In their approach to classical music, as elsewhere, the animators at Warner Bros. set themselves apart from their Disney counterparts.
While Disney's full-length "Fantasia" earnestly attempted to mold the medium to straight renditions of the classics, Warner Bros. efforts were, characteristically, more irreverent.
In "The Rabbit of Seville" (1950), Bugs Bunny tosses a salad on Elmer Fudd's head in time to Rossini's overture to "The Barber of Seville." Meanwhile, Bugs and Elmer play a Wagnerian Brunhilde and Siegfried in the 1957 spoof "What's Opera, Doc?"
These classically inspired shorts, along with such others as "Baton Bunny," "Rhapsody Rabbit" and "A Corny Concerto," get not only the big-screen treatment but also live accompaniment from a 50-piece orchestra in "Bugs Bunny on Broadway," at the Greek Theatre tonight and at Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheatre on Saturday.
The revue is the brainchild of George Daugherty, whose previous career includes conducting touring orchestras for ballet companies and scoring film and television. Daugherty is a lifelong fan of Warner Bros. animation. As a musician, he developed an affinity for the role music plays.
He took his idea to Warner Bros., spawning a project that went on to a three-week run on Broadway and its current five-week national tour. Daugherty, who is producer of the project, conducts the touring Warner Bros. Orchestra.
"Bugs Bunny on Broadway" is the latest of several recent projects focusing attention on the musical side of Warner Bros.' animation legacy. Music directors and composers Milt Franklyn and Carl Stalling created an intricate weave that combined original music with variations on popular tunes and classical works by Rossini, Strauss, Wagner and Tchaikovsky.
Kathleen Helppie, vice president of production and administration at Warner Animation, was among those who championed Daugherty's project. "I thought it was a great idea. No one has really done anything like this before," Helppie says.
Daugherty faced several technical challenges in getting the music to work with the animation in a live format.
The original scores were recorded in snippets of less than a minute, while Daugherty's orchestra has to play them straight through, staying in time with the cartoons on screen while negotiating abrupt shifts in tempo and phrasing.
Daugherty also had to find a way to strip the original audio tracks of all music and sound effects, leaving just the voices. He and his colleagues at Los Angeles-based Industrial F/X developed a digital technique, but it was laborious.
Daugherty then discovered that almost none of the printed scores had been preserved. A team of USC graduate students in film scoring was recruited to transcribe the music from the cartoons, "note by note, instrument by instrument, like monks working in the abbey," Daugherty says.
Finally, Daugherty had to find a way to get an orchestra to perform the two-hour show live, never straying more than 1/30th of a second from the cartoon action. "The thing about animation is, the cues are so synchronous," Daugherty says. "If we're off, Elmer and Bugs don't wait for us."
San Diego Symphony was the first to take the show in a one-day tryout last summer. "The way the audience responded to the show was like a rock 'n' roll concert," Daugherty says.
That led to the three-week run in Broadway's cavernous Gershwin Theatre, a soundtrack album and the national tour.
Chuck Jones, director of many classic Warner Bros. shorts, attended the New York run of "Bugs Bunny on Broadway" with fellow director Friz Freleng and pronounced it "staggering. . . . It is really quite an experience to hear the full orchestra."
For Jones, one of the most gratifying elements of the show is the chance for audiences to see the works on the big screen, as they were intended to be seen.
And standing ovations on Broadway were a nice bonus, he admits: "I don't know that I deserved it, but I certainly enjoyed it."