Ever since he was an animator on “Animaniacs,” James Tucker wanted to do a musical.
“I mean I animated some musical numbers,” the co-creator of “Batman: The Brave & The Bold,” confessed, “but I never did a full musical episode.”
Then again, the idea of Warner Bros. Animation doing a full musical episode hasn’t been a must-do since the days of Wakko, Yakko and Dot. Tucker got close on occasion, the most notable being the episode ‘This Little Piggy” in “Justice League Unlimited.” After all, who could forget Batman (then Kevin Conroy) singing “Am I Blue?”
As it turns out, Tucker’s partner on “BBB,” Mike Jelenic, had his own tales to tell.
“It was mutual between Mike and me,” says Tucker. “We first came together on the second season of ‘Legion.’ Before that, he was on ‘The Batman’ and I was on ‘Justice League.’ We had thought about doing musicals on both of those shows. I did give Batman a musical number in ‘Justice League,’ the one where Wonder Woman was turned into a pig. He had given Joker a song in the Harley Quinn appeared. So we both wanted to do it.
“Anyway, if we had done a third season of ‘Legion,’ we would have done one then. Since we didn’t get our third season, I went OK. Now the great thing about ‘Brave and the Bold’ is you don’t have to explain anything. You just have to come up with an elaborate reason why. The show is different every week, depending on where Batman shows up. It doesn’t matter what dimension or time stream he’s in. So I thought it would be a natural to do a musical. So both of just decided this is when we were going to do it.”
The end result makes its American debut on Friday, October 23. Entitled “Mayhem of the Music Meister,” it’s a full-blown animated bit of Broadway bombast starring Neil Patrick Harris as the title villain. Joining him in this rockin’ review are Grey DeLisle (Black Canary), James Arnold Taylor (Green Arrow), John DiMaggio (Grodd and Aquaman), Dee Bradley Baker (Clock King) and Kevin Michael Richardson (Black Manta).
The only character with an almost completely non-singing roll is the Caped Crusader himself, voiced by Diedrich Bader. The music was composed by those protégés of the late, great Shirley Walker, the ever stalwart Dynamic Music Partners and was directed by Ben Jones.
Unlike many episodes in the “Brave & Bold” cannon, this had been an episode Tucker had been touting for months. He even gave fans a sneak preview at this year’s San Diego Comic Con last July. As many now know, the episode has also aired in Europe and Canada over the last few weeks, with viral copies of “Music Meister” flooding the internet faster than Warner Bros. could stop them.
“I hope people think it’s worth the wait,” says Tucker. “It’s funny to live in a world where people can know something that was meant to be here first, has aired everywhere else and finally comes here. I hope it’s not anti-climatic to people. I don’t understand how it happens.
“As I said before, I just squeeze the lemons. That’s because the minute it airs anywhere, that might as well be the premiere. ‘Music Meister’ could have debuted in Timbuktu, and it would be all over the internet in a few minutes. It gives a whole new meaning to ‘viral.’ I don’t know how they are going to deal with it in the future because it’s going to become a big problem real soon. But what do I know? I just make them.”
Make it Tucker did. In fact, it was a creative process radically different from anything he and Jelenic had done before.
“Michael came to us thinking about doing a musical,” recalls the multiple music award-winning Lolita Ritmanis, one third of the Partners. “We thought that was cool. Then when we asked when he thought about doing it, he said in about two months. That’s actually a very short turnaround for conceptualizing a musical. So we jumped right into the deep end and never looked back.
“It was the back and forth. It’s basically wall-to-wall songs, with the songs telling the story. Being we had not written songs with Michael and James, we had to develop a relationship with them. We had to get comfortable with each other. I don’t want to say it was effortless, but we also never had any conflict. We wound up on the same page from day one. As it happened, we had a great time doing it.”
“It was very collaborative because James and Michael wrote all the lyrics,” adds Ritmanis’ partner Michael McCuiston, “and we took to their lyrics right away. We all kind of worked together towards the same goal. It all worked out in the end.”
“The story was so present in the lyrics, so we could always look to them for the melodies,” says Kristopher Carter, the final third of the DMP. “When we were writing the songs, we could make little modifications here and there. They would always check to make sure we fit the story they were writing.”
Even with the very White Way-inspired soundtrack well underway, there was still the matter of casting and producing “Music Meister.” That was no where as easy as it sounds.
While Harris was a given thanks to his work on such productions as Whedon’s “Doctor Horrible,” Tucker admits he never knew that Grey DeLisle was also a professional singer. He only knew this young queen of the voice world for her work on such rolls as Mandy and Frankie Foster. In fact, he was stunned to find out all his cast were exceptional singers in their own way.
“I didn’t even know that when we cast her as Black Canary,” Tucker confesses. “I didn’t even know we were going to do a musical with Black Canary, even though that was a natural. There was just a lot of lucky breaks on that episode. Everyone who had something to do with ‘Music Meister’ gave their all.”
The cast has some stories to tell, too.
“Initially, what happened was Andrea (Romano) called me up to do Grodd,” says DiMaggio. “She already knew what I could do, so that wasn’t a problem. Then they decided they wanted to do something different with Aquaman, make him a lot different from Super Friends.
“When they called me about the musical, I said ‘Are you serious? You sure?’ It‘s funny because there are times when you voice two characters and you end up talking to yourself. I have done some musical theater. A lot of my friends are also musicians. Now you know every actor is a frustrated musician and every musician is a frustrated actor. Know here I am, both as Aquaman and Grodd, and I’m singing to myself! Not only do they sing together, they dance together! It was a lot of fun. So to do it was a real blast. It was a real joy.”
