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'Star Wars: In Concert': a coda with Yoda

Creative forces see the orchestral show with film clips and props as an homage to fans but also a way to get fans interested in classical music. Ah, the old Jedi mind trick.

October 01, 2009|John Horn

With the pop culture landscape cluttered with things like "Star Wars" Lego pajamas, a Princess Leia Slave Costume;product_id=1305522 (just in time for Halloween) and the long-ago-banished "Star Wars Holiday Special," is it any surprise that composer John Williams was a little nervous about a laser-filled "Star Wars" concert?

Williams has won five Oscars, a boatload of Grammys and, at 77, still stands atop Hollywood's movie score food chain -- he holds a credit on the new "Harry Potter" blockbuster.

So when the producers of "Star Wars: In Concert" approached Williams several years ago with their plans for a live show that would wed Williams' symphonic compositions with "Star Wars" footage and rock 'n' roll arena staging, he hardly leaped at the chance.

"John was very reluctant in the beginning. He was very skeptical; he didn't want to do it," says Steve Cohen, the director of "Star Wars: In Concert." "His biggest concern was the quality of the performance."

It wasn't just that Williams wanted accomplished musicians playing his often complex orchestrations. Lucasfilm, the company controlled by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, also needed to be assured there wouldn't be dancing Stormtroopers.

"We took a no-compromises position," says Howard Roffman, the president of Lucas Licensing. "John Williams and George Lucas shared exactly the same concern -- that the music had to be presented in the right way, with a great orchestra, and with great acoustics."

Four years later, it looks as if the conditions have been met.

After a two-performance tryout in London in April, the "Star Wars" concert is launching its national (and future worldwide) tour in Southern California this week. After performances at Anaheim's Honda Center today and Friday, the concert will be presented Wednesday and Oct. 8 at downtown's Nokia Theatre.

The roughly two-hour show represents an unusual combination -- for many "Star Wars" fans, perhaps the first time they'll be seeing a symphony orchestra. But don't expect contemplative silence between movements. Every instrument will be amplified (a lot), and in addition to the lasers, you'll see flames and smoke -- the staging is so elaborate, it takes 12 semitrucks to transport the show from city to city.

Belgium's Dirk Brossé will conduct an 86-piece orchestra (drawn from local musicians, the Boston Pops and the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra) and a 60-voice choir performing a "Star Wars" montage that Williams assembled and, in some cases, re-orchestrated.

As the orchestra plays and the choir sings, a giant high-definition LED screen (measuring 60 feet wide and 35 feet tall) will show clips from all six movies, the footage matched to the music. The footage unfolds in rough chronological order but also is organized around musical themes -- a little romance here, the rise of the dark side there.

For the first time, audiences will be able to see a fully digital Yoda in "Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace," as Lucas recently excised the poorly executed Yoda puppet that originally was part of the film. Anthony Daniels, who lent his voice to the golden protocol droid C-3PO in all "Star Wars" movies, narrates the proceedings.

"We tried to make a show that no one's experienced before," says Gregg Perloff, who is producing the program with Another Planet Touring's Spencer Churchill and Steve Welkom. "We wanted to put it together with a symphony mentality but in an arena with the scope of a rock 'n' roll concert."

The concert's targeted audience consists of three constituencies: "Star Wars" enthusiasts, older rock 'n' roll fans looking for a new kind of live show, and, a distant third, classical music aficionados. "If you look at the numbers, there are a lot more people today consuming 'Star Wars' than consuming classical music," Lucas' Roffman says.

While it's certain those music devotees will be in the minority, the show's organizers are hopeful the grown men who wear Darth Maul costumes to "Star Wars" conventions might somehow be smitten by an easy-to-digest taste of an adagio, glissando and rondo. "A lot of us are fans of symphonies but have never been to the symphony," Perloff says.

Director and designer Cohen, who recently put together Elton John and Billy Joel's "Face 2 Face" touring rock show, said he wasn't sure his combination of "Star Wars" music, film and staging would work until the show had its two-day preview in London.

"A concert is a solemn event in a lot of ways, so that was a risk," he says. But the audience -- which included Lucas -- responded favorably if not a bit subdued, Cohen says. "I'm hoping and praying that a lot of the audience reaction here will be a lot more vocal," Cohen says. Williams and Lucas were unavailable to comment, but both have endorsed the show. Lucas has licensed his "Star Wars" rights to Another Planet for the concert and maintains absolute approval and a cut of the ticket sales.

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