Bugs Bunny on Broadway

January 20, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

January 2008

It’s another sweltering day on the desert. The sun is relentless. The ground is hard and cracked. The cacti stand at attention like rigid soldiers on a barren battlefield. There is no sign of life on this godforsaken land.

Or is there?

In the distance, a faint cloud of dust rises on an abandoned dirt road, accompanied by the far-off cry of, “Beep! Beep!”

A lone Coyote (Carnivorous Vulgaris) perks his ears. Has he heard correctly? Is the Road Runner (Accelleratii Incredibus) coming his way? Quickly, the Coyote equips himself with his latest purchase from the ACME Corporation — a pair of roller skates, a helmet and a giant, red rocket tied to his back. ACME has let him down in the past (untrustworthy explosive devices, bat suits with faulty wings, earthquake pills that mysteriously do not affect road runners), but the Coyote is certain they will come through this time. After all, American ingenuity always triumphs in the end.

ZOOM! The Road Runner zips through the canyon with incredible ease. He is sleek and confident, that fleetfooted fowl, tearing up the desert like a feathered Mad Max.

Undaunted, the Coyote lights a match and applies the flame to the wick of his rocket. BLAM! The Coyote is blasted forward. At first, he has difficulty maintaining his equilibrium on those tricky roller skates — he slips, he slides — but soon he finds his balance. What a rush! Is it possible? Could he actually be gaining on the Road Runner?

The Coyote closes in — he can practically taste the Road Runner stew on his tongue. He reaches out with a desperate paw… and then… AND THEN…

The Road Runner stops dead in his tracks.

Apparently, there are no breaks on ACME rockets. Bewildered, the Coyote shoots past his prey and slams headfirst into a canyon wall. His body folds into the shape of an undignified accordion. Foiled again.

*     *     *

Arguably the most ingenious aspect of the Warner Bros. cartoons and the Tex Avery/Chuck Jones style of animation that was perfected in the 1950s and ’60s was the attempt to condense the complexities of modern civilization to its most basic elements. The formula for the original Road Runner and Coyote films never changed: 1) Road Runner is too fast for Coyote to catch; 2) Coyote must rely on modern technology via the ACME Corporation to achieve his goals; 3) for a brief moment, the technology appears to work — however, it always fails in the end, usually backfiring in such a way that it winds up destroying its most faithful consumer.

This happens over and over again with the same results. It is the story of Man struggling against Nature, and it is as old as Plato’s allegorical cave. The fact that Jones was able to simplify this timeless morality tale into six-minute action sequences between two anthropomorphized animals projected onto a flat screen is, somewhat paradoxically, an amazing testament to human ingenuity.

One of the secrets of creating art that appears to be very simple is to connect it to something that is actually quite complex. When you consider the fact that the early Road Runner and Coyote cartoons had no verbal discourse aside from the occasional, acerbic “Beep! Beep!” of that sadistic bird, you realize the importance music can play as a plot device in storytelling. In fact, the Looney Tunes productions of that period are remarkable examples of melodic sophistication and ingenuity that have stood the test of time.

The classical compositions that accompany the Road Runner and Coyote cartoons are anything but simple for George Daugherty, who has been conducting the live concert production of Bugs Bunny On Broadway for more than 18 years.

“For starters,” says Daugherty, “the Coyote and Road Runner never utter a single word of dialogue. The music becomes their conversation, but it’s incredibly frenetic. That is Carl Stalling — who is the composer — at his absolute most crazy. So you have these classical music pieces like ‘Dance of the Comedians’ from The Bartered Bride, which they always use when the Coyote chases the Road Runner. And that piece of music in a normal concert is so fast that it’s almost impossible to play — but in the cartoon, we take it four times faster, so the musicians are practically flying off their chairs. At the same time, you have these sound effects that we have to play of trains and planes and buses. It’s the only time a classical symphony orchestra member will hear a conductor say, ‘That solo should be with a jackhammer.’”

Bugs Bunny On Broadway is an artistic collaboration that combines the on-screen animation of the Looney Tunes with the live performance of a classically trained symphony orchestra. This is particularly difficult for the orchestra and its conductor, because they must keep up with the cartoon at all costs. Small mistakes often go unnoticed during a regular concert, but they can be catastrophic in Bugs Bunny On Broadway.

