Sound Dog

How Viva ELVIS‘s musical director turned a legend into a live show

When Cirque du Soleil’s The Beatles LOVE opened in 2006, the production was unique for two reasons. First, it’s the only instance in which the Most Important Band in Rock ’n’ Roll permitted its music to be used in a major theatrical show. Second, it’s the only Cirque show without live musicians, relying on brilliantly remixed and re-orchestrated tracks.

So when Viva ELVIS opened earlier this year, the question was: How can Cirque top LOVE? After all, it can’t be simple adapting the music of the Most Important Singer in Rock ’n’ Roll. The trick for the show’s musical director and arranger Erich Von Tourneau was to bring Elvis up to date for 2010.

Despite mixed critical reviews of the overall show, Tourneau and Cirque have succeeded on a musical level. From a technical standpoint alone, Viva ELVIS is a sound to behold. The theater, which has 24 subwoofers buried into the orchestra-level floor, creates the kind of low-end vibration that comes from being attached to the structure itself. It’s an attempt to give the live-concert experience without pulverizing audiences’ ears. A live band performs onstage for a good 80 percent (or more) of the show—more than any other Cirque show. In other words, despite its demographic of Elvis fans, Cirque enthusiasts and tourists, Viva ELVIS appeals to those who admire raw musicianship.

But the challenge for Montreal-based Tourneau remains: How does one bring anything new to such classic material without offending lifelong fans? “The nicest homage you can pay to Elvis is to experiment and make something new,” Tourneau says. “He’s still evolving and demanding we keep up.”

Following suit, Tourneau transformed “Now or Never” into a beautiful tango. Ranging from hard-core Delta blues to full-throttle rockabilly to deep-fried Southern gospel-folk, the blending of styles in Viva ELVIS is unique in live theater, confirming what most music critics have known for half a century: Elvis was a musical sponge, soaking up and synthesizing any and all music he came in contact with.

It’s not straight-on and complete vocal takes Tourneau is presenting, either. Before even sitting down to draft the initial arrangements, he listened to 900 albums and too many films, bootlegs and home recordings to even count. Ultimately, Tourneau created nearly 18,000 samples of Elvis songs, which he relied on to make the score.

“We tried to find little bits of magic here and there and bring them into each song,” he says. “We wanted to become familiar with all the nuances, because Elvis went through a lot of different incarnations.”

The Elvis that Tourneau most often pursued is the young, dangerous Elvis as well as the ’68 comeback King, mainly because of the singer’s flexibility at those times. Still, it often felt like a puzzle. Sometimes it was no problem to work with the speed of the new arrangements; at other points the loss of background noise and other context caused the sound of Elvis to sound, well, not at all like Elvis. Particularly difficult was the re-imagining of “Now or Never.”

“Because tangos must be played in a minor key, it really took some work to make that song happen,” Tourneau says. “This isn’t about attaching Elvis to a Nine Inch Nails arrangement. We had freedom, yes, and we could do what we wanted, but we respected the original song and its roots.”

Look for a Viva ELVIS soundtrack CD later this year, a project on which Tourneau is already hard at work. It’s another challenge, insofar as, typically, the CD precedes the live concert. But then Elvis was always ahead of himself and everyone else.

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