Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Music Behind the Ride: Universal Live Shows

In this edition of Music Behind the Ride, I'm focusing on two different live shows with the music front and center at Universal Studios Hollywood. Besides the famous Studio Tour, live shows became the next addition in the 1960s with stunt shows following through the 70s and 80s. It wasn't until the 1990s when rides started appearing at the park.

After the run of the classic monster show Castle Dracula (1980-1983), Universal turned to Landmark Entertainment to create a live stunt show based on 1982's Conan the Barbarian. Opening in summer, 1993 The Adventures of Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular wowed audiences in the live stage production. Featuring state-of-the-art lasers and pyrotechnics, the 20 minute show also featured a 18-foot tall fire breathing dragon. Instead of following the film's plot, the show followed Conan and Red Sonja fighting an evil wizard and henchmen in a classic good-versus-evil story. As far as the music needed, Conan the Barbarian composer Basil Poledouris was brought in for the stage show. While it sounds like it fits in his Hyborean Age style, no themes from the film score were used. Like the film, the show is nearly scored wall-to-wall. Poledouris kept a lighthearted action/adventure tone, helping emphasize the sword and sorcery than the brutality of the film. Even in the short production, a new romance theme and new heroic Conan material were introduced. Usual collaborator Greig McRitchie orchestrated the score and was conducted by Poledouris with the London Studio Symphony Orchestra and choir. 

The Adventures of Conan continued at Universal Studios until 1994. The Castle Theatre continued live shows like Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue, Spider-Man Rocks! and most recently the Special Effects Stage show. In 2000, the recording of the Poledouris score was released on the Super Tracks label. The 24 minute album features a portion of the show complete with booming narration along with the music as recorded. The Sword and Sorcery Spectacular made it to disc yet again in 2011, this time paired along with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra re-recording of Conan the Destroyer (1984).

Meanwhile, across the park, action stunt shows of The A-Team and Miami Vice ran through the 1980s and 90s. While filming was going on, the next stunt show became WaterWorld: A Live Sea War Spectacular. Opening in fall 1995 (after the summer film opening), the 16 minute show featured the gigantic pool, live stunts, large pyrotechnics, and jet-skis which soak the arena's front rows. The seaplane entrance is a highlight for sure. Taking place after the film, Helen returns after discovering Dryland and is pursued by Deacon and the evil Smokers until The Mariner shows up to save her. As soon as you walk into the 2,500 seat arena, the film's music is piped in. Instead of a newly composed score, tracks from the James Newton Howard soundtrack are used. 

During the preshow seating, you hear Deacons Speech looped. The Main Title is heard under the opening narration. The Atoll underscores Helen's entrance. With most of the large action set to Escaping the Smokers, it's easy to get that swashbuckling music stuck in your head as you leave.

The WaterWorld show at Universal Hollywood is still running, even if a majority of the audience hasn't seen the film it's based on. The attraction expanded to Universal Studios Japan in 2001 and Universal Studios Singapore in 2010.  The show was refined in 2014 and referbished in 2017 with slightly adjusted characters, plot and sound system.  As far as recordings, almost everything is looped from the original soundtrack, so no official show recording has been released.

Universal Hollywood and Universal Florida have some other strong film score connections. Let me know if there's ride or attraction you'd like featured in the next Music Behind the Ride!             

Monday, January 7, 2019

Quick Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns
Music score composed by Marc Shaiman
Songs written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Original Mary Poppins themes by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
Conducted and Supervised by Paul Gemignani
Dance and Additional Music Arrangements by David Krane
Orchestrated by Jeff Atmajian, Doug Besterman, Michael Starobin, Danny Troob, Brad Dechter, Larry Blank, Julian Kershaw, Jon Kull
Music score conducted by Gavin Greenaway
Music recorded at AIR Lyndhurst Studios, Abbey Road Studios
Soundtrack running time: 78 minutes
Available on Walt Disney Records

Mary Poppins Returns brings back the magic of the P.L. Travers characters and a sequel to the classic Disney film from 1964. Just as before, the songs and score are connected to the film itself. In 1964 there was the Sherman Brothers (Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman) writing the music and songs with Irwin Kostel adapting and conducting.

