ABC hit series “Dancing With the Stars” added a touch of class in April with the launch of Classical Week.Pushed by the show’s co-executive producer Joe Sungkur, the theme week featured an orchestra doubled to an impressive 46 pieces performing traditional and new classical music. Selections included a Spanish double-step pasodoble and a 200-year-old Viennese waltz as nine celebrity couples competed to outshine one another on the dance floor and save themselves from elimination.
Making special guest appearances in honor of the special theme week, international violin virtuoso David Garrett and the opera world’s angelic voiced mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins performed on the results show April 12. Jenkins delivered two extraordinary vocal solos with “Con te partiro” and “O mio babbino caro” and sang a duet of “The Flower Duet” with the show’s regular singer, Beverley Staunton. Garrett performed a rollicking version of “Walk This Way” enlivened by the DWTS Dance Troupe. Grammy and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson also made an appearance, belting out powerful renditions of “Do Not Look Down” and “Feeling Good,” both from her latest album.
“They really wanted to class up the show, and boy did they!” said veteran “DWTS” trumpet player Rick Baptist, who has been with the show for all 12 seasons. To accommodate the larger orchestra, the crew rebuilt the entire stage just for those two shows. Special care was also taken to ensure the musicians were given special attention; director Alex Rudzinski specially requested that conductor Harold Wheeler add 20 seconds to the start of every song to make sure the orchestra received adequate camera shots.
“There’s something so special that’s in playing live music,” said Baptist, whose extensive credits includes 28 years with the Academy Awards and about 25 Emmy Awards in addition to countless record dates. “It’s great to play on movies and records, but the instant response of when you get done with a live performance and the audience goes nuts, that’s the thrill.”
Bassist Trey Henry, who has also been with the show since its inception, said, “The challenge of playing on a show like ‘Dancing With the Stars’ is to perform such a wide variety of musical styles with some level of authenticity. Add in the fact that the show is live and we see the music for the first time that day.” In the case of Classical Week, he explained the challenge of performing very difficult material over the course of two hours marks the biggest difference from other awards shows, typically filled with play-ons, play-offs and a couple of production numbers.
For many of the extra musicians, performing on live TV was a big departure from their usual post in the orchestra pit of a symphony hall. “It was very exciting,” said Greg Goodall of the experience. The timpanist of the LA Opera and Hollywood Bowl orchestras who has also played on more than 400 film scores says TV was a unique experience. “Live television has a special energy all of its own,” he said.
While undoubtedly exciting, performing live can also be daunting. While no stranger to live TV situations — he’s done 10 or so Emmy Awards, three Academy Awards and numerous other TV shows — Henry said he’s always been “much more comfortable in the studio or in an orchestra pit. I’ve never enjoyed being on stage. But somehow, I’m allowed to go to work, focus on the music at hand and let the show business run amok around me.”
“Everybody’s energy is focused on putting together a two-hour television show of the highest quality,” Goodall remarked. “Everyone is focused at the same time. It’s not like a movie where this part is done and then that part is done. Everyone is focused, and it fits together.”
While a lot of work, it’s obvious to anyone visiting the set that there is a definite family feel with everyone involved on the show, from the musicians, dancers and crew to the producers and director.
“The producers of the show really do recognize and stress the importance of the element of live music,” Henry said. “It’s rewarding to be a part of a team that is respected and trusted to perform at a certain level week in and week out.”
“We love working with each other and we’re appreciated by the powers that be in that organization,” Baptist said. “That’s the important thing. Musicians don’t get that a lot these days.”
“It felt great to work on a show that thought it was a good idea to put classical music, being played by a live orchestra, on two hours of prime time TV, in front of 20 million people,” Henry said.
The show was especially memorable to Goodall for a reason all his own. “I got to fulfill a lifetime dream on the show,” he explained. “Finally, when the announcers called out, ‘Now from Hollywood…’ Boom! That famous drum roll — that was me!” A Hollywood dream come true.
Words + photos by Linda Rapka. Originally published by Professional Musicians, Local 47 Overture, June 2011