30 Years Goes By In The Blink Of An Eye

30 years ago today a crude, rude, funny, endearing, unusual, primary-colored family was unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

Old Simpsons

Everyone knows the story by now. Here are the bullet points:

  • James L. Brooks wants to animate Matt Groening’s newspaper comic strip “Life in Hell” and put one-minute versions of the cartoon on his FOX show, “The Tracey Ullman Show” as bumpers leading into and out of commercial breaks
  • Matt Groening decides NOT to share control or ownership of “Life in Hell” with FOX and virtually overnight creates an alternative for them
  • The first Simpsons short, “Good Night” airs on “The Tracey Ullman Show” on April 19, 1987
  • Before long, the popularity of the shorts begins to eclipse the popularity of “The Tracey Ullman Show”
  • FOX decides to cancel “The Tracey Ullman Show” but spins off the cartoon shorts into their own half-hour animated series, the first on network television since the 1970s – “The Simpsons” series debuts on December 17, 1989
  • The rest, as they say, is history

I had been a full-time music editor for just over a year when the first short aired. I was working on a new TV series at the time titled “Sidekicks” and was thrilled to be working at my new job in a profession I had loved and dreamed about being part of.

I was also a fan of “The Tracey Ullman Show”. It was funny, inventive, smart, a quasi-variety show with sketch comedy, musical numbers, recurring characters – similar in many ways to the great “Carol Burnett Show” but more modern and edgy. And I really enjoyed the cartoon bumpers. I’ll admit, the crudeness of the animation and the character design was a bit off-putting at first but, as always, great writing will always win an audience over and it won me over big time.

If you want to know more about how I managed the incredible good fortune of being hired to work on this incredible piece of television and cultural history, I cover it in four blog posts from a few years back. If you’re interested (and have about 20 minutes to read them) check them out here:  click here for part 1,  click here for part 2,  click here for part 3,  and click here for part 4.

As for today, it’s an amazing, probably-never-to-be-repeated feat to celebrate 30 years of a TV cartoon. There are no words to describe the feeling to be part of show that has touched so many lives, elicited so many laughs, started so many arguments over its appropriateness, inspired so many memes, and has brought together people from around the world with a universal shout in the night: “D’oh!”

But, today is also another work day in Springfield. As I write this there are 3 episodes to complete before season 28 comes to end in May, there are already 4 episodes in the pipeline in various stages of writing/re-writing/animating/pre-recording music for season 29.

My plate is full. So is my heart for all the love these characters have received for 30 years and for the opportunity to support my family doing something I love so much. I’ve often said I’m the luckiest music editor in Hollywood – not just because I’ve been employed on ONE SHOW for 28+ years, but because I get to laugh, listen to great music, interact with our brilliant cast, share ideas with our writers and producers, and be part of television history. Sure, like with any family, we have our down moments and disagreements, but it’s all been so, SO worth it.

Happy Birthday Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and Matt.

New Simpsons

Sad News in Springfield

bartkaratekidputter

In 1990, when Alf Clausen was hired to be the new composer for THE SIMPSONS, he told the producers that he would be unavailable for about ten days shortly after his new gig started. It was a previous commitment that he couldn’t change. Everyone was willing to work around the schedule hiccup and a composer was hired to fill in for the one episode that Alf would miss.

Ray Colcord came in, was a wonderful, easy-going fella to work with, and delivered a wonderful score to what is now considered one of the classic episodes in our history, DEAD PUTTING SOCIETY.

Ray passed away a couple of days ago after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

Ray worked on only the one episode, and it became a running joke between him and Alf whenever they would run into each other at some musician function for ASCAP or The Society of Composers and Arrangers that Ray would greet Alf by saying, “Hi Alf! You think you could take another week off sometime soon?”

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Our business being what it is, with the crazy, hectic schedules, and not being able to be in two or three places at the same time, I hadn’t seen nor worked with Ray since that session way back in 1990. But I do remember that we got along really well, that he was a gentle and very pleasant man to work with, and I’m sad that there will be a little less of his spirit and music in the world.

