LOS ANGELES — Three hours until showtime. The "Dancing With the Stars" ballroom is empty except for the hosts, the dancers and the band.
The professional dancers and their celebrity partners — already in costumes and makeup — have been rehearsing their routines for almost a week. The 18-member orchestra, on the other hand, just saw the night's music and in just a few hours, they'll be playing the music for the first time in front of millions.
On today's playlist? Lady Gaga, Louis Armstrong, the Bangles, Cole Porter, a song in Spanish and a show tune from "Chicago."
Musical director Harold Wheeler is in his trailer, just outside the studio. "We don't rehearse until (show day)," he says. "That's why it's a great orchestra."
Wheeler, a Broadway veteran, has been playing with the same group of musicians for more than a decade. The 66-year-old composer and conductor brings them along on his various gigs, which include movie and TV soundtracks and, this year, performing at the Academy Awards. When they're not working with Wheeler, all are studio musicians for hire. The same goes for the singers.
"They're on many, many recordings everywhere," Wheeler says, "but on Mondays and Tuesdays, they're mine."
The show's producers pick the songs the professional dancers and their celebrity partners dance to each week, choosing from every genre to appeal to all demographics.
"A lot of the hip-hop stuff and so forth is to try and draw those younger people," Wheeler says. But there's nothing — not even the rare Portuguese, country or "hillbilly" tracks — the band can't handle.
"I can't think of a lot of musicians that could come in and do what we do," he says.
Horns drive the ‘Dancing’ sound
The dancers approve the selected songs on Monday. Wheeler gets the track list Tuesday and arranges the tunes for his orchestra, giving each what he calls "the 'Dancing With the Stars' sound."
You be the judge!Basically, he makes them bigger, tapping into the shiny brass power of his band's horn section.
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"The horns really create the 'Dancing With the Stars' sound, but it never washes out the original flavor of the recording," Wheeler says, adding that the big music matches the glamour and dazzle of the show itself. "The costumes are lavish, the lighting and everything, so everything is just upgraded."
He assigns his singers their parts on Tuesdays, too, so they can listen to the originals for almost a week before singing them live on the show.
"Their job is much more difficult because they have to really be chameleons," Wheeler says. "When we do a Ray Charles number, they sound like Ray Charles. We do a Lady Gaga number, they sound like her. They're so wonderfully versatile. All the comments we've ever had say that, except for the one Simon just made."
He is referring to Simon Cowell, who took a swipe at "Dancing With the Stars" during a recent episode of "American Idol."
"If you listen to one of those dancing shows, they always have a singer murdering a song on it," Cowell said.
"Dancing" executive producer Conrad Green says Cowell's comments were "a bit uncalled for."
Slideshow: ‘Dancing With the Stars’ 2010 "Our band is as good as it gets," Green says. "They're fantastic professionals. Every week I'm continually amazed at how they're able to turn these things around so quickly. It's awe-inspiring."
"Idol" and "Dancing" compete for viewers on Tuesdays, each drawing an audience of around 20 million, according to the Nielsen Co. While "Idol" has dominated the ratings for years, "Dancing" was the top-rated show in the country in the country last week, after the NCAA basketball championship.
A little extra time for the singers
Singers on "Dancing With the Stars" get to rehearse for an extra hour with Wheeler before the band comes in. Then the whole group runs through each of night's songs together four times before the big live show.
"We never really get to digest the songs because it's our first time with them," says singer Carmen Carter. "The first time I'm really singing it is on that Monday. That's the first time you're hearing yourself on the mike."
The main challenge, besides playing the songs on live TV with little rehearsal, is replicating the sound of the original tracks the dancers have been using for practice — especially because the dancers and band spend just 10 minutes together before showtime.
"Sometimes, the tempo can be a little different from what you've heard with the recording you've been listening to," says dancing pro Kym Johnson, who won the show's mirror ball trophy last season with partner Donny Osmond. "But all in all, I think performing to a live band is much better than to a recording."
Despite the last-minute nature of the show's musical preparations, Wheeler says the band has only gone wrong once in six years and nearly 1,000 songs.
"Half the orchestra misinterpreted a cue and the band was playing two different things for about eight seconds," he says, but he's pretty sure no one noticed.
Green says the big sound of Wheeler's orchestra "makes the show feel special."
"It gives it a real sense of occasion and uniqueness," he says. "You'll never hear those songs that way again."
Even Wheeler can see the effect his music has on the dancers.
"It adds to their performance," he says. "They come in with that little kick that they didn't have in their original rehearsals."
And that's a good thing, since it's already showtime.
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