"Bugs Bunny at the Symphony": The Philadelphia Connection
Seinfeld, season 4, episode 9: “The Opera”
Exterior. Opera House.
Jerry and Elaine wait outside the opera house, as last-minute patrons rush in to the performance.
“Jerry, we’re going to miss the overture!”
“Overture, curtain lights! This is it, we’ll hit the heights. And oh what heights we’ll hit! On with the show, this is it!”
ELAINE (after a pause)
“You know, it is so sad. All your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.”
Jerry is not alone. In fact, there’s an old joke that if you stand on a street corner of any great American city and sing the first few bars of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” to passersby, 90% of the world will find the mantra “Kill da wabbit” uncontrollably popping into their heads.
If the experiment was conducted outside The Philadelphia Orchestra, where decades of music lovers have heard “real” Wagner performed in the most glorious manner possible, the percentages (and mental images) might skew a bit more favorably toward breast-plated soprano Valkyries in horned helmets. But still, the association of Looney Tunes and Wagner—and Rossini, Liszt, J. Strauss Jr., Suppé, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, and any other number of golden age composers—is an indelible one. And it’s no accident, because hundreds of millions of people, in America and the world over, first experienced classical music (and opera) at the hands of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and the rest of the Looney Tunes ensemble, cavorting to the masterful classically infused cartoon scores of Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn.
For Stalling and Franklyn, the cartoons may have been hilarious, but the creation of the music was no laughing matter. They arduously and passionately worked with the same glorious Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra—and within the same studio music hierarchy—as did the more famous feature-film composers of the day: Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Bernard Herrmann, and others. But even though their animated shorts were only seven minutes long (instead of a feature’s running time of two or three hours) and starred Bugs Bunny (instead of Humphrey Bogart or Bette Davis or Lauren Bacall), Stalling and Franklyn composed with a compositional magic that was irresistible to audiences of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—and still is today. They established an unmistakably distinct “Looney Tunes sound,” and although movie fans might not have been able to define it, they instantly knew it (and loved it) when they heard it.
Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were always populated with hit songs of the day—that was by design, in order to push the vast Warner Bros. song catalog to audiences and sheet-music buyers, a sort of 1940s YouTube. But it was Stalling’s and Franklyn’s pure orchestral scores that truly dazzled. A Road Runner cartoon would almost become a ballet, full of orchestral sound and fury that would inevitably cascade (and decrescendo) down to the whisper of an alto flute’s tri-tone as Wile E. Coyote almost silently hit the bottom of yet another Painted Desert crevasse, way way below. “The Rabbit of Seville” was composed completely in the style and orchestral fabric of Rossini himself, while the gigantic “What’s Opera, Doc?,” with a full-bore Wagnerian-sized instrumentation, combined not only the major leitmotifs of all four Ring Cycle operas, but of Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, The Flying Dutchman, and Rienzi as well. Eight Wagner operas in six minutes and 48 seconds!
So, in reality, it is no surprise to find the genius of Stalling and Franklyn coming (again) to The Philadelphia Orchestra, because these two composers have earned their moment in the limelight, and their place upon this most hallowed of concert platforms. It is a particular joy to perform this concert with the fabulous Philadelphia Orchestra. For starters, our history together goes back almost three decades. The Philadelphia Orchestra was the very first of the “Big Five” orchestras to embrace our original concert, “Bugs Bunny On Broadway,” which we have performed numerous times together at the Mann Center, to packed audiences.
More importantly, and to the point: When The Philadelphia Orchestra launches into the classical music excerpts contained in these cartoons—especially the Wagner in “What’s Opera, Doc?”—they play it with a luxuriant and breathtaking authenticity and passion that one hardly finds anywhere else in the world.
However, the most “Philadelphia” moment of all occurs 2/3rds of the way through the cartoon “Long-Haired Hare,” when Bugs Bunny dons the white tie and tails, and white mane, of the great Leopold Stokowki, and makes his unforgettable entrance into the “cartoon orchestra” on the big screen, while all the cartoon musicians around him ecstatically shout “Leopold! Leopold! Leopold! Leopold!”
Of course, Stokowski was not only one of the most celebrated conducting titans in all of history, he was also The Philadelphia Orchestra’s iconic music director from 1912 to 1941. When we first performed “Bugs Bunny On Broadway” with The Philadelphia Orchestra in the early 1990s, I knew this moment would be extraordinary. After all, at that time there were still a few musicians in the Orchestra who had actually played under Stokowski! But what I wasn’t prepared for was, as the “cartoon orchestra” started chanting “Leopold! Leopold! Leopold!,” so did the very real and human members of The Philadelphia Orchestra on stage! And then it spread throughout the audience. And within seconds, the entire Mann Center was ringing out with hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians and fans screaming “Leopold! Leopold! Leopold!” It was truly a full circle of “art imitating life imitating art.” It was a magical moment that could ONLY have happened in Philadelphia.
When my partner-in-crime David Wong and I concocted these concerts—first “Bugs Bunny On Broadway” in 1990, followed by “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” I and II in 2010 and 2013—we had no idea that they (and we) would tour them almost continuously for 30 years, playing to millions of concertgoers worldwide, and with a breathtaking array of world-class symphony orchestras ranging from the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl (22 times!) to the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center to the Sydney Opera House to the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall—and of course, The Philadelphia Orchestra. We thought our debut 1990 sold-out Broadway run at the Gershwin Theatre was a fluke that would not be replicated anywhere else. We were wrong.
I guess we should not have been surprised, because the classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies projected in this concert, up on the big screen above the live orchestra, are indeed brilliant. But more importantly, so is the music. Audiences everywhere love the scores of Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn. Orchestral musicians love playing them, too. Stalling and Franklyn were the real deal. Although they often took their musical cues from European composers, their mini-masterpieces were (and still are) quintessentially American: brash, fresh, exciting, fantastically bombastic, in your face. Perfect accompaniment for Bugs Bunny and his friends.
And so, going back to that moment in Seinfeld, I think Elaine really had it all wrong. Perhaps it’s not such a “sad” thing that so many of us first experienced classical music (and high art) from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Because for millions, the music of the Looney Tunes is also the music of our childhood, and in so many ways, the music of our imaginations. And that makes it unforgettable and uniquely joyous!
George Daugherty will lead The Philadelphia Orchestra in Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II January 4-6. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.