Click here to read the very nice tribute given to Ray by his longtime friend and colleague, composer Dan Foliart.

My First Save Out Of The Bullpen

I’m a big baseball fan. The title of this post (for the un-baseball fans out there) refers to the situation where a pitcher – known as the ‘closer’ – is brought into the game with his team leading in the 9th inning to get the final three outs – sometimes only one or two outs. If he is successful in maintaining the lead and winning the game for his team, he is credited with a “save”.

I received a question in the comments from Phillip yesterday:
“My question for you is regarding Season 1 Episode 9 ‘Life in the Fast Lane’. What song is played during the scene where Homer carries Marge out of the Nuclear Power Plant? It sounds like “Up Where We Belong” however it is a different version. I’ve been looking around the internet for quite some time now with no luck in finding it. Thanks so much for your help!”

I thought I covered this in a previous post, so I spent some time word-searching the blog for the answer to point Phillip to that post. Alas, my memory is playing tricks on me as I cannot find any such post. If, by some weird chance, I did already tell this story, forgive the rerun (or “encore performance” as they like to call it now).

At the end of the music spotting session for 7G11 “Life On The Fast Lane”…

SIDEBAR:  OOH! WAIT! Fun story about the title. It was originally titled “Bjorn To Be Wild” because the man that Marge almost had her affair with was first written as a Swedish tennis instructor. Then it got changed – don’t know if it was the writers or Albert Brooks – to the French bowling instructor Jacques. For a while the title became “Jacques To Be Wild”
which was kind of fun and quirky, but didn’t make much sense. Eventually the episode was renamed “Life On The Fast Lane” which has a punny bowling reference in it.

JacquesToBeWild

…where was I? At the end of the music spotting session for 7G11 “Life On The Fast Lane” we came to that final scene that parodies “An Officer And A Gentleman” and the music that you hear was temped into the cut we were watching. I piped up and asked, “Did you clear that music? Is that what we are going to use in the show?” And I was told, “Yes, we are. We cleared ‘Up Where We Belong.'” I immediately had the same reaction Phillip had. The cue is an instrumental that has some of the melody line from “Up Where We Belong”, but it was not the song version that was a big hit at the time the movie was released. I pointed this out to the producers and they said they’d look into it.

A few days later I received a “thank you” call from the producers telling me that I was right and that they had cleared the wrong cue. The name of the instrumental is “Up Where We Belong (Zack Gets Paula)”

ZackPaula7G11

I was credited with my first “save” as music editor on THE SIMPSONS. I’ve had a few more since then, but the timing of that one was pretty significant because the show was still new, I was still new to the producing team, and I had showed them that my head was in the game and an asset to the production.

That’s it. A cool anecdote from nearly 26 years ago that I still remember clearly. Where are my car keys?

Life on the Fast Lane

The Power of Music

Happy New Year 2016! I’m sure many of my regular followers of this blog were probably beginning to think I’d abandoned it. I haven’t, but, I admit, blogging on a regular basis is not the easiest thing, especially when you want the content to be fresh and engaging (and when your family grows to include two energetic, curious, fast-running grandkids).

It’s been over a year since my last new post. I know I owe you all my “part 2” blog about the experience of conducting during THE SIMPSONS TAKE THE BOWL. I will get that done soon.

I’m motivated to write this after my annual tradition of watching the Kennedy Center Honors. I have loved this ceremony for  years. So many great performances and so many great reactions from the honorees.

If you’ve never seen the ceremony, just a brief bit of background: five people are chosen to receive the honor each year, and it’s all about the performing arts – music (performance and composition), film and theatre (acting and directing), dance (dancing and choreography). The honorees get to sit in the audience as a presenter speaks directly to them, usually praising or thanking them for their body of work, followed by a short biographical film, and then some live performances highlighting their accomplishments over the years.

This year’s honorees were: Rita Moreno (acting), George Lucas (film directing and writing), Cicely Tyson (acting), Seiji Ozawa (orchestral conducting), and Carole King (singer-songwriter).

