony experience; these scores are the real thing.
"Sometimes when you hear people who do a parody of classical music, you can tell they don’t really love the originals, so it comes out that it’s just a job, or just a gag," he adds. "But they really loved the originals. So [Stalling’s score for] ”˜What’s Opera, Doc?’, for example, has a huge Wagnerian sweep to it. They took tremendous care in the way they did it."
It’s all the more remarkable, then, that their scores-and the cartoons they accompanied-were made on impossibly tight budgets, and were intended only as a sidebar to the screen idols of their day.
"Jack Warner, who ran the studio, didn’t care what the animation guys did, as long as the cartoons were seven minutes and 20 seconds long, which is what the distributors required," says Daugherty. "Their only brief was to make them funny, and to make them be fantastic."
They did that well enough that the conductor still finds himself laughing at-and with-Bugs Bunny and his crew. "Apart from The Nutcracker, there’s almost nothing else that I can think of that I could do for almost 20 years and not go stark raving mad," he says. "And that comes back to the overall magnificence of what those guys did."