Inside Grammy Rehearsals: ‘If We Deliver, The Rest Goes Away,’ Says Producer Ken Ehrlich

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.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Kirsten Dunst'On Becoming a God in

    Kirsten Dunst Talks 'Little Women,' 'Interview With a Vampire' Reboots

    Kirsten Dunst was just 11 years old when she skyrocketed into stardom as Claudia in “Interview with a Vampire,” but now Dunst says her age is the only thing keeping her from reprising the role in a hypothetical reboot. “I mean I’m too old, right?,” she told Variety at the premiere of “On Becoming a God [...]

  • A Planned Parenthood clinic is seen,

    Variety to Forgo Annual Emmy Party for Donation to Planned Parenthood

    Variety has decided to make a donation to Planned Parenthood in lieu of hosting this year’s annual Emmy Awards nominees party in partnership with Women In Film. The decision comes in response to Planned Parenthood’s Aug. 19 announcement that it will drop funding over the current administration’s “unethical” rule blocking the organization from discussing its [...]

  • Rebel Wilson Isn't It Romantic

    TV News Roundup: Rebel Wilson to Host First Australian Amazon Original Series

    In today’s TV news roundup, the NFL and Pluto TV announce the launch of a new channel, and Rebel Wilson is named as the host of the first Amazon original series to come out of Australia.  CASTING Rebel Wilson is set to host and executive produce the Australian Amazon original series “LOL: Last One Laughing,” the [...]

  • Moffatt Family with the Himba tribe

    U.K.’s Channel 4 Takes British Family to Africa in New Reality Show

    U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 has greenlit new factual entertainment format “The British Tribe Next Door,” which will see a British family spend four weeks with a remote tribe in Namibia. The twist in this format is that, unlike most adventurers, the participants don’t say goodbye to the comforts of their home — instead, they take them with [...]

  • Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa - The

    'Walking Dead' Star Christian Serratos in Talks for Selena Series at Netflix

    Christian Serratos is in negotiations to star in the upcoming Netflix series based on the life of Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla, Variety has confirmed with sources. The series was announced back in December and is described as a coming of age story following Selena (Serratos) as her dreams come true and all the heart-wrenching [...]

  • Songs for Screens Powered by Mac

    Songs for Screens: 'American Horror Story' Makes 'Suddenly Last Summer' Sizzle Again

    FX Network’s “American Horror Story” returns for a ninth season next month, and promos for the next chapter of the anticipated series, dubbed ‘AHS 1984,’ have been airing frequently across cable television throughout August. In the short yet effective spot (see below), the Motels’ melancholic, moody “Suddenly Last Summer” plays as aerial footage of an [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content