This Valentine’s Day, the Dayton Philharmonic will offer a very special treat when it presents one of cinema’s greatest love stories, Casablanca, with the orchestra playing the score live on stage at the Schuster Center at 8 p.m.
“We’ve done shows like this before, where we’ve played the score live while a classic film showed,” said Dayton Philharmonic conductor Neal Gittleman, “and when we were looking at options for this season, Casablanca came up. And here we have St. Valentine’s Day. And while Casablanca doesn’t have a happy ending, it’s one of the great screen romances.”
A tragic, high-stakes tale of love, loss, valor, and sacrifice against the urgent backdrop of World War II, Casablanca is perhaps the classic of classics, “probably on more lists of the greatest films of all time than any other single title,” according to Roger Ebert.
Casablanca tells the story of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart in perhaps his most iconic role), a former freedom fighter and American exile who now runs the most popular nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city. During the war, many Europeans fleeing the Germans had to stop in Casablanca to get to America–but once they reached Casablanca, obtaining an exit visa was often difficult and many found themselves stranded there, making Casablanca a sort of melting-pot purgatory of the disillusioned and desperate.
Czech resistance leader Victor Laszlo arrives on his way to America–with his wife, Ilsa (a luminous Ingrid Bergman), Rick’s long lost love. The flame between Rick and Ilsa still burns after all these years, and he is torn between “love and virtue.” The Nazis are on Laszlo’s tail, and Rick must choose between helping the police detain Laszlo, keeping Ilsa for himself, or helping them both leave so that the Allies can win the war.
“Neal and the Dayton Philharmonic have done this before,” said Chuck Duritsch, Communications and Media Manager for the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. “They’ve done City Lights, The Wizard of Oz, The Bride of Frankenstein back in 2011… I believe one of the reasons they picked Casablanca is because it just celebrated its 70th anniversary, and it comes in the top ten on many ‘best movies ever’ lists, so obviously it’s very popular.”
The classic films the DPO accompanies are made possible by John Goberman, longtime producer of PBS’ Live at Lincoln Center, who has devoted years to developing packages that allow orchestras to play along with beloved movies. Goberman painstakingly recreates the system used in studios to record the original soundtracks. During recording, the conductor’s score includes all the music to be used in the film, plus two different types of cues: one showing where a specific action, image, or piece of dialogue must align with the music, and also time codes in the music referring to a large analog clock that’s electronically synchronized with the film.
“It’s a very difficult and lengthy process to make something like this possible for the public in such a large way. You have to have permission from the producer or the studio or know someone who can get the rights to be able to strip the music from the audio and then have the score made available. For us, as the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, to try to handle all that in-house would cost a tremendous amount of money and manpower and just be impossible. This guy, John, cuts through all the red tape so we don’t have to do it on a local level.”
“As the conductor,” said Gittleman, “I have a practice video where I can see the film and the clock, and I can toggle it so I’m listening to the full soundtrack, or only the dialogue. So I can practice with the music playing, conducting along, or I can mute the score and hum it to myself while practicing. It’s basically just working out the cues so you get the timing down. It’s the same as any piece of music in some ways, but not completely, because you’re not entirely free with your interpretation, and you have to make sure things happen at the right time.”
He continued, “The orchestra’s used to it because we’ve done a few of these shows over the years. The musicians all have the music individually, but we won’t play it together as a group the week of the performance. There’s a rehearsal clock, so I can set that to any timecode I need, and we can rehearse. There are a couple of scenes where we’ll run those on a monitor so I can practice the syncing of some of the really important moments. The famous scene where the band plays “La Marseillaise,” for instance, the orchestra plays along with the band onscreen, so obviously that needs to be synced.”
Casablanca was based on an unpublished stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Rushed into release in early 1943 (after a November ’42 premiere) to take advantage of publicity from the Allied invasion of North Africa a few weeks prior, the film had a trying production process with a revolving door of screenwriters struggling to adapt an untested play, shooting barely remaining on schedule, and Bogart grappling with his first romantic leading role. It was an A-list production, but viewed as nothing more than any other big Hollywood film released that year. No one involved expected it to become anything special, and indeed it was a solid and well-reviewed success upon release, but nothing major. Still, it went on to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Screenplay. Among its five other nominations was a nod for Max Steiner’s lush score.
As for future events like this, “We’ll be doing a salute to Disney next season,” Gittleman said. “It’ll have a certain amount of video component, but exactly which ones and how they’ll work, I don’t know yet. There are plans to do things like this again in the future, though, because they’re fun and people enjoy them. A couple summers ago, I saw The Fellowship of the Ring done this way, and it’s really great. But from a logistical standpoint, it’s a nightmare. It’s a three-hour movie, it’s overtime… The music isn’t really difficult, but it’s expensive and it’s hard to sell enough tickets to make it work financially. I saw it with the Chicago Symphony at a large outdoor venue with multiple screens. They showed it on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and had about 50,000 people come see it in all, so all the rehearsal and overtime got paid for, so that would be hard to pull off here.”
“For my part,” he said, “I think it would be a hoot to do Star Wars. I think the first movie, Episode IV, is available for this kind of presentation. It’s great music. It’s really hard for the orchestra, but they love playing John Williams and I think audiences would go nuts.”
For movie lovers, for music lovers, and for lovers of any kind, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra has your Valentine’s Day all planned out. To enjoy this one-of-a-kind event and save the world with Humprey Bogart, tickets are priced $18 – 26 and are available online at daytonperformingarts.org, at the Schuster box office, or by phone at (937) 224-3521.