When the movie “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” unfurls across a 40-foot silver screen above the Whitney Hall stage Saturday and Sunday at the Kentucky Center — with the Louisville Orchestra below, performing the movie’s musical sound score by composer John Williams — Lindsay Vallandingham might take an off-stage curtain call herself. It’s Vallandingham’s job to pick the hits, and the “Harry Potter” show is nearing a sell-out for both performances this weekend.
Vallandingham is the Louisville’s Orchestra’s general manager, the symphony’s behind-the-scenes impresario whose job it is to select the shows the orchestra will feature each season — augmenting its central classical music mission, directed by Teddy Abrams. She’s looking for shows that sell and musical experiences that expand the orchestra’s brand in the community.
And “Harry Potter” looks like a hit. Even before it can count the box office for this one, the orchestra is already selling tickets for round two of the movie franchise: “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” coming in November.
But, one might wonder, how hard can it be?
“Harry Potter”? How could it miss?
Well, it could. There are plenty of big shows with high expectations — and high price tags — that don’t make it at all. Big ideas, but box office busts. And there aren’t any orchestras, including the Louisville Orchestra, that can take a huge financial hit.
So Vallandingham had to get it right.
For the orchestra to make a big bet on this kind of high-powered show, she had to get the right feeling — then spend a year or more making the feeling work on stage. Nothing new about it. From Buffalo Bill to Flo Ziegfeld, it’s the wizardry, if you will, of show business.
Vallandingham says the adventure begins long before the show hits the stage.
“I am the person who initially hears about the productions,” Vallandingham says. “I go to a conference in New York in the winter called APAP — the Association of Performing Arts Presenters — and we learn about these fun things. And specifically fun things for orchestras. That’s where I first heard that ‘Harry Potter’ was going to start a symphony tour.”
“Then it’s my job to get on the phone and email with the talent management representing Warner Brothers and the studios that created this version of the film, and hash out a deal.”
Which is right up Vallandingham’s alley.
“I’m a haggler,” she says, with a laugh. “I’m the person who goes to Macy’s and undercuts them on the shoe price. I like that side of things. But it’s really about seeing something on paper and imagining what that could like here, and seeing the project all the way through.”
And like a flashback in a movie, Vallandingham thinks back to the moment she first got wind of the of the “Harry Potter” project.
“It was January of 2016, and I thought, ‘Wow! This could be great for the orchestra. I bet we could sell out two shows of that.’ And here we are, selling out two shows of the first ‘Harry Potter’ movie, and already selling tickets for the next one.”
Which, as “Harry Potter” fans surely know, is “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” coming in November. As noted, there are many such shows available for American orchestras, but only a few become hits.
“I think it depends a little bit on the cult-classicness of the movie, if you’ll go there with me,” says Vallandingham.
She puts on here way-back hat to remember two movies the orchestra scored hits with in the past.
“’The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Psycho’ have had audience followings for generations, and I think ‘Harry Potter’ will be that kind of piece as well,” she says. “It has its own following and own life surrounding the J.K. Rowling books and the films and everything else. I think this is going to be a series for us.”
And there’s a lot more to it than Vallandingham looking over a website that offers the “Harry Potter” movies, with a little box to click: Accept. There’s a mountain of behind-the-scenes “advance” work before the movie airs.
“The contract is massive,” Vallandingham notes. “It’s like 60 pages, but page by page what they need from us. They come with specific needs. However, this a new show and they’re still learning what their needs are. So it’s a negotiation. They are reporting back to Warner Bros., and in some cases with John Williams, himself. As in, ‘Here’s what Louisville wants to do. Do you think that will work with the film?’”
Negotiations range from the instrumentation of the orchestra, to decorating the lobby, to the size of the screen. The format for “Harry Potter” calls for special size 40-by-17-foot screen, which the orchestra is renting and modifying with the local outfitter Axxis.
As showtime nears, the final details are worked out.
“My department is booking flights and hotels and hammering out itineraries — down to picking them up at the airport and who’s going to get a turkey sandwich for lunch,” she says.
Hey, Look Out for that Downbeat!
As one might imagine, handling the baton is a key position. The “Harry Potter” rolls into town with a projectionist, a sound person and conductor Jeffrey Schindler.
Schindler will rehearse the orchestra in much the same way a conductor prepares a pit orchestra for an opera. Only trickier, if that’s possible. The movie and an orchestra can’t listen for each other and get back on the beat. Up on the screen, Daniel Radcliff and Emma Watson won’t be keeping an eye on Schindler’s baton. He has to find them and bring the orchestra along.
What John Williams created in a studio to be laced into the film has been removed for the Louisville Orchestra to perform live. Schindler knows the score down to the second and will have the orchestra as prepped as possible for what to expect, and when — especially with dynamics next to dialog. A mistake might stand out. But done perfectly, the live sound can whisk the audience away into the tale.
The idea of live music with a movie is not a new concept, of course. A century ago, silent pictures were musically illustrated by a pianist. Or an organist in larger theaters. The maiden tied to the tracks with a train bearing down. The posse chasing the bad guys. Or the sad fortunes of ill-fated love, at the moment of rejection.
But that’s from another time. This “Harry Potter” is of today, a major movie with wizards and special effects and a lavish musical score. Vallandingham mentioned “Psycho,” and one imagines screeching violin scratches as “psycho” Anthony Perkins plunges a knife through a shower curtain into …
This writer remembers seeing “Casablanca” on the late show on a 12-inch TV with a coat hanger wire antenna. Then, finally, years later, seeing the classic in all its glory on a giant screen at the Penthouse Theater downtown. “It’s got music!” we realized. A whole score full of danger and romance. Now, we wonder, what would that be like with Humphrey and Ingrid, and the orchestra …
“Are you putting in a vote for ‘Casablanca,’” asks Vallandingham, with a twinkle. “It’s out there.”
Or maybe “High Noon,” with a score by Dimitri Tiomkin. Or, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The spaceship sliding away into space on the “Blue Danube.”
Steady, boy. Vallandingham is already on the case. And not just with Hollywood whoppers. Last season, for example, the Louisville Orchestra’s Pops Series hosted a tribute to jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and it went beyond its regular classical subscription series to bring cellist Yo Yo Ma to town. The coming season’s acts range from the Mambo Kings to country fiddler Michael Cleveland to the B-52’s.
But “Harry Potter” has it all. Perfect for an orchestra Vallandingham says is riding a rising star.
“With a project like this, I think we are tapping into an audience that may be interacting with the orchestra for the first time,” says Vallandingham. “These ‘Harry Potter’ fans could be anybody. It could be a 7-year-old, or it could be families who haven’t found the right entry point to be with the orchestra.
“And maybe,” she imagines, “they might wonder what else does the Louisville Orchestra do?”
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” takes place Saturday, July 8, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, July 9, at 3 p.m. Tickets start at $35. Tickets for the next in the series, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” will go on sale Saturday, July 8 as well. The dates for that show is Friday, Nov. 17, and Saturday, Nov. 18.