Grammys: Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich Promises Plenty of Surprises (Q&A)

Ken Ehrlich - P 2013
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Ken Ehrlich - P 2013

The veteran television producer tells THR what's in store for music's biggest night -- and the snubbed who'll be absent.

This is Grammy executive producer Ken Ehrlich’s 34th show, so you would expect him to be unflappable in the wake of this Sunday’s nationally telecast 56th Annual ceremony, but even he admits “it’s a moving train,” interrupting his conversation with The Hollywood Reporter several times to put out fires.

Along the way, he inadvertently lent credence to the so-far unannounced appearance of Beyonce, but coyly refused to either “confirm nor deny” that hubbie Jay Z will be part of her performance, or whether it will indeed be the opener. Ehrlich also wouldn’t comment on whether Paul McCartney will perform with Ringo Starr on either the Grammy Awards themselves or Monday night’s national telecast of The Night That Changed America: A Grammys Salute to the Beatles. And he diplomatically steered clear of the Justin Timberlake controversy, too, refusing to speculate on whether his performance on the American Music Awards, or his lack of nominations in the four major categories, had anything to do with his absence from the show.

Inveterate showman that he is, Ehrlich promises a number of surprises on Sunday night.

How did the earlier show date this year affect you?

We had two weeks less than we normally do. The two holidays were on Wednesdays, so not only were the first and last part of those two weeks gone, people left on December 16 and didn’t come back until January 6. The nominations came out on December 6, which means I had a week before people left the building. And they didn’t come back until two weeks ago Monday, which left three weeks to the show. I had a production time for what some people call the biggest show on television of exactly four weeks. Normally, we have seven weeks, which itself is hard to believe.

You’re producing not only the regular awards telecast, but the following night’s Grammys Salute the Beatles show.

Yesterday afternoon, I went to Paul [McCartney’s] rehearsal. And suddenly, all of the work and all of the effort we’re putting into this is worthwhile. We were going over some stuff, and he asked me, “You want to sit for a minute?” I was the only civilian in the room with his band and tech guys. They played five songs, and I basically fell apart. Tomorrow at 11 o’clock, early afternoon, we start rehearsing, and that’s the payoff.

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What about the rumors that Beyonce and Jay Z will open up the show with “Drunk In Love,” their collaboration from her new album?

[Long pause] I can’t confirm that, but I’m not denying it, either.

Any truth to talk that Madonna will perform as part of a collaboration?

I’ll put it this way. All things are possible on the Grammy Awards.

The pairings this year are typically eclectic -- Sara Bareilles and Carole King, Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar, Robin Thicke and Chicago, but the most eyebrow-raising has to be Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang and Metallica.

It’s what we do, one of the trademarks of this show, what I’d like to believe separates the Grammys from these other shows. You see artists do things that they just don’t do anywhere else. It may have started, years and years ago, with us approaching artists like Prince and Beyonce or Eminem and Elton to suggest these collaborations. The fact is, the artists now come to us with these ideas, and look on it as a road map to the Grammys. You take an Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar, put them together and say, “Make something out of this…” Now, I’ve heard the scratch track and seen a rough video of what they’re going to do, and it’s really remarkable when artists get together for the purpose of doing something special. This year, we probably have 10 or 12 of them on the show….which in no way diminishes any individual artist. We really love the idea that there is a family of music, a community of artists out there. Because the Grammys represent so many different genres, I can take a classical pianist like Lang Lang and put them with Metallica, a rock band, and make a great segment. And that’s the joy of doing this show. Frankly, the other music award shows which specialize in one particular type of music—say a CMT or BET—don’t have that broad palette to paint from. Metallica has performed with symphony orchestras, and we’ve worked with Lang Lang before. He listens to rock. I don’t think it’s that far afield at all. Probably the strangest one we’ve done was Foo Fighters with Chick Corea. As it turned out, there was this metamorphosis that happened between the two of them. All of a sudden, Chick was playing rock chords and Dave Grohl was banging out jazz licks.

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What happened with Justin Timberlake? Why isn’t he on the show?

I don’t have a comment on that. I’m sorry he’s not with us. We would’ve loved to have had him.

What are the final 72 hours like for you?

I’m set to go out and visit some of the off sites we have, see what I can find. Taylor Swift’s rehearsing, I’ll go see Katy Perry, Beyonce and probably stop at Daft Punk for a little bit. And then tomorrow it all starts here. It’s a moving train, five or six rehearsals a day for three days and then Sunday, the dress and the air show.

Is this the fun part?

This is the fun part. It’s all fun. What I’ve gotten to do over the years. I love music. to be able to do what you love and get paid for it isn’t a bad thing, either. I’ve always just felt blessed. I’ve done this show for 34 years. This is the big one. Someone said to me, it’s the best playground in town.

Give us something to look for on Sunday night? What highlights can we expect?
I learned from songwriters over the years when they were asked this question. All of these performances are my children; don’t ask me to choose one of them.

Twitter: @roytrakin