This year, there was a lot of social media buzz after Aretha Franklin’s performance of Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and Jerry Wexler’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”, and every word of it was well-deserved (Google it – you’ll see what I mean). But it wasn’t just Aretha’s performance that drove me to write this.

All five of the presentations during the ceremony had strong, moving, and impactful music – and four out of the five reminded me that the careers of these people had a direct influence over my musical path.

Rita-Moreno_West_S_2484070b

First, Rita Moreno as Anita in “West Side Story”. I first heard the music from WSS when I was thirteen years old. Back then, I was able to buy a piano/vocal book of the entire score of the Broadway version for just $9.50. I still have that score to this day. I listened to my vinyl album of that music (mainly the motion picture soundtrack, but eventually the Broadway cast album) ad nauseum – couldn’t get enough of Bernstein’s jazzy riffs (no pun intended). Forty-four years later, I can’t imagine how many times I have listened to that music in its myriad forms and arrangements – tens of thousands probably – and I’m nowhere near tired of it. I even got to conduct performances of the full Broadway version at my alma mater, Hollywood High School, in the late 70s (high school, yes, but Hollywood High shows were a cut above, easily equal to semi-pro stagings).

SIDEBAR: The theatre director at Hollywood High back in those days was a fine fellow named Jerry Melton. At first, we had a teacher/student relationship that later evolved into director/conductor as I led about half-a-dozen musicals (including “Gypsy”, “Evita”, “A Chorus Line”, and “42nd Street”) at my old stomping grounds. His daughter, Mary, like the rest of Jerry’s family, was very involved in the goings-on in the auditorium. She was about eight or nine years old when we first met. Mary’s all grown up now and she is the Editor-in-Chief for Los Angeles Magazine (she’s done OK, I guess). Click here to read a great article she wrote for the magazine about life with her good old dad and the high standards of theatre (both musical and non) at HHS back in the glory days.

Star-Wars-In-Concert_Bild-1_klein

Next came George Lucas and, of course, the music of “Star Wars”. John Williams’s music reintroduced the symphonic style to the world of film scores and made me want to work in film music if this was going to be the direction scores would be taking in the future.

3-Ozawa

While my friends in high school were musically interested in the latest pop and rock music of the mid-70s, I discovered Seiji Ozawa one Friday evening while channel surfing (across all 8 channels we had to choose from back then). Here was this exotic looking Japanese conductor leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s 1st Symphony – it was my first time watching Ozawa, and my first listening to Mahler 1. It was transformative. Ozawa had long, flowing black hair (most conductors had white hair), wore a turtleneck shirt under his tuxedo jacket, wore beads around his neck, and waved his hands with more sweep and expression and romance than I had ever seen by any other conductor. Then after watching a while, I noticed something unusual – he had a music stand in front of him, and the score to the work was on the stand, but the score was shut and he never opened it. Now, many conductors would conduct from memory, not needing the score, but they would not have the music on the stand. Heck, they wouldn’t even have the stand – didn’t need it. But this little bit of theatricality added another layer of mystique to Ozawa’s performances. As I followed his career over the years, I saw that this was not a one-time thing. The orchestra librarian would walk out before each work, place the score on the stand, and make sure it was shut, showing just the cover. Ozawa was my first and most enduring classical music hero. To this day I want to grow up to be him.

Tapestry

And then, Carole King. Most casual fans know her from her singer-songwriter days in the 70s that started with “Tapestry”, the album that made her a superstar performer in her own right. But for many years before that album, she was a songwriter working in the Brill Building on Broadway in New York, churning out hits for solo acts and vocal groups of the 50s and 60s. She wrote most her of hits with Gerry Goffin (she the music, he the lyrics) including “Oh! Carol”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, “The Loco-Motion”, “Take Good Care Of My Baby”, “Up On The Roof”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”. Of course, I discovered her through the “Tapestry” album which sparked in me a desire to learn how to play pop-style piano. I was never going to be a classical pianist (didn’t have the discipline to practice) but I sat for hours and hours learning how to read and play chords from lead sheets so that I could accompany the singers in junior high and high school who would sing these songs. Another great page in my musical lesson book and another vinyl album nearly worn to dust.

