A decade back, Stewart Copeland was perched on a horse inside a dirt-filled O2 Arena in London, lip-syncing to the booming sound of his own voice.
It was an ostentatious live theatrical enactment of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ — live-action pirate battle, chariot races and all — and the beast was skittish.
“The horses learn the piece,” explains the former drummer of the Police over the phone. “There’s a giant box, and at a certain point, 400 underpaid Ukrainian extras come pouring out. And in a twinkling there’s a Jerusalem marketplace — prostitutes, Roman soldiers beating people up — and they do it really fast!
“Horses don’t really like that kind of thing,” laughs the 66-year-old. “So he gets more and more leery of that big box every night. He’s not giddying the f— up; I’m kicking wildly — suddenly he’s taking off at a flat-out gallop as my voice continues narrating from above, slowly and calmly.”
This in part explains why Copeland is at the Winspear Friday and Saturday, doing a pared-down version of his score for the multi-year touring production — in this iteration under the banner Stewart Copeland’s Orchestral Ben-Hur.
Instead of the actors and animals, Copeland’s music will roll along with the composer’s own edit of the most expensive film of the silent movie era, directed by Fred Niblo, starring Ramon Navarro.
Tickets start at $24 plus service charges at winspearcentre.com for the 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday shows.
Under the film, the ESO will be the live orchestral soundtrack, music director emeritus William Eddins its conductor. And in the centre of it all will sit Copeland, having a blast.
Asked simply ‘why?’ of the entire affair, he explains: “Because it’s so much fun. The headliner is the movie — and I don’t have to dodge any singing.
“Playing drums, it’s heaven. A dream gig.”
In general terms, Copeland’s attraction to the Ben-Hur story is about both size and beauty, starting with the 1880 book by Lew Wallace. “It was the biggest novel published in its day and resulted in the longest-running Broadway production. The 1920 film was the biggest silent film; the Charlton Heston film was the biggest of its era. It’s always been a giant monster, this Ben-Hur.
“So this mad German impresario Franz Abraham put it on live. He hired me to do the music. The actors performed in Aramaic and Latin and a narrator told the story. They couldn’t get Clint Eastwood or Sean Connery, so by the time they got to London, I had to do it.”
The live version ran two years, including six months outside Rome. But after it ended Copeland, who owned the music, didn’t want it to die. So on faith, before official clearance, he started cutting down the 160-minute, silent 1925 Ben-Hur into something closer to a concert’s length.
“I started to carve it up and make a show of it, editing and scoring it, while wading in the morass of various Warner Brothers legal departments.”
A deal was struck, and “eventually I got to the 80-year-old celluloid in its cans in deep freeze, which took a week to defrost. It had been something like 40 years since the old lady was out of her cans.”
He edited and cleaned the picture — not overly, mind you — in his spare time over two years.
“It’s so beautiful. They didn’t have the technology we have now. But what they had they used so artistically. Tens of thousands of extras — they’d stage it with 20 cameras and that’s it — action! The ships literally caught fire and sank!
“It actually has more kick than a modern CGI movie, where anything can happen but nothing really does.”
During the performance, the orchestra is controlled, reading sheet music under a static film — yet Copeland can and does improvise.
“The music is locked to picture — tightly scored. The orchs are absolutely accurate to the page, and I know exactly where they are. So I myself am a churning urn of burning foam. I’m an orangutan climbing the frame that is really solid, I can go where I want on each night, play it upside down and backwards if I feel like it.”
That said, watching on a private monitor with bar numbers and sound-effects cues, “I’m very engrossed in the movie, Ben-Hur and his tribulations.”
If it’s been a while since you’ve heard Copeland play, you’ve spent time away from Edmonton radio. To prepare for this conversation, I replayed a scratchy copy of Regatta de Blanc, mesmerized by Copeland’s drums on its first two songs, Message in a Bottle and the title track, and fully immersed in the musician’s sass on his punkish, B-side song, On Any Other Day.
Mind you, his most famous song would come a couple years later: Synchronicity’s Miss Gredenko. “It’s about a love affair in a totalitarian state,” he explains. “Somebody did make a short about it, the dialogue is comprised only of the song lyrics. One guy goes, ‘Are you safe, Ms. Gredenko?’ The other guy says, ‘You’ve been letting your feelings show,’ and so forth.
“I’m not sure that it’s the most successful film I’ve ever seen,” he laughs, “but they did capture what the song is about: that despite constricting uniforms, love will emerge unbidden.”
He says the song was also surely tinted by Orwell’s famous novel, “1984 — that guy trying to live a real life when everything in his world is false.”
Copeland pauses when asked if there’s anything he misses about drumming in the Police, repeatedly labelled in the ’80s as the biggest band in the world.
“Nooooo,” he says with a laugh. “Playing 80,000-seat stadium shows is cool. But, Jesus, the whole ziggurat that must be climbed to get to that fun moment is substantial.
“I was hanging out with Sting the other week in New York and we just have such a great time as chuckle buddies, as long as we’re not trying to figure out how to play Roxanne.
“So that’s sort of … nice. We understand why we drive each other crazy because music has a different function in our lives — no crime, no foul.
And, he notes, “I get to play with 65 musicians and not one of the six bass players comes up to me and says, ‘Can you play that with your hi-hat instead of a ride cymbal?’
“So there is that.”