There are a little more than 24 hours left before the Grammy telecast, and tensions are running a little high. But veteran show producer Ken Ehrlich is as unflappable as ever, even as CBS EVP Jack Sussman complains about a Rolling Stone interview that prolongs the Ariana Grande-Grammy spat for at least one more day.
This is Ehrlich’s 39th Grammy ceremony — his 40th is contractually his last — and he’s keeping his cool even as he oversees a major production number featuring Shawn Mendes and special guest Miley Cyrus (“Call me Hannah Montana,” she jokes when the observers warned to put away their phones). These Saturday afternoon rehearsals at Los Angeles’ Staples Center will be the last until tomorrow’s dress rehearsal before the show, while Ehrlich is also busy prepping a Motown special, which will be taped on Tuesday at the Microsoft Theater across the way at L.A. Live. Will he make it to his 40th Grammy?
“Don’t ask me to predict my own mortality,” he jokes. “I’m ready for whatever comes.”
Although he’s done talking about Ariana Grande, Ehrlich admits, “I’ve always believed at the end of the day, on Sunday night between 8 and 11:30, if we deliver, the rest goes away. All I can do is put good stuff up there. I’m able to put all the other mishegas out of my mind.”
If there’s a theme to this year’s ceremony, it’s inclusion, with 13 of the 17 scheduled acts coming from female artists, and one male/female duet (Mendes/Cyrus). Even the nominees in the major categories have been expanded from five to eight, which means there are more people to disappoint. The theme carries over to the performances of Brandi Carlile’s LGBTQ anthem “The Joke” (with the lyrics prominently displayed as a backdrop), Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow” and even the Motown tribute (a chyron message during the set insists, “Motown was about music for all people”), though it’s been carefully scrubbed of any Michael Jackson references in the wake of the HBO special.
Ehrlich says he’s happy with the show, which has taken shape over three days of rehearsals. He says he knew it was complete with his last-minute addition of St. Vincent and Dua Lipa, joining forces on “Masseduction,” with a mid-song interpolation of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” for good measure.
“I wanted something edgy and provocative,” says Ehrlich “I had been looking at both artists separately, and I thought, they’re compatible, complementary even, if we came up with the right idea. They didn’t really know one another but they were fans of each other’s work, so that made it easy. They really came up with something special.”
“That reminds me of a mid-‘80s David Bowie song,” says longtime Grammy writer David Wild, making the rounds.
At Thursday’s rehearsals, Variety cover star Brandi Carlile took to the stage with her band and a string quartet to belt out her nominated smash, “The Joke,” which reverberated around the empty arena like the anthem it is.
“That was intimidating, but I feel a lot better now” she says after the performance gets Ehrlich’s thumbs-up. “I’ve been building it up in my head anticipating what it would feel like to stand in this room and play that song. I look to my left and my right and see my band and family and it’s like, ‘I can play ‘The Joke.’ That song’s my baby. I can do this.”
The message is just as important, insists Carlile. “The song is about gender fluidity and diaspora. It’s about refugees and asylum seekers, the movement of free peoples fleeing persecution and looking for a new life elsewhere, an imminent redemption in the wind. The success of the song says more about the nation and its ability to receive it than what I’m saying. We all need to hear these words and live by them, including me.”
For Carlilie, the performance is “an epic career achievement,” going back to when she was young and would stay up to watch the show “to see if Whitney and Celine could hit the notes, and of course they always did. I guess I pictured myself here someday. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again, so I’m just going to enjoy every second I have.
“I’m still celebrating being nominated, which is a cliché, but this has really changed my life.”
Ehrlich returns from working through another one of the show’s knots.
“I just had to work with Cardi B, who was very concerned about her performance,” he says. “And by the end we were hugging like best friends.”