All of the music mentioned above was highlighted during the Kennedy Center ceremony, and though Cicely Tyson didn’t have any influence on my music choices in my life, during her part of the show, there was a stirring rendition of “Blessed Assurance” lead by CeCe Winans, Terrance Blanchard, and a student choir from Ms. Tyson’s own performing and fine arts public school.

The music throughout the night brought people to their feet and brought tears of joy to many (President Obama and myself included). I’ve often said that music is the closest thing to actual magic that there is on earth. Think about it – organized sound (with or without words to accompany) floating unseen through the air, has the ability to stir memory, arouse emotion, and build a lump in the throat.

I have been privileged for many, many years to make music and to receive music in  my life, both as a student and as a professional.

May 2016, and for many years beyond, bring you the gladness, the jubilance, and the delight of music in your lives.

The Simpsons Take The Bowl – Part 1

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.

A Dream is About to Come True

Regular readers of this blog may remember my post from November, 2011 which tells how I got started in music as a child and my ambition to conduct professionally. Well, you can file this post under “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait” (and learn, and show up for work on time, and do their jobs correctly).

I will be conducting The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for a small but important portion of THE SIMPSONS TAKE THE BOWL on September 12-13-14, 2014. While, of course, much of the music to be performed those evenings was composed by Alf Clausen, my part of the concert will be devoted exclusively to Alf and his contributions to the musical legacy of THE SIMPSONS.

Alf asked me to do this for him. Honored, humbled, and excited are three words that come to mind to describe how I feel about this privilege, and they are woefully lacking in descriptive power. I cannot thank Alf enough for this opportunity and for the trust he has placed in my hands to represent him and his music.

It goes without saying that my whole musical life has lead up to these three nights. It also goes without saying that any further details about the shows have to go without saying – I wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises!

I can’t believe I’ll be musically representing the greatest cartoon of the past 25 years at the same historic venue where cartoon greats Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry have conducted before me!

So spread the word and if you are in the Los Angeles area any of those three nights, please come to one of the concerts and tweet me @mxedtr to let me know you’re there. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here.

Of course, I’ll be documenting the experience as much as I can and will post a long, gushing, self-congratulatory blog when it’s all in the rear-view mirror.

Simpsons Marathon Starts Today

It’s so exciting to see so many people so excited for the marathon.

To any of you new to the blog, thank you for finding me. To my readers who have been missing my posts of late, I can only say I’m sorry for the small trickle of words this past year, but I attribute it to a combination of being very busy with the show from February to May – we scored and aired 12 shows in 11 weeks owing to the Olympics, Grammys, and Oscars all preempting us – and needing a little blog break after producing many more posts than I thought I had in me.

I awoke this morning to a Twitter feed ablaze with posts mentioning and celebrating the marathon. I also found a twitter link to this article from NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog. What an honor and thrill to know that NPR is reading my blog! Many, many thanks to NPR and to the readers who have found their way here thanks to the article.

Sidebar: The official Twitter account for the marathon is @EverySimpsons and my account is @mxedtr. I’ll be live-tweeting here and there throughout the 12-day event (can’t possibly be there the ENTIRE time, but I’ll be adding anecdotes when I can).

This post has to be a brief one this time around because I’m getting ready for tomorrow’s scoring session for SABF20 CLOWN IN THE DUMPS, our Season 26 premier episode which is set to air on Sunday, September 28, 2014 on FOX.

I’m also working on The Simpsons Take the Bowl concert performance. I can’t reveal any details now, but to be sure, there WILL be a blog post (or two) about it when it’s over. If you are in the Los Angeles area on September 12-13-14, 2014 try to attend the live concert. It will be a pretty amazing night of music, guest stars, and Simpsons-style fun.

Enjoy the marathon!