Come Sunday night, Harold Wheeler will be one of the most important people at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. He’s in charge of the music at the 90th Academy Awards ceremony.
Although Wheeler has been part of many Oscars telecasts, this is only his third time as musical director for the awards show, which means he supervises all of the music and conducts the entire evening. The Emmy- and Tony-nominated orchestrator and record producer has an impressive background that ranges from Broadway to several seasons as band leader on “Dancing With the Stars.” He has played major roles in producing the Emmys and the People’s Choice Awards, and he received the Lifetime Achievement honor at the NAACP Theatre Awards in 2008.
It was 2010 when Wheeler started to figure “an awards show is an awards show.” It wasn’t a big deal anymore ― until he received an email from a high school teacher.
“She said one of her students came in after the Oscars and said, ‘I know what I want to do now, and I didn’t know an African-American could do that,’” Wheeler told HuffPost. “Seeing me conducting the orchestra was an inspiration and I said, ‘Wow, this is the reason to accept this grand show on a different level.’ I ended up going and talking to the class, and they went gaga hearing about everything. It made me say, ‘This is a big deal, be proud of it.’ And that moment was something very special to me.”
We talked to Wheeler about why the musical director is so important, what makes a good show and, yes, what it’s like playing people off the stage during their acceptance speeches.
What exactly does it mean to be the musical director for the Academy Awards?
Anything musically that happens during the show, I’m the boss of it all. The producers talk to me about what they want, and I give them what they want ― the talent, the performing numbers, whatever. I supervise all of that. I’m also one of the orchestrators on the show so it’s sort of a double function. Nothing happens on the show musically without me knowing about it, and ultimately nothing that I do happens without the producers knowing about it. I’m constantly talking to them about their ideas and stuff that I want to do to make sure that it’s OK with them.
This production has to be a huge collaborative effort. Do you get to pick who plays in your orchestra?
Oh yeah, absolutely. There are 41 pieces in the orchestra this year, which is about the norm. We have one more than we had last year. These are people on my team and I handpicked them for their proficiency, for their versatility. We have to deal with all styles. We’re playing anywhere from hip-hop all the way to the John Williams and Hans Zimmer scores, so they have to have the ability to do all of that. The year that “Straight Outta Compton” was nominated, it was the only year that there was actually the hip-hop type feel, but I knew I could trust my musicians in the rhythm section.
Talk me through the preparation timeline.
The time frame is about three weeks to prepare all the music, one week to do the recordings and the rehearsals. The recordings we do at Capitol Records, and then we have backup recordings in case a singer loses their voice, we have their voice on tape. The show is basically live. We’re using Capitol as a rehearsal hall and to record anything that we need to record.
You’ve worked with the Oscars for a while. Is there anything you do differently now that you maybe didn’t do years ago?
I think the first time I did it in 2004 was the one that was a shock to the system. In 2010 I said, “I think I got this down.” And nothing has changed basically in the procedure. It’s just that you get used to it, and you get very comfortable with it. It’s like, “Here we go again, another year.” There are surprises that happen every year, but the procedure is the same. And once you get used to that, the pressure is always pressure, but you’re just used to the pressure now.
You’re on your feet a lot during the show. How do you prepare for that? Do you get breaks at all?
During the show I never leave the conductor stand. There is one commercial break in there where I thought, “Well, this is the longest commercial break.” But at the Dolby, with the size of the theater, if I wanted to go the restroom for a second, I couldn’t do it. There’s no time.
Plus, we’re playing music for the house for most of the commercial break to keep them entertained. They used to do this all the time, and then they stopped doing it for a while. The producers last year said, “We’d like to go back to that.” So if a commercial break is three-and-a-half minutes, we’ll play the first two minutes of it. Then we have a minute-and-a-half to get ready for the music we’re going to play when we come back. It’s nonstop. There are approximately 140 pieces that we have to be prepared to play. For the categories, there are some shows where we have to rehearse about 40 pieces of music even though maybe only 20 of them get heard.
Do you do anything special the morning of the big show?
We have a dress rehearsal on Saturday evening and another rehearsal on Sunday morning. Everybody in the orchestra that I use are the ones that I have used for the last three years so they know the routine. I try to make them as comfortable as possible and to have no fear in my face ― because if I show fear, they’re going to show fear. They’re used to it, and I’m used to it. We have the two dress rehearsals just to iron out any last-minute kinks before we go live.
The chemistry has to be so good between you and your orchestra.