54 years later, new songs carry much of Mary Poppins Returns. This time, we get songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Score is also by Shaiman, a 5 time Oscar nominee and Tony Award winner. I love a new musical, and I also love a good song score. Melodies of the songs are woven into the score, and are sometimes introduced as semi-leitmotifs before the song proper. Since about half of the soundtrack album feature the songs (and deserve a review all to themselves), I want to just focus on the instrumental score.

The songs include:
Underneath the Lovely London Sky; A Conversation; Can You Imagine That?; The Royal Doulton Music Hall; A Cover is Not the Book; The Place Where Lost Things Go; Turning Turtle; Trip a Little Light Fantastic; Nowhere to Go But Up

As like most original Disney soundtracks, songs are featured in the first half of the album and you'll have to make your own playlist to put them in chronological order with the score.

After a brief introduction to Lin-Manuel Miranda's Jack, we get a full main title sequence with gorgeous painted backgrounds as we hear the Overture. Full of grand statements of themes - Can You Imagine That, Place Where Lost Things Go, Trip a Little Light Fantastic and Underneath the Lovely London Sky. The orchestra sounds fantastic through this Broadway-style medley, and there's a little hint of Spoonful of Sugar near the opening.

Theme from Mary Poppins Returns isn't in the film, but rather Shaiman's entry into his themes used both for the trailer and on set filming. It's used through the film as Mary's theme, which also becomes Can You Imagine That. Kite Takes Off uses the Lovely London Sky melody to represent Jack, as the orchestra whips up a bit of action and magic all while hinting at Mary's theme before a full sweeping thematic reveal.

Mary Poppins Arrives reveals a lighthearted version of Mary's theme full of orchestral frills and comedic beats. The Sherman Brothers melodies from Spoonful of Sugar and The Perfect Nanny also make short but sweet appearances. Magic Papers gives a little more motion to bits of Mary's theme among glissando harps and comedic styling. Older Michael is represented with a reprise of A Conversation on piano and later the brass present a snippet of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. (Bet you forgot about that song!)

In the short cue Banks in the Bank, we hear more Fidelity Fiduciary Bank among sprightly woodwind writing. Into the Royal Doulton Bowl plays as we enter the animated world with the glitzy opening bits of Royal Doulton Music Hall mixed with Can You Imagine That. The melody on flute is jaunty, as it underscores their animated carriage taking them to the Music Hall.

After Mary and Jack's performance of A Cover is Not the Book, we get a serious action cue in Rescuing Georgie. Shaiman shows off his orchestral writing here, giving the strings plenty to do, with woodwind and harp flourishes aplenty mixed with heroic statements of the Royal Doulton Music Hall verse as their scary animated adventure comes to a close.

Off to Topsy's brightens back up as the group makes it to Topsy's upside down workshop. We hear a bouncier Mary's theme with a bit of The Perfect Nanny mixed in. A big band jazz sound first introduces the melody of Turning Turtle, before moving to the semi-Klezmer arrangement just like the song itself. Chase Through the Bank is a brief cue with a bit of suspense and action. Lost in a Fog is another shorter cue, setting the atmosphere with slow moving strings, choir and woodwinds.

Goodbye Old Friend brings back the Lovely London Sky on piano, Mary's theme on solo cello and oboe, both melodies with that tinge of sadness even when the whole orchestra joins in. Race to Big Ben is the big action segment of the film, with all leeries helping the group get to Big Ben. Melodies jump around the orchestra, sometimes appearing as fanfares - Can You Imagine That, Trip a Little Light Fantastic, Place Where Lost Things Go and even another spot of Spoonful of Sugar. The momentum rises and falls with choir and chimes, both adding to the texture. End Title Suite is another lovely reprise of themes, beginning with the cheerful Nowhere to Go But Up. As the arrangement grows, the choir joins in. Turning Turtle gets a big band-style arrangement, Trip a Little Light Fantastic gets a big reprise, becoming sweeter for The Place Where Lost Things Go, a grand statement of Can You Imagine That and blink of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

I love how a song score can connect you to the material so much faster. For example, Mary Poppins' theme was written before filming was finished - and was even played on set. It was also used right away in the theatrical trailers, the opening of the film, becoming the very backbone of Can You Imagine That and various parts of underscore.

