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Talk to classical-music conductor George Daugherty, and you'll quickly realize he's not your mother's Toscanini. Maybe he's 44 years old, but somewhere in there is a rambunctious little kid: he'll use his booming baritone to mimic a delicate violin passage, ignore proper classical-snob etiquette by referring to a Romantic piece as "very Johann Straussian," even giddily admit to difficulty conducting Wagner's overwrought Tannhauser. "All I can see is Bugs Bunny in 'What's Opera, Doc?' riding down a hill on a white horse with a big butt," he says with a sigh.
But don't dismiss Daugherty as daffy or loony, even if he is the mastermind behind Bugs Bunny on Broadway, a delightful music/animation festival that screens shorts from the Warner Bros. cartoon catalog accompanied by a live symphony. For him, it's a way to satisfy the classical conductor and the little kid all at once.
"More people have been introduced to classical music by the Warner Bros. shorts than all the symphonies in the world combined," Daugherty says. "And I don't mean that disrespectfully. I mean, I'm a conductor! But today, with cable and video reaching a worldwide audience, hundreds of millions can learn about both Bugs and Rossini at the same time."
The golden-age Warner shorts, he explains, aren't just throwaway sketches. All of the selections included in his program used classical music as an integral component of their plot, with the onscreen action coinciding with every chord change and crescendo of a particular composition. These mini epics are some of the greatest seven minutes of continuous cels ever drawn, for not only elevating animation to a serious art form but also making classical music accessible to the hoi polloi.
In "Long-Haired Hare" (1949, which starts with Bugs' banjo being broken by a conceited Mario Lanza clone and ends with the destruction of the Hollywood Bowl), for instance, Chuck Jones had the riled rabbit emulating Leopold Stokowski right down to the titan's quirk of conducting sans baton. In the hilarious Fantasiaspoof "Corny Concerto" (1943), meanwhile, Bob Clampett used the languid 3/4 pace of Strauss' Tales From the Vienna Woods to uproariously complement Porky Pig's hunting of Bugs.
"Classical music is stereotyped as very pompous and grand, which makes it an easy comic target," Daugherty adds. "The Warner cartoon directors loved classical music but could also see the funny side of it. They walked the perfect line between satire and loving celebration without going too far in either direction. That's why people who have never heard classical music can laugh—but connoisseurs probably laugh at the cartoons harder."
A lifelong fan of the fun, Daugherty conceived Bugs Bunny on Broadway in 1988.
"One Friday night after a long day of working with studio musicians, we were kicking back, having pizza," he recalls. "They showed videos of these Warner cartoons that I hadn't seen since I was young. I was immediately bowled over by how masterful yet hilarious they were. As a kid, I loved all of the music, but as an adult—as a composer, no less—I recognized all the intricacies of the music. Little bars, one-note in-jokes, or full compositions—these cartoons employed classical music better than most orchestras."
Daugherty decided to combine the cartoons with a live concert, so the public could fully appreciate the brilliance of both the animation and the music. But first, he mustered up the audacity to saunter into the Warner offices, ritzy Hollywood go-between be damned!
"It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities where you go into a studio saying, 'I have a great idea,' and they say without hesitation, 'Great, let's do it!'" he says. "So we did it."
During Bugs Bunny on Broadway, Daugherty makes sure to credit Carl Stalling and Milt Franklin's (the Warner animation music directors) crucial role in realizing the various animators' diatonic dreams.
"Stalling and Franklin stayed true to the classical-music pieces' original format and tempo while incorporating other hilarious scores," Daugherty observes. "Many times, I'll hear a commercial using a classical-music piece, and they use the wrong chords and instruments. These guys did it perfectly—and made it witty."
And then there's Chuck Jones: the longtime Orange County resident directed "The Rabbit of Seville" (1950), "Long-Haired Hare" and the immortal "What's Opera, Doc?" (1950), which miraculously condenses 50 hours of various Wagner operas into seven minutes. "Some people say that's how to experience Wagner best," Daugherty says and laughs.
"The first time I met Chuck was five minutes before our opening run on Broadway," Daugherty recalls. "It wasn't like I wasn't nervous already, and here's my hero coming up to me and saying half-jokingly, 'Well, I hope you didn't screw up my cartoons.' After the show, he comes with a bear hug, saying, 'Brilliant! That's exactly how I envisioned it.' I told him I didn't deserve any recognition since it was his genius that made it work, and he replied, 'I know!'"
Bugs Bunny on Broadway at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine, (949) 855-8095 or (714) 740-2400. Sat. Picnicking, 6 p.m.; concert, 8 p.m. $19-$125. All ages.