Having your own people there, you’ve got your back covered every time. If I make a mistake, they actually cover for me. I brought my hands down once to start the orchestra, and nobody played because they knew I was putting my hands down in the wrong place. And I just laughed. Now technically speaking, they should have played. I’m the leader, you follow me, right or wrong. But they didn’t. And then I brought them in five seconds later when I was supposed to. I laughed, and I bowed and said, “I thank all of you for covering me.”
I know a few years ago you and the orchestra were actually not playing at the Dolby Theatre during the show.
We actually did the show fiber-optically from Capitol, and the only difference is that I wear a tuxedo all the way through the show, bow tie and all ― and it gets stuffy. At Capitol, I could take the bow tie off, I could take the jacket off and relax. And the director would say, “We’re going to be coming to the orchestra when we come back from commercial.” So I put my bow tie on, I put my jacket on, and I tell the orchestra. Some of the orchestra, those that you can only see from the waist up, they would have their tuxedo jackets, shirts and so forth ― and then have on jeans and sneakers.
That’s hilarious! I don’t blame them though.
Out of a three-and-a-half-hour show, we were seen maybe for one minute. You know, 10 seconds here, another 10 seconds there, and then maybe 20 seconds when they introduce the orchestra.
Now, of course, everybody is fully dressed at all times. They are so proud to have the orchestra back in the pit, which for me is a big difference because you are really part of the show, you’re involved in the show. It’s almost as if the audience is watching every movement you do. While at Capitol, once you stop playing you can step down. I’m listening to the show, but I don’t have to be on point as much.
They have cameras stationed in the pit so throughout the night there will be camera shots of us when we’re going into commercial and going out of commercial. Sometimes they shoot the audience, but sometimes they just spend time on the orchestra ― just reinforcing the fact that, yes, the orchestra is right here and we are playing live.
What is it like playing people off the stage if their acceptance speech goes on too long?
First of all, I never start the music myself. I get the cue from the director. He’ll say, “Stand by. Get them off, Harold.” And I tell the orchestra to stand by. We have two or three pieces of music to play, and they start softly. They build and build and build until they’re so loud that if it weren’t for microphones, you wouldn’t be able to hear [the people on stage] over the orchestra. And sometimes they’ll look down in the pit and they’ll see me. They’re blaming me for bringing the orchestra in, but it’s the director.
Only once, I played them off on my own. This is a funny story. It was the People’s Choice Awards, and the producer said, “It’s eight minutes until 11, and the network is saying they’re going to pull the plug if we’re not right on time so stand by, Harold,” which means we got to get these people off. So we get down to the next-to-the-last award. The speech went on and on and on, and I said, “Oh God, they’re going to take us off the air.” So I started the music quietly and the director said, “Stop the music, stop the music! What are you doing?” And I said, “But you told me ...” And he said, “But this is Walter Matthau. You don’t play off Walter Matthau!”
I learned from that. I don’t care if they have 45 seconds and they talk for three minutes. I don’t do anything without first a warning from the director to stand by and play them off. But the conductor always gets the blame for it.
That has to be a difficult position to be in.
Especially being in the house because I’m standing right there. They can look at me and say, “What are you doing? I’m not finished!” I don’t look at them when I do it. I just keep my head down toward the orchestra.
What to you makes a good show?
First of all, we have excellent writers, scripts, presenters, fans and so forth. The key to it is an excellent host. Jimmy Kimmel has done a wonderful job. I’ve done it when he was the host, I’ve done it when Billy Crystal was the host, and a few years ago when Chris Rock was the host. It really starts there because of that energy, and it goes back to the days of when [Johnny] Carson was doing it. A standard was set.
It’s also the quality of the stardom, and I think the quality of the music. Music is a subliminal thing. People are having a good time, and they don’t know that the orchestra has helped that. I know when to keep their energy up. I know when they need to take a breath. The choice that I play two hours into the show is different than what I would play in the first hour of the show. And hopefully in terms of entertainment, however many nominated songs you have, you know there are wonderful performances. It takes a lot to do it. It’s not one person.
After a good show, how do you celebrate?
First of all, I take a deep breath and I sit back in my chair. I have a chair on my conductor’s podium which I rarely use during the show. I sit back, I thank the orchestra and ― you’re not going to believe this ― I get in my car, drive home, have a vodka on the rocks and ask my family, “How did it look on television?” I have no desire to go to the Governors Ball [after-party]. I’m so spent by that time. That is not my way of winding down. My daughter said to me this year, “Dad, you’re going to Uber home after the show.”
You deserve it after a long night!
I said, “No, I’m not because the Uber isn’t going to get through the barricades.” I told her, “I’ll drive. I’ll be fine.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.