I can't think of a more joyful score from recent years. Tasked with following up to some of the most indelible music by the Sherman Brothers, Shaiman and Wittman came up with some delightful songs. Parallels can be drawn from the original songs by their place in the story and style, but they all work completely on their own. From there, Shaiman was able to utilize the orchestra in arranging the songs to weave throughout the score. Those bright brights and tender moments wouldn't be possible without the songwriting talents. The arrangements and orchestration team includes some Broadway veterans which give the orchestral pop that is just infectious to listen to. I like the use of some Sherman Brothers melodies - nothing too completely obvious, but just a wink for those that notice. The score tracks on the album are a great representation and really makes you want to hear it all.  Beyond animated films, scores like this don't come around very often. The score and delightful songs are filled to the brim with joy with a sound both fresh and nostalgic. Like Mary, this music is practically perfect, in every way.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

2019: Top Anticipated Scores

2019 has quite a pile of film scores to really look forward to.  In a world of sequels of remakes, there are plenty listed that I'm thrilled to seek out.  I also can't wait to be surprised by scores not even on my radar yet.  Here's my list:   

Music Behind the Screen's 
Top Anticipated Scores of 2019

1. Star Wars Episode IX (John Williams)
I mean, do I need to say anything?  This is the end - supposedly the last Star Wars episode scored by Williams.  His work on the last films have exceeded every expectation.     

2. How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (John Powell)
This Dragon franchise has really let Powell shine, and this last installment hopefully continues that trend.  The rousing scores match the often stunning visuals, and his choir sequences from the last film were highlights. 

3. The Lion King (Hans Zimmer)
Having scored the original (and won the Oscar for it), Zimmer returns with this CG remake.  His style has changed a lot since 1994, so it should be interesting to see what he does with it all.  Since some of the songs are returning, I'd expect to hear some now-classic melodies as well.     
4. Captain Marvel (Pinar Toprak)
A rising female voice in film scoring, Toprak gets to show off in this Marvel superhero flick.  She's worked on everything in film, television and video games, and I've enjoyed work of hers in the past.       

5. Spider-Man: Far From Home (Michael Giacchino)
I love a sequel score that builds on the good aspects of the first film.  Giacchino set up some nice material for 'Homecoming' which should make for another fun Spidey score.    

6. Artemis Fowl (Patrick Doyle)
I can't say no to a Patrick Doyle fantasy adventure score.  It's a Disney adaptation based on the popular YA book series, plus Doyle brings his A-game when working with director Kenneth Branagh.     

Ad Astra (Max Richter)
Aladdin (Alan Menken)
Avengers: Endgame (Alan Silvestri)
Call of the Wild [composer TBA]
Chaos Walking [composer TBA]
Dark Phoenix (Hans Zimmer)
Dumbo (Danny Elfman)
Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie (Tom Howe)
Ford v. Ferrari [composer TBA]
Frozen 2 (Christophe Beck)
Godzilla King of Monsters (Bear McCreary)
Hellboy (Benjamin Wallfisch)
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Mark Mothersbaugh)
Little Women [composer TBA]
Missing Link (Carter Burwell)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Tarantino soundtrack)
Pet Sematary (Christopher Young)
The Secret Life of Pets 2 (Alexandre Desplat)
Shazam! (Benjamin Wallfisch)
Toy Story 4 (Randy Newman)
The Woman in the Window (Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross)

Anything you're patiently (or impatiently) waiting for in 2019?