“In a normal concert, you can improvise and go with the music,” says Daugherty. “But the cartoons don’t wait for anything. They just keep charging ahead no matter what. God forbid somebody should come in a measure late and the whole orchestra follow them. The action on the screen would be completely out of sync with the music, and the story would be ruined.”

While conducting the orchestra, Daugherty watches the screen above his head intensely, listens to the guide track in his ear, and attempts to synchronize the two through the orchestra in front of him. If he or one of the orchestra members loses focus for even a moment, the entire audience will know immediately. The performance is like being pulled down the street by a runaway horse: you can either try to keep up or get dragged behind, but either way you’re going wherever that horse takes you.

In many ways, without even realizing it, Daugherty has become an honorary member of the Looney Tunes family — he’s now another desperate Coyote forever trying to catch up to that elusive Road Runner.

*     *     *

As a cinematic icon, Bugs Bunny has had somewhat of a problematic relationship with classical music. Animation has never really been taken seriously as an art form, and therefore, many critics and “artistes” tend to look down their noses at cartoons. Classical music has always been considered part of “high culture,” while Bugs and his friends definitely rank amongst the “low culture” (sometimes kindly referred to as “popular culture”).

And while it’s not in Bugs’ nature to pick a fight, he certainly never backed down from one, either. In the ’50s and ’60s, Bugs Bunny and his Looney Tunes cohorts wreaked satirical havoc on the world of classical music and opera in brilliant films such as The Rabbit of Seville, Corny Concerto, Baton Bunny, What’s Opera, Doc? and Long-Haired Hare. This was a period in American history when classical music was still very much in the public consciousness. Leonard Bernstein’s orchestra had a regular spot on prime-time television, and Ed Sullivan often featured opera singers and classical musicians on his popular show. The media had not yet been completely overrun by Elvis’s infamous pelvis or Beatlemania, and classical music was still, in a way, classic.

The artists at Warner Bros. were also fans of classical music. After all, they kept an 80-piece orchestra and two excellent composers, Carl Stalling and Milt Fanklyn, on their payroll.

In the documentary Chuck Jones: Extremes and in Betweens, a Life in Animation, Jones states that the reason why he chose to use classical music almost exclusively was because “it’s the best kind of music, and it’s the most appropriate for an animated cartoon.”

On the other hand, there was something about the pomp and circumstance of the genre that rubbed the Warner Bros. artists the wrong way. It’s possible that their ire stemmed from the fact that they were kind of considered the redheaded stepchildren of the industry. Warner Bros. Animation was a low-budget project run out of a tumbledown structure on Sunset Boulevard that was known to its employees as the “Termite Terrace.” Wages were low, but creative freedom was high. Disney, of course, was the upper crust of animation. The Disney style — which was conceived by visionary artist Ub Iwerks in the 1920s and has continued, at least philosophically, to this day — was sincere and elaborate. Disney always strove for ornate realism, while Warner Bros. favored the abstract. Disney animation represented patriotism and industry, while Warner Bros. animation championed American individualism.

The differences can be seen in the stars that represent each company. Mickey Mouse is a good-natured, softspoken Everyman who prefers to go with the flow whenever possible. He is an innocent (although not necessarily a dupe). In the true Protestant tradition, Mickey works hard and expects good things in return. When faced with controversy, his first reaction is avoidance, followed closely by diplomacy, but he rarely becomes aggressive.

Bugs Bunny, on the other hand, is the anti-Mickey. Irreverent and bombastic, he struts through life with a mischievous grin and a waggling eyebrow. Although he seldom initiates hostility, he always goes cheerfully into battle (usually with the trademark line “Of course you know, this means war!” which was taken from the Marx Brothers). And he will do almost anything to come out victorious, even if it means dressing up as the femme and emasculating his opponent with seduction.

Mickey Mouse is a product of 1930s wholesomeness and fortitude. Bugs Bunny is the precursor to the 1960s’ counter-culture. Mickey Mouse talks like a Midwestern eunuch. Bugs Bunny’s accent falls somewhere between Brooklyn and the Bronx. For all intents and purposes, they are arch-enemies.

