Produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, this year's Academy Awards showcased a handful of stand out musical moments that included a rousing, Broadway-style opening number for host Neil Patrick Harris that was written by Oscar-winning "Frozen" songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez; Jennifer Hudson's performance of "I Can't Let Go," written by Hairspray Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (originally seen in "Smash"); John Legend and Common's powerful "Glory" from the Civil Rights film "Selma"; and an astonishing medley from "The Sound of Music" by Grammy-winning pop icon Lady Gaga that thrilled both her fans and detractors.
The afternoon following the Oscars, Oremus spoke with Playbill.com to share details about the amazing night, including behind-the-scenes stories about how the night's biggest musical moments came to life.
Congratulations on a really thrilling night of music. Did you get to hit any parties?
Stephen Oremus: Thanks. It was really fun. We went to the Vanity Fair party. It was amazing. I was so exhausted by then. [Laughs.]
This was your first time conducting a live television event, right? Talk about trial by fire. It doesn't get any bigger than the Oscars.
SO: It's an absolutely huge show to put together. Over the last month or two, once they figured out who was going to be presenting, it was really about trying to select the best songs for the play-on for the different people. I had to select music for all of that. I had to select music for going to-and-from commercial. We had a whole team of orchestrators throwing these things together. Then getting the opening number ready, which was in rewrites until the last second, as well as syncing-up the music with all that video. I also worked for two months with Lady Gaga to perfect the medley of "The Sound of Music," and it was a massive undertaking, but it was one of the most thrilling nights of my life.
The thing that was exciting for me, not having done a live broadcast show before, was that it relied so heavily on my Broadway theatre experience having done shows for 20 years. I just was all of a sudden like, "Oh yeah, it's live. We've gotta go. We have to do this." Instincts kicked in, and I felt really great about it. I had the time of my life, which is kind of amazing. Everyone was like, "Aren't you nervous? Aren't you scared?" And I was like, "I think it's going to be okay." And it was! [Laughs.] I was so proud and honored to have gotten to do it.
It was your birthday on Friday, right?
SO: Yes. [Laughs.] I spent my birthday conducting for Jennifer Hudson, John Legend and Tim McGraw.
Did anyone give you words of advice?
SO: You know what? Not really. [Laughs.] It wasn't until we got further into the process that I really started to get information. Every time I asked someone, they were like, "Ah, don't worry about it. You'll be great." That was literally the advice I got. I was like, "Okay, but how do I...?" And they were like, "You'll figure it out." [Laughs.]
I also had on my team, who I have to mention, my supervising orchestrator Harold Wheeler, who's legendary. It was my first time working with him, and I hope it's not my last, because he is just the best. It was an incredible experience. He helped guide me through it because he's conducted the Oscars a couple of times, and he's contributed orchestrations for many years. He was really an incredible partner in putting it all together, and I couldn't have done it without him.
Can you talk a bit about creating the opening sequence, "Moving Pictures"? It felt like a classic musical theatre fantasy moment.
SO: It was worked on for about two months to piece it all together. It was like workshopping a show. [Laughs]. It just kept getting refined. The lyrics were getting refined, and then we started matching the visuals and figuring out how all that was going to work together. It became this incredible feat. Bobby and Kristen started writing it, and by the time we got to last month, probably the beginning of January, we had more of the shape. By February, all of the specifics really started to come in, and we nailed down what it was going to be.
Were there any unexpected surprises or moments that caught you off guard during the broadcast?
SO: Not really. We run the show a few times in its entirety before it happens. But on Sunday they swapped whole acts, which means the whole section between commercials. A couple of sections got swapped, so there was a complete re-order. They are re-ordered in blocks, so I had to get all that information to the musicians and make sure that everyone knew what order we were doing everything in on Sunday morning. It was wild. How do you spend commercial breaks? Does anything fun go on that at-home viewers don't see?
SO: We are actually over at the Capitol Records Building. We just kind of hang out and have a good time.
You're not even in the theatre?
SO: No! The whole orchestra is over at Capitol Records, so all of it is synced with the Dolby Theatre via Internet. They have a conductor monitor for all the live performances for me. And I have a shot of exactly what's going on on the stage, everything that's happening as it happens. I have a headset, so I hear everything, and I have three different pedals to either just talk to the orchestra, or to the people who are putting it out on the air, which is the director and the playback mixer, and then I have one that goes to the booths at Capital in case they need something. It was a lot. A lot of people in my ears. [Laughs.]
