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Grammy countdown: An inside look at rehearsals [UPDATED]

February 6, 2009 |  3:29 pm

There is plenty at stake this year — relevancy being paramount.


The rehearsals for the 51st Annual Grammy Awards could be considered the calm before the storm of the ceremony -- except, well, they haven't been all that calm and rain has been falling on Staples Center for days. The show will air live on the East Coast on Sunday night on CBS and, with an unprecedented 24 musical numbers, the producers are struggling mightily with a dizzying number of moving parts and compelling subplots.

One scheduled performer, Kid Rock, almost didn't make it to Los Angeles because of a courthouse entanglement from a Georgia assault case. Another, British star M.I.A., is nine months pregnant, which raises the possibility that the 31-year-old nominee might deliver more than an acceptance speech if she wins the record of the year Grammy for her track "Paper Planes." 

There also had been talk in recent days that Coldplay, the English rock group nominated in the record of the year category for "Viva La Vida," would be served with court papers at the ceremony as part of a pending plagiarism claim.

Attorneys managed to avoid that potential red-carpet disaster, but the band must know that any trophy it wins will come with plenty of pressroom inquiries about the claim by guitar-hero Joe Satriani that the song sounds too close to his 2004 tune "If I Could Fly."

Other scheduled performers were dealing with more run-of-the-mill anxieties. For newcomers, the prospect of standing on stage and looking out on audience members such as Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and U2 can stir up more than just emotions.

"Standing on the stage is going to be a mixture of honor and humility and chaos and beauty and vomit all at the same time," said Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland, who will perform the group's hit "Stay." "You just don't want to throw up on stage."

Other artists set to play on the telecast include Justin Timberlake, Radiohead (with the USC marching band), Chris Brown, and Kanye West. Many of them will take the stage in tandem performances that cross generations and genres -- McCartney will team with Foo Fighters' leader Dave Grohl, Wonder with best-new-artist nominee Jonas Brothers.

"The beauty of that," said Jack Sussman, CBS' executive VP for music specials, "is that Stevie is an icon that the Jonas Brothers look up to. He believes in them and their talent, and the audience will see that they are really good musicians, which they sometimes don't get enough credit for. You have to give them props for walking out there with him."

This edition of the Grammys, which comes after several years of underwhelming ratings, appears to be bursting at the seams with music, but executive producer Ken Ehrlich said the jam-packed, three-hour schedule was shaped by inspiration, not desperation.


"I'm not into bulk. It's not about quantity, and we didn't set out to book more performances then ever," Ehrlich said as an orchestra tuned up on stage for a Thursday run-through with Adele, the British singer nominated in several categories, including record and song of the year for "Chasing Pavements." "We looked for quality and found a lot."

This ceremony will have more hip-hop performers than any previous show, Ehrlich said, and a centerpiece moment will be introduced by nostalgic imagery of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other Rat Pack members, a flashback that will give way to a performance by the "Rap Pack," four leading rhyme kings of the contemporary scene -- West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and T.I.

"It's my hip-hop summit," Ehrlich said.

Youth also will be served -- in addition to the Disney-minted Jonas Brothers, tween superstar Miley Cyrus will perform with country beauty Taylor Swift -- and there's a Nashville presence with Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood and Sugarland.

There also will be a tribute to the Four Tops featuring the Motown group's last surviving member, Duke Fakir, with Smokey Robinson, Ne-Yo and Jamie Foxx. On Thursday the rehearsal for that number went as smooth as could be -- except for the fact that there was a stand-in for Foxx, who is out of town filming a movie.

"I'm trying not to worry about that one," said Ehrlich, who has been a key figure with the show since 1980. "There's plenty of other things to worry about."

He's right. The Grammys pulled its third-lowest audience last February and its all-time lowest number in 2006. But Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said the Hollywood writers strike last year threw the broadcast off its groove.

"The overall viewing audience for television was at an all-time low for everybody," Portnow said. "Still, for the year, for prime-time television series episodes, we were at No. 9."

The trophy-show sector is far less robust than it used to be and the Grammys and CBS put together the largest marketing effort ever for the gala. To promote the show, CBS aired a Wednesday night special that had Katie Couric interviewing four nominees -- Timberlake, Lil Wayne, Katy Perry and Swift -- and has been touting the ceremony on "The Early Show" throughout the week.

The Recording Academy announced this year's nominations during a December prime-time music special -- instead of at the conventional morning news conference. Only about 7 million people tuned in, but CBS officials said they were pleased with the show and its promotional echo.

The Grammys have struggled to remain relevant to a wide swath of the viewing public. The album of the year category, in particular, has been a jolting reminder that the Recording Academy's 12,000 voting members march to their own tune, not always one that most fans want to hear. Last year, for example, Herbie Hancock won the award for "River: The Joni Letters," a CD that has sold fewer than 40,000 copies in the U.S. at the time that it had won.

Sussman acknowledged that the Grammys has challenges other music specials don't face.

"Other shows can lock themselves in a back room, have a couple of cigars and make up the show they want and who is going to win the awards," he said. "We can't."

Although it's true that the production team can't control the nominees or the eventual winners, it can, by assembling the right lineup of performers, craft a show that tries to be all things to all people -- or, at the very least, a show that won't send precious viewers off to bed early.

As Sussman said: "If my daughters want to watch it, and my wife will watch it and my mom won't leave while it's on -- that's my litmus test. That's a success."

-Geoff Boucher

 Related: Leo Fender honored posthumously

Related: Grammy countdown: Why U2 shouldn't be performing 
Related: Grammy countdown: Do the Jonas Brothers have best new artist locked up? 
Related: Grammy countdown: Coldplay versus Mraz in best song race?

Related: Grammy countdown: Album of the year an easy one to call?
Related: Grammy countdown: A surprise record-of-the-year win for M.I.A.?

PRACTICE TIME: After a scare that he wouldn’t make it, Kid Rock rehearses Thursday at Staples Center. Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post noted that when Herbie Hancock's "River: The Joni Letters" was named best album last year, it had sold fewer than 40,000 copies in the U.S. It has been corrected to read that the album had sold fewer than 40,000 copies at the time it won.