It’s a symphony orchestra concert with shooting flames and HD video. It’s a fast-forward binge-watch of a TV series’ biggest moments with the volume turned way up loud. It’s the longest, most elaborate, most expensive pre-season promo tour in history.
The Game of Thrones® Live Concert Experience is all that . While it seems undeniable that its main function is to pump up anticipation for the HBO blockbuster’s seventh season, which kicks off in July, it’s also an engrossing, often thrilling immersion in the story-telling momentum and spectacular visuals that make the series so addictive. It’s also a visceral lesson in the power of music to amplify the power of what we see on screen — particularly when a live orchestra, chorus, and crackerjack soloists are bringing the noise.
The mood was set at the Amalie Arena last night the moment you approached the plaza. Ominous chords blared over the outdoor sound system, making even a trip to the McDonald’s Ticket Office seem momentous and transforming the crowd of 6,500-plus into troops amassed for battle. We had our own soundtrack!
Ambient sound continued to be a factor in the pre-show — a low hum that threatened something dangerous in the offing. The stage (or stages — I counted six, all branching off a central runway) was massive, filling up almost the entire central playing area, with two mega-screens and a passel of smaller ones hovering above the action. As a giant golden clock on screen counted down to zero, the musicians filed in (the chorus wearing High Sparrow-esque long tunics), and Cersei’s voice announced that anyone who didn’t silence their electronic devices would be “boiled alive in the blood of their children.” Clouds of red smoke on screen morphed into smoke onstage, the Iron Throne rose splendiferously into view, and kaboom! the orchestra launched into That Theme Music.
At first the sound from the orchestra seemed a bit muddied — you had to strain to hear the familiar DUMdum-dada-DUMdum-dada-DUMdum-dada-DUmdum-dada-DUM — but the balance improved as the evening progressed, the conductor and composer Ramin Djawadi a youthful, charming guide in suit and sneakers (think Damien Chazelle of Moonlight fame). OK, he was a bit cheerleader-y (“How cool is that teaser?” he asked after the Season 7 trailer was run during intermission). But his exhilaration at playing his music live was genuine, as was his delight in his “band” — including charismatic vocalist Stephanie Alexander and a team of virtuosi on cello and violin, three percussionists and a versatile wind player on a range of wildly atmospheric “ethnic” (his phrase) flutes and other noisemakers. (He introduced all of the soloists individually, but neglected to say anything more detailed about the orchestra and chorus except that they were all from Florida; at press time further details weren’t available).
The two acts proceeded roughly chronologically, with key scenes establishing the background of the Seven Kingdoms in the first half and big moments from the most recent seasons powering the second. The battles benefited greatly from the live accompaniment, especially the extraordinary “Battle of the Bastards,” the penultimate episode of Season 6, during which the closeups of horses’ hooves in full gallop was made even more thunderous by the percussive attack of the orchestra. Those “ethnic” instruments charged Daenerys’s introduction to, and eventual domination, of the (relatively) primitive Dothraki, the score reaching frenzied highs on her majestic march into the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre.
But the producers of this spectacle also know, wisely, when to shut up. The sonic buildup to the attack on the Three Eyed Raven’s cave in Season 6 is suitably terrifying, but goes silent at the moment of revelation when we discover the source of Hodor’s name. Similarly, the orchestra lays low during the attempt to resurrect Jon Snow (Kit Harington) — and in the moment he jerks awake, as startling as ever, there’s no noise except for his sudden gasp. (Oops, spoiler alert for those living under rocks: Jon Snow Didn’t Die.)
Given the emphasis on visuals and music, GOT Live skimps on conveying another of the series’ strengths, its dialogue. Hence there’s less screen time given to its raconteurs — including, surprisingly, the wily survivor Tyrion Lannister (Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage), whose detente with Daenerys was among the most recent season’s highlights, the masterful shape-shifters Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) and Varys (Conleth Hill), and the supremely skeptical Olenna (Diana Rigg). We see them but we don’t hear from them much, which is a loss.
But the words that do get voiced are well-chosen — none moreso perhaps than the memorable exchange between Cersei (Lena Headey) and her captors, the Faith Militant, when given this choice: “Order your man to step aside or there will be violence.” Cersei’s reply: “I choose violence.” And, oh boy, does she. (The eerie violin staccato underscoring her revenge — won’t spoil this one — is perfectly apt.)
Of course, one of the knocks against GOT — live or otherwise — is that its creators often do choose violence. Though in the edits for this touring version, some of the gorier moments are cut off (sorry) just before throats are slit or heads de-capped, there’s still plenty that’s cringe-worthy for the squeamish. Believe me, if you thought the Red Wedding was disturbing on your iPad, it’s 300 times moreso when blown up onto a mega-screen with a live score.
And yet, what this adaptation reminds you of is that much of the power of GOT is what we see on the actors’ faces. The violins echo the pain Daenerys feels at imprisoning her dragons, but it’s Emilia Clarke’s wordless anguish that makes the pain visceral. The half-smile that slowly appears on the face of Sansa (Sophie Turner) as she comes into power speaks volumes. And the scariest moment in the Red Wedding isn’t the slaughter; it’s the dawning realization of what is to come that we see in the eyes of Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark.
Just to see that moment again, writ large on the big screen, is a powerful enough reason for fans of GOT to check out GOT Live.