When Tom Ruegger first teamed with Steven Spielberg on Tiny Toon Adventures in 1990 he had his heart set on eventually doing something that didn’t involve the classic Warner Bros. characters. “My goal was to make something that was original on its own,” he tells us. His idea started with three ducks, but of course, Warner already had a legendary duck named Daffy and Tiny Toons had Plucky Duck.
Spielberg argued that if Ruegger wanted to create a series about a duck he should just use Plucky because he was a “marquee name.” But the animator declined and took a walk across the Warner lot to consider his options. When he spotted the famed Warner Bros. water tower, he had a moment of inspiration. Instead of three ducks, he’d develop a show featuring “generic cartoon characters from the ’30s” and they’d have been locked away in the tower because of their rambunctious nature. “Suddenly they became the Warner Brothers and their sister Dot,” he says, and eventually they’d be joined by more than 20 other characters.
Aside from aiding in inspiration, Spielberg brought the ability to do whatever he wanted. And what Spielberg wanted from Animaniacs was a great cartoon. To accomplish this, Ruegger assembled not only an amazing voice cast but also a musical “Dream Team” that could give Animaniacs a truly memorable collection of sounds and songs. More than 20 years later, fans still love the show and the music enough that some of the original voice actors, writers, and musicians are making plans to hit the road for a live tour. Before they do, they were kind enough to share the origin story of some of Animaniacs‘ greatest musical numbers.
The Music Makers
The music for Animaniacs was recorded at the Warner Stage where composer Carl Stalling produced his Looney Tunes scores for 22 years, a location whose symbolic importance was not lost on Ruegger. Composer Richard Stone, who passed away in 2001, assembled an orchestra that featured as many as 40 musicians creating the songs and sounds of Animaniacs. The show’s crew even referred to him as “The Great Stontini.” “Richard Stone and crew, really their job was daunting,” Ruegger says. “They basically had 22-minute wall-to-wall music to write for every half hour but they sure came through. The show may not have looked perfect, but it always sounded fabulous.”
A strong mutual respect developed between writers and musicians, to the point that the writers couldn’t wait to hear the music that Stone’s orchestra created for their lyrics, and the musicians couldn’t wait to hear each episode’s jokes. As writer Randy Rogel recalls, recording a cartoon in the ‘90s was a far more elaborate process, especially with the involvement of a large orchestra. Being able to watch Stone finish the songs from his podium was a truly magical experience for everyone.
“In those days these musicians came in, they sat down, the music was in front of them. Rich would drop the baton and everybody would play, and that was the first time we ever heard it and knew what it sounded like,” Rogel says. “Then Rich would stop and it was just incredible, he’d say, ‘Okay woodwinds, that’s a B natural.’ And I’m like, how the hell did you hear that in all of that? But these guys are really fine, fine musicians so it was an exciting process to see that level of talent and ability. And then you had the actors doing their singing and all that, it was a pretty remarkable time.”
Steve and Julie Bernstein were two of the musicians who made up Stone’s composing team for the series and part of their jobs included saving the show money in legal fees. As Steve explains, “Julie worked on a ton of the songs, there were a zillion of them and a lot of them were parodies of other songs, of other existing material. Julie became a specialist in kind of turning them upside down and sideways so nobody got sued.”
“As a writer I want to make sure it’s a good song,” Julie adds. “That’s what’s really difficult. I’m taking something that was already really good. I’m taking something that was usually a great song, like ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ Perfect song, gorgeous song, beautiful song. And now we have to write something, I guess you could call it a sound-alike. Because everyone will recognize it when they hear it. But it can’t be the same. Plus, I want to write something that is going to be really good in and of itself. So, I would study the song, figure why it is that it works, where the notes fall exactly. I really look at the real song and why it worked so well, then try to write one. But it has to be different or we could be sued for writing, for imitating it. I would go farther than just write different notes — six notes are the same and the seventh goes off because there’s a law that if seven notes in a row are the same then you can get sued.”
Composer Carl Johnson also worked under Stone and refers to that time as a “mentorship relationship.” Johnson would work on seven minutes of an episode, as would the five other composers, and then Stone would gather his team to look at what they had so they could piece everything together. Stone ultimately defined the style of the show, sitting with his composers and reviewing their music to see what worked and what didn’t.