Right around August 1st, 2014 Alf called me to say that he had been asked by Al Jean to participate in the upcoming THE SIMPSONS TAKE THE BOWL concert being planned for The Hollywood Bowl to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show. The producers wanted Alf to conduct some of his music and they wanted to bounce various ideas around to pick which music they would use. By this time it had already been announced in the press that various cast members and guest stars would be singing in the show with The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins. Alf was being invited to present some of his music in a segment paying tribute to his musical legacy on the show.
Alf called to tell me about it and to ask for my input on possible cues or songs that he could conduct. We talked through a few possibilities and Alf said he would sleep on them and decide soon. Then on August 7th, I got a very unexpected call from Alf. He said that after giving the invitation thoughtful consideration, he was going to bow out of conducting at the concert.
A few years back, Alf came down with a case of “frozen shoulder“, a mysterious ailment that orthopedic doctors don’t fully understand. The main symptom is exactly what it sounds like – your shoulder locks up, limiting range of motion in the arm to around 20% of normal. No one seems to know exactly what causes it and there is no cure other than time for it to “thaw”. Thawing can take 18-24 months. While Alf’s shoulder isn’t “frozen” any more, it hasn’t fully “thawed” either. As a result, he hasn’t been conducting at scoring sessions these past few years. Orchestrator Dell Hake has been handling that job beautifully and Alf has moved into the control room, listening to takes and giving notes as we record the sessions. Alf felt that a week of conducting that would include rehearsals and performances was just a bit much given his shoulder condition. He asked Al Jean to keep the tribute segment in the program and recommended that I conduct the orchestra in his place. Al ran the request up the chain of command, everyone approved, and I got the gig.
Oh. My. God.
Alf was vary aware of my conducting education and ambition. I was so honored that he would entrust me with this once-in-a-lifetime privilege. We talked some more and settled on a medley of some of his well-known themes combined with instrumental arrangements of some of his songs from various musical episodes. I assembled a medley that would run about six-and-a-half minutes. Alf and Al approved the music and next came working out the preparation of the score with the music library and the music supervisor for the show, Jim Dooley.
Some of the music we selected dated back to the third season of the show, but our fabulous music library – JoAnn kane Music Service – has everything saved and stored at their facility and they were able to pull all the scores I needed, convert the older, hand-written ones to a digital format, and combine them with the newer, already digital scores into one, fantastic, beautiful score.
The first rehearsal was scheduled for Sunday, September 7th starting at 7:30PM. This would be a “walk-through” rehearsal for the purpose of everyone learning their entrances and exits, running through the dialogue, and learning the choreography for the “Do the Bartman” finalé – no orchestra, no singing during this rehearsal. The rehearsal ran longer than expected and we finished around 11:00PM. On my way home I received an email from Al Jean saying that the medley needed to be cut in half. I was very surprised and a bit heartbroken that such a change would be made before I even had a chance to rehearse it with the orchestra, but the medley wasn’t the only casualty. Jokes and dialog got cut, some animation specially created for the concert got cut, one of Beverly D’Angelo’s and one of John Lovitz’s songs got cut. The changes made for a more fast-paced, vaudeville-style musical review show.
So Monday morning I started re-editing the medley and sending it off for approval. Once approved, all the orchestra parts had to be revised to reflect the new version. Then I arrived back at the Bowl on Wednesday evening, September 10th to lead my first rehearsal. The medley was scheduled for the second half of the second half of the show, so I had quite a bit of time to cool my heels and wait my turn. Finally, around 9:20PM, Master of Ceremonies Hank Azaria introduced me, I walked onto the legendary Bowl stage, and performed the small comedy bit that had been written for me. I was supposed to walk onto the stage in regular street clothes, looking a bit bewildered at what I was doing there. Then a couple of the Duff Girl Dancers ripped off my street clothes revealing my fancy tux underneath, magically transforming me into a ready-to-go conductor. Our costume designer for the show, Kathryn McRitchie had worked for a couple of weeks preparing the breakaway clothes and fitting it perfectly over my tux so that I didn’t look too “puffy” in the over-sized shirt and pants. They ripped away perfectly and the bit went exactly as planned – and then it was cut for time. I felt so bad for Kathryn after all the work she did, but she was very well represented with all her other costumes in the show.
My first rehearsal was amazing. It was everything I could have ever hoped for leading the world-class group of musicians that they are. For those of you not familiar with The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, in its current incarnation it is an orchestra made up primarily of studio musicians whose day job is working on the movies, TV shows, and records that you all know and love. The orchestra was formed in 1991 to play the weekend “pops” concerts leaving the “legit” classical concerts during the week to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The rehearsal went off without a hitch thanks to the combined efforts of JoAnn Kane’s people and Stephen Biagini’s crew with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s library services. Amazing. Without their help, I would have spent all my rehearsal time telling the orchestra what cuts had been made. I am totally indebted to them for their über-professional work.
We ended rehearsal on time, then went home to have Thursday off before one last rehearsal on Friday afternoon, just a few hours before the first performance on Friday evening. All the details on the weekend coming soon … stay tuned.