Grammy Awards Producer Ken Ehrlich on the Show’s Big (and Expensive) Return to New York, and This Year’s ‘Woke’ Factor

Ken Ehrlich
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What a year to be producing the Grammy Awards.

Not only are they being held in New York for the first time in 15 years, the world is crazy and something memorable or mind-boggling has happened on the stage of nearly every awards show in the past year, from Oprah’s rousing speech at the Golden Globes to the jaw-dropping envelope mix-up at the Oscars. And with a lineup that includes Kendrick Lamar, U2, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars with Cardi B, Elton John with Miley Cyrus, Luis Fonsi with Daddy Yankee, Alessia Cara, Childish Gambino, Kesha, Khalid, Little Big Town, Logic, Patti LuPone, P!nk, Ben Platt, Sam Smith and SZA, several somethings are bound to happen this year.

Executive producer Ken Ehrlich has been helming the Grammy Awards — which air live from Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28 — since 1980 and last year extended his contract into yet another decade, carrying him into the 2020 show. It’s a ludicrously demanding job, yet every year he finds time to speak with journalists before the big show, and every year we try to pry scraps of information from him and the run-of-show document that’s always by his side. Variety caught up with him via phone from Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon. “Are you coming to any rehearsals next week?,” he asks. “Look for me — I’ll be the one with the furrowed brow!”

How are the first New York Grammys in 15 years going?
The show is really looking good, but it’s a challenge. It’s just more expensive doing it in New York versus Los Angeles, in terms of facilities, stagehands, hotel rooms, transportation, general costs of the show — all of which we account for, but it’s just a different animal. We know what we’re in for and we love being there.

Are the logistics or the show itself more expensive?
Both. Obviously I can’t give facts and figures, but we bring in most of our core group of people and hotel rooms are $100 or $200 a night more expensive than L.A. — multiply that by hundreds — and transportation costs more, so overall it adds up to a significant number. The staging is more expensive too — MSG, which we’re so excited to be in, is more expensive than most parts of the country. It’s the premiere venue in New York and as such it commands a high price — not in terms of the [venue] itself, they’ve been very fair, but stagehands and technicians and doing the show is more expensive.

Between the gun-violence-awareness segment with Maren Morris and Eric Church and Brothers Osbourne and the performance of Logic’s suicide-awareness song “1-800-273-8255,” not to mention performances from Kendrick Lamar and U2 and Lady Gaga, it seems like this year’s show could be the most “woke” Grammys ever.
I think there’s been a greater social awareness in the past year anyway and I think this is the year we should be doing these things. But I wouldn’t mistake social awareness or paying attention to what’s going on in the world for … I’m not quite sure what you mean by “woke”?

Basically political or social awareness.
Yes, I’d rather say socially aware, we try to provide the artists with the artistic freedom to address these issues, which are very important to them. We neither encourage nor discourage them but we don’t shy away from them if it’s relevant. We have a history, certainly in recent years, if you think back to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis [the same-sex marriages that took place onstage in 2014 while he performed “Same Love”] domestic violence with Katy Perry and [a message from President Obama in 2015], there have been tragedies we’ve addressed with fundraising performances like [a 2005 all-star performance of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” to benefit tsunami relief], I think we recognize that artists we deal with are more than just the sum of their music and lyrics. I don’t want to say it’s our responsibility but it’s certainly something we feel we should be able to reflect.

Will #MeToo be a part of any specific performance this year?
I don’t want to go into it, but I suspect over the course of the night it will be addressed.

Apart from the 60th anniversary and the return to New York, will there be any overarching theme this year?
We plan to acknowledge both of those things in different ways, and in a couple of places we accomplish both. I don’t think we could be back to New York without paying homage to Broadway and in one segment we’re going to re-create a great Grammy performance [Tony winners Patti LuPone will reprise her 1981 performance of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from “Evita”] and, well, let’s just say [“Dear Evan Hansen” star] Ben Platt will be part of the show and he’s not doing a duet with Kendrick!

I’m also really excited about the younger artists appearing on the show — Donald Glover, SZA, Alessia Cara, even Kesha are all artists who are new to the Grammys, for all intents and purposes, and having them with U2 and Elton John, this year’s show is very broad generationally.

Sam Smith isn’t nominated this year but he’s one of the performers, which doesn’t usually happen with artists who aren’t part of a special performance. Why?
We do it from time to time, usually it’s because we do segments that are genre-specific or historical, so it’s not unusual. There’s no specific reason other than he’s a past Grammy winner, he cleaned up a couple of years ago, and we thought kindly about putting him on the show.

We’re almost to the time when all of the performers have been announced — do you think there’s a chance that Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran or Lorde could still be announced for the show?
Nope, I can’t say officially or unofficially — but nice try! That was a good one. [Laughter]

The Grammy Awards will air live from Madison Square Garden in New York at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT on CBS.