Mickey’s desperate earnestness was just begging to be made fun of, and Bugs was only too happy to oblige. When Disney produced Fantasia in 1940 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, it was a grandiose, almost-religious homage to classical music. In keeping with their style, Disney created a larger-than-life production that was designed to impress the audience by its sheer magnitude. With a wink and a nudge, Warner Bros. created Corny Concerto, which cleverly satirized both classical music and Disney’s worshipful portrayal of it. They produced cartoon after cartoon that mocked high culture and the Boy Scout image portrayed by Disney.

Only history will tell which animated alter-ego America will embrace in the end. Mickey’s diligence and sincerity have turned him into a global icon, yet many now see him as an outdated cliché and an unwelcome colonizer. Bugs Bunny is still culturally relevant, but he has never received the proper recognition.

However, Daugherty seems to be breathing new life into both classical music and the Bugs Bunny mystique all at the same time. In many ways, classical music has dropped out of the public eye. Although symphonies and orchestras are still prominent in America, they do not receive the attention in the mainstream media that they once did. By joining forces with Bugs Bunny, Daugherty has made classical music recognizable to the American public without compromising the integrity of its art.

“A large percentage of those who attend Bugs Bunny On Broadway have never set foot in a concert hall before,” says Daugherty. “We have an opportunity to introduce them to an entire world of music. And it seems to be working, because our statistics show that an unbelievable number of people who see Bugs Bunny On Broadway are coming back for more traditional concerts. We are creating future music-lovers.”

And it’s not a one-sided affair. Thanks to Daugherty, the artists who created the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons are also being recognized for their outstanding work. Bugs Bunny has now been enjoyed by audiences all over the world. He has played to packed auditoriums in London and Moscow. His antics have been seen by children in Montreal, San Francisco and Denver. Bugs Bunny has even graced the halls of the famous Sydney Opera House in Australia.

Now if he could only remember to take that left turn at Albuquerque.

*     *     *

Daugherty’s illustrious career has spanned more than 25 years. He has written, produced and directed movies and television shows, and he has won an Emmy. However, one of the greatest thrills of the conductor’s life has been collaborating with the incomparable Chuck Jones.

After Warner Bros. Animation closed down in 1962, Jones had many opportunities to work as an illustrator and director in Hollywood. He spent some time at MGM, where he created new episodes of Tom & Jerry. He directed the Academy Award-winning film The Dot and the Line, and he brought Dr. Seuss to life with the animated adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. However, Jones never strayed far from the characters he had created early in his career. He had developed them and cared for them for so many years, he told friends, that it felt wrong to abandon them completely. As he once said in an interview, “Everybody wants to be rich — except me. All I ever wanted to do was to have enough money to live comfortably and do what I enjoy doing. As it turns out, that’s what my life has been pretty much about.”

When Daugherty approached Jones about Bugs Bunny On Broadway, the animator was more than willing assist with the project. It was the beginning of a 10-year artistic and personal relationship that continued until Jones’ death in 2002. “Chuck became like a second father to me,” says Daugherty. “There was truly something very special about him.”

When asked about his favorite memory of Chuck Jones, Daugherty speaks briefly of having intense conversations with Jones at four-star restaurants, during which Jones would often take out a Sharpie and draw pictures of Bugs and Daffy on the tablecloth to illustrate a point. Anyone else would have gotten immediately kicked out for such unorthodox behavior, but not Chuck Jones — the wait staff just stood back and watched, quietly arguing amongst themselves over who would get to keep the tablecloth once the meal was finished.

But there is one memory that stands out above all others. “Opening night on Broadway was probably the most thrilling night of my life,” says Daugherty. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career and I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities, but nothing compares to that. “This was not a star-studded audience of industry insiders; these were all people who stood in line to buy tickets. These were his fans. I have conducted for Baryshnikov in his prime; I’ve conducted for Pavarotti; I’ve conducted for Bocelli; I’ve conducted for Julie Andrews… but I have never heard anything like this audience when that man walked out on stage. It was like an explosion. I wasn’t sure the Gershwin Theatre was going to stay in place. And he was so moved.

“When he got up in front of that audience and began to talk about how he created these cartoons, you realized that Bugs and Daffy and all the rest were his children. They weren’t just cartoons — they were totally real to him.”

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