Raising The Standards
By Donald Liebenson
Seth MacFarlane is jazzed.
Hollywood’s most prolific hyphenate (animator–director–writer–voice artist–actor–producer) is taking time this summer to indulge in another of his passions—singing deep cuts from the American Songbook in concert with a full orchestra. He is on a mini-tour that is taking him to a handful of cities; last stop, Ravinia. “I’ve heard nothing but great things,” he says enthusiastically of the venue in a phone interview.
Music is hardly uncharted territory for MacFarlane. Take his signature animated series, Family Guy: In its 13 seasons, the often controversial show with a “laughing because we’re not supposed to” ethos has built a rich catalog of deftly written and performed original songs, musical homages, and bona fide production numbers.
It was that facet of the show that returned MacFarlane to his roots in music. He grew up, he said, in a musical household. His parents both sang, and his father played guitar. As a teen, MacFarlane was enraptured by Woody Allen’s Radio Days, a period comedy driven by its soundtrack of big-band standards from the 1930s and ’40s. “I responded to it very much,” he says. “What [Allen] did so beautifully was to attach narrative meaning to these old songs, for people who were born too late to attach meanings of their own. That was my first exposure to popular orchestral music. When I got into college [the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied film and animation], I started listening to the music of the 1950s and early ’60s, which was when orchestral jazz really came into its own. You hear the MGM charts from all those great musicals that really managed to walk this incredible line between classical composition and orchestral jazz. You really do need a large ensemble with everyone at the top of their game to play these scores.”
He performed musical theater in high school and college and, upon graduation, applied to the Boston Conservatory’s graduate program in musical theater. But he instead accepted a job offer from Hanna-Barbera, where he worked on such iconic Millennial-era animated series as Johnny Bravo and Dexter’s Laboratory. The rest, as they say …
As the voice of three of Family Guy’s core characters—Peter Griffin, talking dog Brian, and megalomaniac toddler Stewie—MacFarlane was compelled to begin training as a singer again as the show began to do more complex and elaborate musical numbers. “I really wanted to do these things with a legitimacy that the [musical] charts demanded,” he says. MacFarlane takes his cue, in part, from the Monty Python troupe. Think of the Oliver! -style production number, “Every Sperm is Sacred,” from The Meaning of Life, the irreverent “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Life of Brian, or any of the loony songs from the original sketch series. “Music and comedy have always gone hand-in-hand,” MacFarlane notes. “The comedy is better served if the music is legit. [On Family Guy] it’s an opportunity to give the show a glaze of class over the craziness.”
In 2011 MacFarlane released Music is Better than Words, an album of show tunes and standards that earned a Grammy nomination. In the New York Times’ review of his Epix special Swingin’ in Concert, which was broadcast in conjunction with the CD’s release, critic Stephen Holden offered that MacFarlane showed potential “to compete for the title ‘New Chairman of the Board.’ … He is vocally relaxed, has perfect pitch, and plays it cool even when swinging hard.” MacFarlane has since recorded a well-received holiday album, Holiday for Swing.
The Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra; MacFarlane does not put himself in that pantheon. But he does share Sinatra’s reverence for orchestration. “Certainly his vocals were as great as we know them to be,” MacFarlane observes. “But to me, what separated Sinatra from his contemporaries was his awareness of the importance of orchestration. On some of his recordings, usually ballads, the orchestra will play an intro for a minute and a half. That was purely because Sinatra just loved the colors that an orchestra could produce. It’s a sound you don’t realize you’ve been missing until you hear it.”
MacFarlane’s Sinatra connection extends to studying with his vocal coaches, Lee and Sally Sweetland; recording Music is Better than Words in the same studio where he recorded, even using the same microphone; and becoming pals with Frank Sinatra Jr. who guest starred and sung on one of Family Guy’s most beloved episodes, “Brian Sings and Swings.” Sinatra Jr., MacFarlane praises, “is tireless in the preservation of this music. We’ve sung together a few times and had a blast. It’s just two guys singing with an orchestra and loving every second of it.” [Sinatra Jr. will be appearing at Ravinia on September 4 for a performance of his Sinatra Centennial multimedia, big-band celebration of his father’s legacy.]
MacFarlane takes all of this very seriously, and, truth to tell, there are not a lot of laughs during the interview. But that doesn’t mean his concert will be devoid of humor. While you should not expect, say, a rendition of Brian and Stewie’s duet “Road to Rhode Island,” MacFarlane (who performed standup in college) will contribute the odd joke, much like Steve Martin does when he performs bluegrass with the Steep Canyon Rangers. The music is paramount. So what can you expect MacFarlane to perform? Not what you’d expect. As with Music is Better than Words, MacFarlane has curated a program that includes a wealth of lesser-known entries in the American Songbook. “That’s one of the things that I really enjoy doing,” he enthuses. “Everyone’s heard ‘Come Fly with Me’ and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.’ I’ve chosen songs that are not played as often, but are really some beautiful charts, such as ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well,’ ‘This is All I Ask,’ and ‘Via Veneto.’”
But seriously, why does he do this? He certainly doesn’t need the money (at number 86, he was tied last year with Sean Hannity on Forbes’s list of “The World’s Most Powerful Celebrities”). “There’s nothing I enjoy more, and nothing I find to be as enriching an experience as sharing a room or sharing a stage with an orchestra playing beautifully written charts with the degree of skill that only a great orchestra can,” he says. But you’ve got to have the music. While comic-book artist Todd MacFarlane (no relation) famously collects baseball memorabilia, Seth MacFarlane collects vintage musical charts from such peerless arrangers as Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins, and Herbert Spencer. “I love the songs, and I love the lyrics, and I love singing with great musicians,” he says. “But it’s [more] about the artistry and the craftsmanship of the charts they are playing. [Though] these are charts you almost never hear played, they show off what a great orchestra can do. And obviously, this is a great orchestra that we will be playing with [at Ravinia].”
MacFarlane has enjoyed many career benchmarks. How does performing in concert with an orchestra compare with the thrill of, say, watching Family Guy’s television premiere or seeing Ted, his feature-film directorial debut, become Universal’s highest-grossing film of 2012 and the third-biggest R-rated comedy of all time? “At the end of the day,” he considers, “it’s a tough thing to top. I talk to so many filmmakers who say their favorite part of the filmmaking process is the scoring. That’s because everyone loves being around an orchestra. It’s an impressive organism. It really gets your blood flying and inspires that creative thrill we are all seeking. There is really nothing like it.”
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based entertainment writer. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, and on RogerEbert.com. The first Ravinia concert he attended without his parents was Procol Harum in 1970.