Custom-made arrangements key to success

It’s 9:15 a.m. on a Monday morning on Stage 46 at CBS Television City. Harold Wheeler, music director for ABC’s hit “Dancing With the Stars,” is already well into rehearsal with his 17-piece band and quartet of singers for that night’s live, two-hour show.

He calls out the 3/4-time, country-flavored “Only One Road.” Standing at his keyboard, headphones on, he conducts sans baton while actress Melissa Joan Hart and her pro partner Mark Ballas waltz around the floor while the stage’s mirrored ball spins slowly, showering the room with points of light.

This is the first time that Hart and Ballas have heard what the band will play. For the previous five days, they’ve been rehearsing to a cut-down version of the original 1994 Celine Dion track.

An hour and a half later, Donny Osmond and partner Kym Johnson jitterbug to the old Louis Jordan classic “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.” The band cooks with high energy, which doesn’t prevent Johnson and Osmond from trotting up to the bandstand afterward for a quiet conference with Wheeler. It’s clear Osmond wants a faster, more decisive finale.

Wheeler announces to the band that “the chart ends at the 3rd beat of bar 72.” They run it down again and Osmond seems happy. Thirty-six hours and two live telecasts later, Osmond was still alive in the competition, but Hart had been shown the door. And Wheeler’s band didn’t miss a beat.

“Music is the essence of everything,” says “Dancing With the Stars” head judge Len Goodman during a break. “Without good music you will never get good dancing. Harold Wheeler and our band are unsung heroes, and the singers are fantastic. Whatever is thrown at them, they can do. Lindy hop, hip-hop, swing, every genre of music, they cope brilliantly.”

In fact, the band consists of some of L.A.’s top studio musicians and singers. Trumpeters Rick Baptist and Warren Luening, saxophonist Dan Higgins, keyboard player Tom Ranier and drummer Ralph Humphrey are among the town’s first-call players. Vocalists Darryl Phinnessee (veteran of multiple Michael Jackson

Jackson tours), Carmen Carter, Beverley Staunton and Antonio Sol are not just good singers, says Wheeler, “they’re great singers.”

Wheeler, 66, is a six-time Tony nominee, two-time Emmy nominee (once for “Dancing With the Stars”) and veteran of the “we-need-it-fast-and-good” school of showbiz music. Orchestrator on such Broadway shows as “The Wiz” and “Dreamgirls,” he’s been in L.A. for the past 18 years working in film, TV and live theater.

“I don’t pick the songs,” Wheeler points out. “They’re given to me, and I re-create them for our band.” He cites an example: “Two weeks ago we did a Charleston. The original recording was a trio and a singer — it wouldn’t even compete (with the other songs). Those recordings were designed to be listened to. To dance to them, there has to be more production value. You need the power of the horns.”

The groundwork of choosing and clearing the many songs heard on “DWTS” begins months before the season even begins.

Senior producer Erin O’Brien creates a list of “well over 1,000 songs” that the staff attempts to clear with music publishers. “And out of every 100 songs,” she says, “I may not even hear back on half. Of the rest, I may end up getting denials on half. Some artists don’t agree to the fee, some prefer that their versions get heard, and some simply don’t do business with reality shows, period.”

When the celebrities are booked, “I ask all of my dancers for song ideas and suggestions,” she adds. “We tell them, ‘tell us anything you could ever possibly want to dance to.’ Not a lot of them end up working,” she concedes.

Once tunes are cleared for use, music editor Graham Jarvis – working in the U.K. and using the internet – decides whether they are appropriate for tangos or waltzes or any of the several categories, and then creates edited versions of the songs (anywhere from 60 to 100 seconds long). It is those versions that the dancers rehearse to, until the Monday morning sessions with the live band.

Familiar tunes work best, says executive producer Conrad Green, but “DWTS” is also famous for “throwing in a few oddballs and ringers. We did a tango to Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic,’ a paso doble to ‘Thriller’ and a quickstep to Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life.’ Sometimes our interpretations of songs are better than the originals,” he says with a laugh.

Fresh arrangements, an on-stage band and talented singers all contribute to making the show “a little more special,” says Green. “There is a certain dead-ness if you play a commercial track that’s exactly what you’ve heard before. Real music, that live element, is an enormous part of why the show works.”

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