The Looney Tunes inspired touring production hits Sin City
On January 7, “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” will join the Las Vegas Philharmonic to celebrate their 30th anniversary of performing classical Looney Tunes music. The Smith Center will bring to life old-school animation as it projects cartoons on a big screen accompanied by live musical performances of “What’s Opera, Doc?,” “The Rabbit of Seville” and “Corny Concerto,” among others. Emmy Award winner and Las Vegas resident, conductor George Daugherty, talks with Off The Strip about their forthcoming Vegas performances.
How does it feel to be celebrating 30 years of ‘Bugs Bunny at the Symphony’?
Well, of course, it is exciting and it is very gratifying. When I had the idea for “Bugs Bunny On Broadway” back in 1989—that was our original concert name—we were the first of “our kind.” There were no “film and live orchestra concerts” back then. On top of everything else, we had to convince major symphony orchestras that the idea of putting a big screen above the concert stage, and playing “live” to projected film, was something that would work and something that audiences would want to see!
In 2022, there are over 200 “film and orchestra” concerts available to symphony orchestras. In 1989-90, we were the first. There was a huge learning curve, trying to convince orchestras that this would be “a thing.” But our first test performance with The San Diego Symphony in June of 1990 sold out in hours. Our initial Broadway run at The Gershwin Theatre (where “Wicked” has played ever since) sold out to the four walls, and the audience reaction almost blew the roof off the theater. Our first legit symphony orchestra engagement, with the Pittsburgh Symphony who was brave enough to take us on in December of 1990, also sold out. Suddenly, it was obvious that something was “there.”
Back then, I had an extremely successful career conducting at top American and European opera and ballet companies, and that was my goal for my career. “Bugs” was something I thought I would do for a year or two. Well, 33 years later, I am still doing it [for] 250 major international orchestra, millions of audience members. I realized that I would bring more people to classical music, and the joys of the live symphony orchestra through Bugs Bunny than I ever would through a more traditional career. That became my career goal.
Bugs Bunny has remained an iconic cartoon since its inception in 1940. Why do you think he is a timeless character?
Bugs Bunny is the ultimate movie star. If Clark Cable and George Clooney and Cary Grant had had a love child (if that was somewhat possible), it would have been Bugs Bunny. [He is] sophisticated, full of savoir faire [suavity] and soigne [well-dressed]. He is the ultimate matinee idol.
Actually, Bugs was a composite of so many male live action Warner Bros. movie stars from that period, and it’s no accident that his popularity out-lived any of his live action inspirations. Bugs’ chomping of the carrot actually came from a similar moment from Clark Cable. Bugs is everybody’s hero. He is the ultimate “every man.” He is a pacifist—until you mess with him. If you do, watch out.
I often think of Bugs as compared to Mickey Mouse. As much as I sentimentally love Mickey, Mickey is a wimp. Bugs is the persona that all of us wish to be. He is, in my opinion, the most heroic cartoon ever created. All of us wish we were Bugs Bunny. I certainly do. He is an iconic film star whose spotlight will never, ever dim. Chuck Jones, Bugs’ most honored director, told me many times that we all look in the mirror at night, hoping we are Bugs Bunny, but we wake up in the morning discovering we are Daffy Duck or Wile E. Coyote. Very wise words!
Over the last three decades, what is something valuable that you have learned while working on this show?
The thing that I have most learned is that almost everybody who watched these cartoons as a child were inspired for their entire lives not only by the brilliant animation, but by the music they heard. We had no idea, as 5-year-olds sitting on the shag carpet in our 1950s or 1960s living rooms, eating sugary, gluten-filled cereal, that we were getting a master class in classical music.
Both the animation and the brilliant music stays with us for our entire lives. We sold out eight performances of this concert with The New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, and we turned away thousands of others for whom there were no available seats. Same at The Philadelphia Orchestra. The takeaway was that 70% of our audience were people who were new to those orchestras’ databases.
It is the same everywhere. People who would never normally buy a ticket to a traditional symphony orchestra come to this concert. Then, they discover the extraordinary experience of the live orchestra. So that has become my mission.
What will you enjoy the most about performing ‘Bugs Bunny at the Symphony’ with the Las
I love the Las Vegas Philharmonic. I love Donato Cabrera. I think he is one of the most exciting and inspiring music directors of any orchestra in the world, and every time I hear him conduct the Las Vegas Philharmonic, I walk away invigorated and inspired. The orchestra is just wonderful. De Ann Letourneau is a world-class concertmaster—she could lead the violins in any orchestra in the entire world. ANY orchestra. There is so much talent here.