Is there a contingency plan in place if the Internet drops and you get cut off? Are there pre-recorded tracks just in case?
SO: Yeah, they've done this now for years, so that's part of our rehearsal period. The whole week before we make sure we have pre-records of every single piece of music that's going to be on the Oscars just in case. Thankfully it's never been used, and it wasn't last night. Everything you heard was live.
How did you select all of the music we heard during introductions and breaks to commercials? There were quite a few theatre songs in there.
SO: Our producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, that was a big thing for them this year. They really wanted to try some new things and get some fresh perspective as far as the music choices for people's introductions as well as the commercials. So I just started picking things that I thought were really good energy-wise. In some cases they really corresponded to the people on stage, in other cases they correspond to emotion. In other places they corresponded to the placement of where we were in the show. A lot of thought went into it to try to give it a cohesive emotional energy throughout the night.
You also have the unenviable task of cutting off the winners if their speeches go too long. Is that tough?
SO: It is. Especially when they are giving emotional speeches, which there were a lot of last night. It's difficult, but what's funny is, that's not my call. Everyone thinks I am the guy that does that. The director basically says to me, "Okay, we have to keep moving." So they cue those.
Was there a favorite moment from last night that was particularly meaningful to you?
SO: All three of the big specialty moments were really thrilling for me. The opening number and getting to put that together with Neil and Jack Black and Anna Kendrick and Bobby and Kristen, of course. That was a thrill.
To get to conduct for Jennifer Hudson and that beautiful song that Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman wrote... It was so stunning. But I have to say, for me, personally, because I put the whole arrangement together, the Lady Gaga moment was an absolute thrill for me. It gave me chills the whole time.
It was really powerful and totally took people by surprise. How did it come about? Whose idea was it to pair Lady Gaga with Rodgers and Hammerstein?
SO: That idea came from Craig and Neil. The producers really wanted her to do it. And since they had such great success with Pink last year doing "Over the Rainbow," they said, "We want to do something really special that no one's going to expect." And no one did. [Laughs.] It was amazing. We were nervous that word was going to get out at some point before the show. It absolutely took people by surprise.
How much input did Gaga have on the number? Were there particular songs from the score she wanted to do?
SO: We talked a whole bunch, and then we got together and sat down at the piano and started playing through stuff and figuring out what felt good. I felt very strongly that it needed to be a more traditional medley, which she was really excited about. We tried different versions, some had a little less "Sound of Music" and a little more "Favorite Things." I knew that it had to start with "Sound of Music" and end with "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." It just felt right to me. So, in the end, we just kept playing with it until we came to a flow that felt really organic for the two of us. It was really, really exciting. She is such an inspiring artist and truly worked so hard for months to really perfect exactly how she was going to sing it and to show people a whole new side of her, which I think is so beautiful.
A photo posted by steoremus (@steoremus) on
I think everyone was surprised when she started out singing "The Sound of Music" in a legit head voice and how great she sounded.
SO: She sang it in the original key.
Was that a choice she made?
SO: Yes. It was a choice we both made. We tried different things, and the big thing for both of us was it was about honoring this film and honoring this music. And it was very, very important to show all of the different colors and musicality of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score. So we tried it several ways and in several keys, and it was in flux for some time, and finally we came upon what you saw and heard. It just felt the best. And she worked and worked and got it to this really wonderful place in her voice, especially for the opening. That was really a thrilling process.
I never thought I'd hear Lady Gaga sing in a soprano range. Did you look at Gaga and say, "Can you sing soprano?"
SO: [Laughs.] That did come from her, the soprano. She wanted to show people the different colors of her voice that no one's heard before. Then, of course, she really belted "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." She let you have it.
Any chance that you, Craig and Neil will try to convince her to do Broadway?
SO: [Laughs.] I can't speak to that, but I would jump at the chance to work with her again because it was such an amazing collaboration. If she's proven anything over the years, and certainly over these last couple of years, she's constantly surprising people with her artistry. It would be amazing. But who knows.
A photo posted by steoremus (@steoremus) on