“Now playing Green Arrow is also fun,” concurs Taylor, who proudly states his storage room is stocked to the roof in long boxes..“That in part is because he has the old retro look to him. I also love his attitude and how he and Batman go back and forth. That’s really modern in the way that they write it. Also, Diedrich is just so fun to be in the studio with.
“You know every so often I get the opportunity to sing, and I got such an opportunity with Grey Delisle. I actually end the show, not that I’m giving anything away here, with a little ballad. The music is just phenomenal as is Neil Patrick Harris. One real surprise is John DiMaggio can really belt it out. I mean even in soundproof rooms you could hear him down the halls. He’s got a really big voice.”
“James Arnold Taylor really buttoned that show so well,” Tucker states, with a touch of pride in his voice. “We didn’t know he could sing. Yet his performance really worked because he played Green Arrow as slightly awkward. When James recorded, he was slightly awkward. He was nervous about having to sing. It came through in his performance, but it ends up tugging your heartstrings. It gave a yearning to his performance. That was a good bit. “
If there’s a real shocker, it’s the voice of Kevin Michael Richardson. Even though he only has a very few lines to sing, the man has one incredibly soulful tenor. Coming out of the mouth of Black Manta, it’s the last thing you’d ever expect.
“Actually, all the casting was done by James and Andrea Romano,” says McCuisten. “They already had some ideas of who they wanted. They said they were going after Neil Patrick Harris, which we thought was a fabulous idea. We were lucky in that they didn’t have to re-cast. We ended up writing for the voices who were going to be on the episode.
“We asked Andrea permission to talk to the cast to find out if our singers were tenors, baritones or what have you. We wanted to make sure we knew what to do with their vocal ranges. When he found out, Kevin Michael Richardson actually called us and auditioned. He left some samples of his singing on our answering machine. We were amazed by his range.”
“KMR is one of my favorite guys,” praises DiMaggio. “I also work with Grey DeLisle, not only is she a blast to work with, but she’s just so fine!”
“And John DiMaggio was great at Comic Con,” adds Ritmanis. “The fans just went absolutely nuts when they heard Aquaman singing. Little did they realize he is also Grodd. They just cracked up. He comes on like a rock star.”
“They could all sing,” says Carter. “They all had beautiful voices. Even more impressive is they could sing as the characters.”
“If I had any regrets, it’s that I had known that certain actors could sing as well as they did,” says Tucker. “I would have given them more lyrics to sing. Every one of those guys were a revelation when they came in. I mean our composers were good about getting the music to them the night before, so they had a little prep time. Still, John DiMaggio, Kevin Michael Richardson, Dee Bradley Baker and James Arnold Taylor all sing wonderfully.
“This is the thing. The professional voice actors are some of the most talented people in the business. You give them the ball, and they run with it. They just want to work. They also are more talented than most of the on-camera talent who come in.”
Then there was the true star of the episode, Harris. Most aficionados of the WB Animation process know Tucker, Jelenic and Romano prefer to work with the entire cast in the recording booth at one time. This is commonly referred to as radio style recording. ‘Music Meister’ couldn’t be done this way for two reasons. The first was Harris’ schedule.
“That was a bit of a coup. He’s become so huge,” says Tucker. “We couldn’t have waited even a month because of his schedule. We had to have it ready for him right when he was available. In fact, when he recorded he had just come in from a flight, and he still knocked it out of the ballpark. He was really great to work with.”
The other was attempting to put the voice actors to the Partners’ elaborate score. Suffice that Harris wasn’t the only actor who did his/her work in an isolation booth.
“There were bits, like ‘Drive Us Bats,’ where we had a chorus,” says Tucker. “So we had them all in the booth. We never had them truly isolated, really. It took about two days. There were times where Grey was in the booth with Neil, but Neil was so busy he was mostly by himself. We needed to isolate him a lot anyway. Grey also did a number of things by herself. James, also because of scheduling, had to do his work separately. For the rest, we pretty much had everyone in the room, and then would loop in the other people.
“Andrea was also there to direct the acting, but we also had the composers in to take the actors aside and give them tips on how to sing a number, giving them the technical elements of the music. People don’t know what goes into the making of a musical. I know I sure didn’t. There’s so much more that goes into it. We were lucky that the actors were all skilled musicians. They could all sight read and everything. Andrea is also musically gifted. She’s directed actors musically. She was as tired as the rest of us when it was all over.”
“The opportunity doesn’t come too often for us,” says Ritmanis, “but this was just hellishly fun. It was so delightful. I think both the hardcore fans and musical buffs will understand the importance of an underscore is to an episode or film. It’s something the average fan on the street doesn’t notice that music. You only get attention when there’s a song, and we got to do six. Then it’s great.”
As for doing another full musical episode? The Partners certainly are up for it. Then again, this isn’t the last time they have written songs for “Brave & Bold.”
“Without revealing much about what’s going on next season, there will be some more wonderful musical numbers coming,” says Ritmanis. “We think they will be delightful to everyone.”
“ I don’t know,” says Tucker. “If we had known how hard it would have been, we probably never would have done it. There are at least two more songs coming up in season two. Not full blown musicals now. Honestly, I would love to. Yet there was so much more work in this one episode than any other episode we have done, just from a scheduling/budgetary standpoint there’s no way to do another of those.”
Whether or not there will ever be another all-musical episode of “Batman: The Brave And The Bold” sounds like a matter that only time will tell. Still, if anyone has a true final word on the matter, it’s DiMaggio.
“I saw the finished product,” he exclaimed, “and all I could say is it is genius! It adds more depth to the show.”
After the official U.S. debut of “Mayhem of the Music Meister,” it’s impossible to disagree.