The Smith Center is a gorgeous venue. There is so much to enjoy about performing here. The first time I heard Donato conducting the LV Phil in The Smith Center, I was, like, “Oh my God, what a beautiful sound, what a beautiful performance, what an amazing conductor, what a beautiful orchestra.”
After living in San Francisco for 20 years, why did you decide to move to Las Vegas?
Covid was a very difficult time for all performing artists. For four years, my producing partner and husband David Lik Wong and [I had] been coming to Las Vegas, and we loved the energy here. Not from “Las Vegas The Strip,” but from the real Las Vegas—the one with a population of almost 3 million people—the Las Vegas with an incredible food scene that is not associated with The Strip [and] with an incredibly vibrant arts scene.
Sadly, much of the world conflates Las Vegas with The Strip. There is nothing wrong with The Strip. It is fun. But making Las Vegas synonymous with The Strip is no more accurate than making Los Angeles synonymous with Disneyland. Las Vegas is an incredible city away from The Strip, and the world needs to learn about this.
Recently, the food critic from The Los Angeles Times wrote an incredible article that said that Las Vegas has the most exciting and incredible Asian food scene in the world—and none of it on The Strip. It is time that the world recognizes Las Vegas as a world-class city, and not just a Strip of casinos.
Compared to other venues where you have conducted, what is unique about performing at The Smith Center?
The Smith Center is undoubtedly one of the most exquisite performing arts centers in the world. Period. It is extraordinary. I love being there as an audience member and I can’t wait to perform there.
Which song in the show’s setlist is the most special to you and why?
When Bugs and Elmer sing their Wagnerian love duet to Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” it gets me every time, even after conducting it for 33 years. I also chuckle that Carl Stalling or Milt Franklyn only conducted once at the original recording session, but I have conducted in concert thousands of times. The sincerity of this love duet, between two 50-something year old men, Mel Blanc as Bugs and Arthur Q. Bryant as Elmer, gets me every time. It is a beautiful moment, and I often think about what Wagner would think of it. And actually, I think Wagner would love it.
What is new in the latest touring production of ‘Bugs Bunny at the Symphony’?
It’s very funny, when we first started this project in 1989-90, technology was very different. Basically, Warner Bros., did not archive all of the tracks, from the original cartoons. After all, they were only “cartoons.” In the beginning, we had to “remove” the original music from the cartoons, leaving only the dialogue and the sound effects from the tracks, so the orchestra could play the music live. In 1989, this was an incredibly laborious and time consuming procedure.
When we first premiered our concert, we only had four or five cartoons prepared for live performance. These days, there is much more technology available to help us. So it goes faster. Now we have prepared about 24 cartoons for live performance. I often joke that we are the only “cartoon repertory company” in the world. The great classics —”What’s Opera, Doc,” “The Rabbit of Seville,” “Baton Bunny,” “Corny Concerto” are still the much beloved mainstays of our concert, and cartoons that audiences love from their childhoods. But the three new Wile E. Coyote / Road Runner cartoons, with absolutely brilliant scores by Christopher Lennertz, are extremely exciting for me. Rather than just doing Carl Stalling imitations, Chris invented a whole new, but equally exciting, Looney Tunes musical vocabulary!
What is something you’d like to discuss about the show that no one has ever asked you about?
I want people to realize that Las Vegas is an amazing and vibrant city, and not just a strip of casinos. The first time I heard The Las Vegas Philharmonic, conducted by Donato, I was moved beyond description. I lived in Los Angeles for 10 years, 20 years in San Francisco. Now when I tell people I live in Las Vegas, most turn up their nose. This has to stop. There is so much happening here; it is both amazing and inspiring. But there is a bias toward Las Vegas as an arts city, and this has to stop. We all have to stop being apologetic that we are here.
It’s funny and ironic. My very first professional job in 1979-80, when I was barely over being a teenager, was as Assistant Music Director for “The Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.” I spent six months living at the Sahara. The place where I now live did not even exist. I remember going to Henderson for a Sunday barbecue, and it was an hour over two lane road over open desert and tumbleweeds to get there. The Las Vegas of today is incredibly different, and I am proud to live here. All of us who live in Las Vegas, and who are contributing to the arts scene, need to stop being apologetic that we are here!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Before and after the performances, there will be a carnival experience with Warner Bros. characters, an art exhibition, guest animators and picture opportunities in the lobby. The 7:30 p.m. show is almost sold out, so they added a matinée performance at 2 p.m. Find tickets starting at $21 to secure seats for the “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony.”
Feature image by Chris Lee, courtesy of The New York Philharmonic, from the 2015 performances at Lincoln Center.