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Inside Grammy Rehearsals: Producer Ken Ehrlich Fine Tunes as ‘Freight Train’ Steams to Sunday’s Show

When Alessia Cara finished rehearsing “1-800-273-8255,” her number with rapper Logic and R&B singer Khalid, the Grammy best new artist nominee pulled her mother across the floor of Madison Square Garden to meet “the king of the Grammys,” executive producer Ken Ehrlich.

“I passed the test?” Cara asked as Ehrlich shook hands with Enza Caracciolo. Yes, the 21-year-old Canadian singer passed with flying colors, Ehrlich affirmed.

It’s Friday morning, day two of three days of rehearsals for Sunday’s live Grammy Awards telecast on CBS. Ehrlich, who has produced the Grammycast since 1980, is in the midst of a marathon of song runthroughs. The area around the stage is surrounded by the hustle and bustle of producers, lighting techs, camera operators, set decorators, security guards, and a seemingly endless stream of men and women with clipboards and rolls of electrical tape in hand.

Four passes at “1-800-273-8255” allow Ehrlich to make a few tweaks to the number, including the decision to delay by about 20 seconds the arrival of surprise guests on stage to coincide with a lyric for maximum impact in a song that has an emotional anti-suicide message. Logic, sporting sweatpants and a winter coat, stood on a circular platform apart from the main stage, listening and nodding to Ehrlich’s instructions.

The chilly wind outside has kept the temperature low inside the cavernous venue. British singer Sam Smith also showed up in a parka to rehearse his number, “Pray,” with a gospel choir. The singers gave Smith a quick round of applause when he arrived on stage.

Ehrlich’s note for Smith is that he needs to move around a bit more while belting out the ballad. Smith tells the sound engineers “I need more me and less reverb” in his monitors. Ehrlich also breaks the news to Smith and his manager that the word “s—-“ will be bleeped by CBS censors from the song. The fix is quick: Smith will drop the word himself, singing it as “Shhhh.” Another round of handshakes and Ehrlich, wearing his ever-present headset and a vintage Island Records T-shirt, is on to the next item on his very long to-do list.

Ehrlich and the small army he’s leading are less than 48 hours away from orchestrating a parade of more than 20 performance segments during a live three-and-a-half-hour international TV broadcast. The lineup this year includes Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Little Big Town, Childish Gambino, U2, and Pink. If the Grammy team is nervous, it’s not showing. Busy as the scene is, most of those on who are parked on the floor listen, rock or sway a bit and applaud after each performance.  

“This is the part I love the most,” Ehrlich said. “The freight train is running.”

Ehrlich is only sorry he doesn’t have the time to make it to the other off-site rehearsals that are taking place around the city. Members of his production team have been dispatched to sites in Brooklyn and Queens to bring back cell phone video of those sessions. As they gather around those tiny screens, Ehrlich and Jack Sussman, the CBS executive in charge of all things Grammys, like what they’re seeing, even though it’s hard to hear anything amid the din of drums going through sound checks and overhead chatter via the P.A. (“Head’s up everybody, the wall is moving,” the stage manager warns as a large lighting display descends.)

The biggest challenge in the preparations at this stage, now that the acts are locked (they hope), is fine-tuning each presentation with an eye toward making it work for TV as well as for the live audience in the Garden.

“We work with the artists on the visuals,” Ehrlich said. “A lot of times people come in with moves that are great for the stage but don’t work for TV. We have to make sure we have a cohesive show that translates to TV.”

The core Grammy team that has worked with Ehrlich for decades on the telecast includes Sussman, talent producer Chantal Sausedo, stage manager Garry Hood, writer David Wild, and director Louis J. Horvitz.

The whirlwind of the pre-Grammy preparations are heightened by the fact that two floors down from the Garden’s main stage, there’s a separate rehearsal process going on for CBS’ Grammy-branded Elton John tribute special that will be shot on Jan. 30 for airing in April. 

Guitarist Davey Johnstone and other longtime members of John’s band are tucked into the Garden’s main lobby, surrounded by concession stands and restrooms. Numerous Grammy performers will also be featured on the Elton John special, so Ehrlich and CBS achieve maximum production efficiency by cycling talent through parallel rehearsals.

During a break in the Grammy schedule, the freight elevator can’t come fast enough to get Ehrlich down to the lobby to check in on the Elton rehearsals. He arrives in time to see Cara enjoying a few romps through “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.”

But Tuesday night’s taping is a long way off for Ehrlich, considering that there is over three hours of live television to produce on Sunday. Ehrlich and Sussman will be in a bunker underneath the main stage. Horvitz will call the shots from a truck outside on 34th Street. The Garden has built-in production facilities for sporting events, but not the elaborate technical set-up required for the Grammycast.  “It is an unbelievably fun challenge,” said Sussman.

The other key piece of equipment is a host with the skill to think on his or her feet. In that, Sussman has the utmost confidence in Corden. The host of CBS’ “Late Late Show” killed in his Grammy debut last year.

“You need a host like James Corden especially if something goes wrong — if scenery breaks down or an amp blows during a commercial break, you need somebody who is that good who can cover your a– for 30 seconds while you get it all back on line,” Sussman said.

Corden is also fearless when it comes to seizing a moment. He was quick to strip down to his undies last year after members of Twenty One Pilots enthusiastically shed their pants as they ran on stage to collect a trophy. None of that was plotted in advance.

“You have to have that spontaneity,” Sussman said. “You want the audience to be with you in that moment.”

By Friday afternoon, the show is “95% done, although we’re still tweaking,” Sussman said. The contingency plans are in place for a natural or man-made disaster, or even a heart-breaking tragedy such as the death of Whitney Houston in 2012 barely 24 hours before the Grammy Awards. It takes a seasoned team like Ehrlich’s to be able to respond as they did that year with a Houston tribute that took over the top of the show.

By the time Sunday’s telecast gets rolling, the focus is intense on bringing it all together with real punch and also bringing it in on time in order to facilitate the West Coast repeat telecast that adds significant audience. And then, the work begins anew.

“Ken and I always look at each other as the credits are rolling,” Sussman said, “and say ‘Now what are we going to do next year?’ “

(Pictured: Ken Ehrlich and Jack Sussman)

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