The year 1939 was a big one for Hollywood. Some of the most important movies ever produced by Tinsel Town were released that year: Gone With The Wind, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men and Wuthering Heights.
But the musical gem was a wonderful story about a girl from Kansas who is blown away to a wonderful world where she meets The Wizard of Oz.
So how do you mark 80 years of the Emerald City? Well, if you are the National Arts Centre Orchestra, you get Jack Everly to conduct a live performance accompanied by a screening.
Everly, who conducts Pops concerts with NACO, has become a bit of a go-to guy when orchestras do this sort of thing.
This his debut with The Wizard of Oz which, he said, is ironic because it’s been his favourite film since he was five years old.
The Oscar for Best Musical Score in 1939 went to Herbert Stothart. Best song went to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for Over the Rainbow.
Stothart referenced all kinds of music in the score from folks tunes to Mussorgsky.
“When Toto is escaping the witch’s castle the music is Night on Bald Mountain, but it’s so subliminal you don’t even know it,” Everly said.
The second half of the film features mostly underscoring and it is one of the most complex he has seen. “It’s one of the hardest things I have ever had to learn.”
Synchronizing live music to a film generally isn’t easy, he said. The fact that he’s been working on the score for the musical for the past four months is a testament to that. The work is drudgery because a lot is spent adding in the dialogue to the score and making the timing notes legible.
“There are a variety of keys if you want to do this.”
The easiest is a silent film where the parameters are looser. However comedy is hard even in silent films. Often, in a silent comedy, the music is written to respond to some pratfall on the screen.
“There are things you are supposed absolutely in sync with and if you miss the mark it isn’t as funny.”
In a film like The Wizard of Oz, the complexity is enhanced.
“What I see in front of me when I’m conducting are two video screens, and on one of them is an analog clock. The other one has the film. Sometimes these are combined.” The tempo can also be set by a click track which only Everly can hear.
In his score are the various timings for the music and the scenes. He’s tracking the analog clock which is synced to the film.
“It’s a little trepidatious. You have a bit of liberty” and you can be a half-second off, but “obviously it’s best if you are on time The emotional impact is greater if the live music is in sync with the specific scene.”
The musicals of the golden age of Hollywood, such as An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz have what Everly calls “squirrely editing going on.”
“You are watching it and they will have various takes of the musical film all put together. I discovered this especially when I first did Singing in the Rain.”
He discovered as he was following along that the tempo slowed down or speeded up for no apparent reason. The takes were spliced together without warning. It made for a tricky navigation through some built-in booby traps.
“That makes no sense to musicians who are trying to play it live. But that’s how you have to rehearse it.”
The musicians will have to mark up their music because it’s not marked anywhere.
To find this sort of glitch, you have to study the score and the film for weeks and weeks, Everly said, adding that he found the same thing in Star Wars, which is not a musical, but does have different takes of the John Williams’ score recorded in the film, speeding up or slowing down to make everything fit together.
In Star Wars, he counted up 2,378 measures which are consecutive. Much of the music is connected to the action so it is dense and fast and it doesn’t stop.
The way it was originally recorded was in snippets. But when there is a live performance, there aren’t any breaks.
“You have to match it so it’s a challenge.” And a real workout. Mistakes can’t happen otherwise the whole movie experience is diminished for the audience. No pressure.
No matter, there’s a whole lot of juggling going on.
Playing underneath a song like Over the Rainbow can also be complex. The words on the film are heard while the orchestra plays the melody. They have to match the timing and they have to match the emotion of the song. The latter is helped by the audio technicians in the house.
The music on the older films remains. Films like The Wizard of Oz were recorded in such a way, he said, as to make it basically impossible to eliminate the orchestration entirely.
“I will hear ghosting as we are projecting the film. But the audience won’t hear it. It’s not ideal. It can drive you insane.”
This is a highly refined skill that Everly has now developed.
Everly started conducting movies at the turn of the century with a concert performance called A Night at the Oscars which included music from Ben Hur, Citizen Kane and An American in Paris.
“I thought at the time that it was the hardest thing I had ever done and I vowed to never do it again.”
Never say never.
In the intervening years he has live conducted many films in addition to the ones already mentioned: Back to the Future, Star Wars 4, 5, & 6, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Casablanca, La La Land, ET, and Jurassic Park. And he is adding to the list every year. In 2019 he is doing six live performance gigs with movies such as the ones above plus The Little Mermaid. That’s on top of the other work he does.
“There is quite a vogue for this. They are popular everywhere.” And the concerts tend to also bring out a different demographic.
He’s glad for that, he said, in part because he’s got gigs, but also because the scores are “magnificent and they deserve to be heard in this way with a first class orchestra.”
Everly worked on Broadway musical for many years with eight shows a week and then worked for the American Ballet Theatre for 14 years with often four ballets running in rep, so he’s used to a busy schedule. These days he is Principal Pops Conductor with the NAC, and orchestras in Naples, Florida, Baltimore and Indianapolis.
Despite all the complexities and the fiddling and the curveballs thrown his way, Everly does love conducting these concerts. And he enjoys how well the audiences receive the performances.
After a performance of Harry Potter, for example, the audiences often write the orchestras raving about the experience.
“The music and story come together for them in such a way that you don’t quite expect.”
The NAC Orchestra plays The Wizard of Oz
Conducted by Jack Everly
Where: Southam Hall
When: March 28-30 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca