Many of us have fond memories of the classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies short films—Saturday mornings with Bugs Bunny, Wile. E. Coyote, Tweety Bird, and the rest of the gang were a cornerstone of our childhoods. For George Daugherty, co-creator and conductor of Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II, the cartoons were all about the music.
“All musicians who grew up in the U.S. and Canada fell in love with these cartoons when they were kids,” says Daugherty, calling the Straight from his latest tour stop in Ottawa. “We all had the same experience—we recognized that not only were the cartoons phenomenal, but the music was phenomenal.”
This weekend’s performances will see the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra playing along to such classic Looney Tunes cartoons as "Rabbit of Seville" and "What’s Opera, Doc?".
The enduring genius of these cartoons, says Daugherty, is that they adhere to the spirit of the music they’re based on, whether it's by Rossini, Strauss, or Wagner.
“'What’s Opera Doc?' takes the entire Ring Cycle [of four operas, totalling 15 hours] and whittles it down to six minutes and 30 seconds, still with all the main Wagnerian themes totally intact,” he explains. “What they’re playing is really Wagner—this huge orchestra, this huge instrumentation.”
Daugherty created the show in New York City in 1990, as Bugs Bunny on Broadway. He’s toured with it ever since, conducting over 200 orchestras worldwide. The performances with the VSO this weekend are actually the very last performances of this version of the show; in the fall, it will be retooled as Bugs Bunny at the Symphony: 30th Anniversary Edition.
One of the biggest challenges in conducting a show like this is keeping the entire orchestra in sync with the cartoons.
“These cartoons move very fast,” says Daugherty. “Because the sound effects and dialogue are on the film track, the music has to be exactly in sync with all of that, because they all work together seamlessly. It’s one of the genius things about these cartoons—the music, the sound effects, and the dialogue are a totally coordinated soundscape. If we’re having a particularly nice moment somewhere in a normal concert, we can linger and relish that moment, but the cartoons wait for nobody.”
There’s also something special, he adds, about watching them on the big screen, with an audience around you.
“It takes the cartoons back to their original genesis, because these cartoons were not made to be watched on television all by yourself on Saturday morning, even though that’s the way that so many of us were exposed to them. The cartoons were made to be seen in a theatre, as part of the experience of going to the movies. So the audience reaction is really the fourth wall of the sound design. These cartoons are timed for laughter and applause and audience reaction.”
It’s an experience not often had at the symphony, and over the show’s nearly 30-year run, audiences have loved hearing it as much as the musicians have enjoyed playing it. It’s one of the reasons, in fact, that Daugherty conceived of the show in the first place.
“I wanted to entice people into the concert hall who don’t normally come to the concert hall,” he says. And it’s worked. “Sometimes an orchestra will tell us that 70 percent of the ticket buyers have never been in their database before.”
Next year will also mark the 80th anniversary of the first on-screen appearance of Bugs Bunny, in the 1940 Merrie Melodies short “A Wild Hare”. For many, he’s just as entertaining as he’s always been.
“These cartoons are timeless,” says Daugherty. “Even though they’re classic, they’re still as fresh as when they were made.
“I love them all—I have to love them all,” he says with a laugh. “They’re kind of like my children.”
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presents Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II on Friday and Saturday (July 12 and 13).