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The Sound of Change

The usual orchestra has been disbanded as Academy Awards musical directors Bacharach and Was and the show's producers take a new approach--surprising Hollywood's musical establishment.

March 20, 2000|JON BURLINGAME | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Oscars are going to sound a lot different this year, as producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck try to "contemporize" the music with the help of co-musical directors Burt Bacharach and Don Was.

How different? Instead of a single orchestra, which has been the norm for more than half a century, this year's Oscar telecast on Sunday will utilize at least four different ensembles: one for Bacharach's overture, a pit band led by Was, a small combo playing music during commercial breaks, and a large orchestra to perform at least one of the nominated songs.

Shaking up the status quo, however, has sent shock waves through the Hollywood musical establishment. Initial reports that there would be no traditional orchestra were met with disbelief by studio musicians, composers and arrangers. Veteran Oscar music director Bill Conti, who has done the show more than a dozen times since the mid-1970s, routinely used an orchestra of about 50 players.

In fact, much of the show will be played by acoustic musicians, but used in unorthodox ways. According to Was, "This year's texture is not so much pageantry and Elizabethan pomp and circumstance. It's lyricism set against a hard groove."

Lili Zanuck hopes that the Oscar night music will reflect what's going on in the film music world. "All soundtracks today are not done as they were in the old days, by an orchestra. You now have synth soundtracks, you have bands, all kinds of instrumentation. We thought that our band should reflect that. It's not less musicians, it's just different configurations."

The Zanucks chose their musical directors last fall: Was, a Grammy-winning producer for such artists as Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan and Garth Brooks; and Bacharach, the Oscar-winning composer and legendary '60s arranger who has made a major comeback in the past few years. "They're both stars in their own right," says Richard Zanuck. "We thought that that marriage would be perfect."

That means the pit band--the group playing on and playing off presenters and award winners-- will consist of "a drummer, a percussionist, a bass player, a couple of keyboard players, and a guy with turntables," Was reports. So if Jack Nicholson is presenting and Was decides to introduce him with the theme from "Chinatown," his turntable man may cue up the movie's score on a CD while Was' rhythm section plays along with it.

"I don't know that anyone's done this," admits Was. "It's using the most modern stuff, but trying to humanize it as much as possible. The challenge is being able to start and stop on a dime."

Bacharach says he signed on because of "the challenge, the excitement of the way [the Zanucks] projected different things to do." He liked "the idea of having a top band on stage and being able to do an extended medley of some wonderful Academy Award-nominated songs--past, way past, current and not so current."

Bacharach's role will focus on two key moments in the show: its overture (a new Bacharach composition) and a 10- to 12-minute medley of great Oscar-nominated songs through the years, which he has arranged for an all-star cast of vocalists. Signed thus far for the medley are Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, Isaac Hayes, Dionne Warwick and Queen Latifah. Bacharach declined to disclose which songs he has chosen, indicating that changes and trims are still possible over the next week.

Bacharach will use a different ensemble than Was, one that features a more traditional string section, brass, woodwinds and percussion--"basically what I need to make an exciting overture," he says. "I do feel it's got to have the richness of strings playing, and real French horns."

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The five Oscar-nominated songs will be performed, in four cases, by the original artists: Phil Collins ("You'll Be in My Heart" from "Tarzan"), Sarah McLachlan and Randy Newman ("When She Loved Me" from "Toy Story 2"), Aimee Mann ("Save Me" from "Magnolia"), Gloria Estefan and 'N Sync ("Music of My Heart" from "Music of the Heart").

Each is, however, limited to 90 seconds, "a musical version of the sound bite," grouses nominee Phil Collins. "I think it's a shame that we're only being given a minute and a half each. But I'm pleased to be singing." (In 1985, when nominated for his song from "Against All Odds," he wasn't asked to perform it.)

Production sources have confirmed that Robin Williams will perform "Blame Canada," the nominated song from "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut." The original vocalist, Mary Kay Bergman, committed suicide in November. ABC censors have expressed concern over the lyrics (which include several unprintable expletives). "Blame Canada" will be performed by a nearly 50-piece orchestra, apparently the only number in the show that will receive that lavish a musical treatment.

"Part of its charm is that it's this irreverent lyric juxtaposed against very traditional show music, which requires a very large orchestra to play it," says Was.

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