Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive


The orchestra taps into Prince, Bon Jovi and Michael Jackson for a real Thriller.

People who grew up in the 1980s are in the pop culture driver's seat these days, a development that has not been lost on conductor Sarah Hicks.

"Madness' song Our House is being used for two TV commercials," she notes. "People are wearing leggings with oversized sweaters. It made sense to create a show that would capture the zeitgeist."

So Hicks has devised a program that merges the symphony orchestra with '80s hits such as Prince's Let's Go Crazy and Simple Minds' Don't You (Forget About Me).

"I want people to come and have a nostalgic good time," she says.

Hicks' '80s program is getting just its second set of performances this weekend as part of the Florida Orchestra's pops series. She premiered it earlier this month with the Minnesota Orchestra, for whom she is principal pops conductor. She is bringing a rock band and vocalists from Minnesota for the concerts here.

"The singers and I are in costume," she says. "It's pretty hideous. It's very neon."

Hicks, 38, is a child of the '80s. Growing up in Hawaii, she listened to Cyndi Lauper, Def Leppard and Madonna and was glued to MTV.

The conductor, who has an impeccable classical music resume (Harvard, Curtis Institute of Music), covers the '80s waterfront with the symphonic arrangements she and others crafted for the program.

"Top 40 pop, new wave, hair metal - we wanted to represent everything," she says. "We use the orchestra as a large band to extend the palates on which these songs were originally made."

Some of the 18 songs in the show seem like naturals, such as the Phil Collins ballad Separate Lives or Human League's (Keep Feeling) Fascination.

"Come on Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners lends itself perfectly to the orchestral medium," she says. "It even starts out with two fiddles."

And, of course, there is a Michael Jackson number. "You can't have an '80s show without Michael Jackson. We do Thriller."

The program also includes an arrangement of Every Breath You Take by the Police. It's a song that Hicks will be doing a lot this summer as she conducts the orchestra on Sting's "Symphonicity" tour in Europe.

But what about hard rockers such as Welcome to the Jungle by Guns N' Roses or Livin' on a Prayer by Bon Jovi? How do they work with a symphony orchestra?

"I think Livin' on a Prayer works surprisingly well. It's fun to have more sound with that song," Hicks says. "And Welcome to the Jungle is for orchestra and drums, and that's it. There's no guitar. The arranger took every detail in that song and set it for orchestra, so it's really challenging for them in a way."

A problem with symphonic arrangements of pop and rock music is cheesiness. Eleanor Rigby has been ruined by many a hearing in elevators. But Hicks thinks that isn't such an issue with '80s music.

"I don't mind a certain amount of cheese," she says. "The '80s were kind of kitschy. It was a laughable decade, in a way. It's very easy to make fun of in a gentle, loving, I-can't-believe-I-lived-through-that kind of way. I think we all have great memories of it. There's some reverence, but also fun. It can't be all serious. It was the '80s, after all."

John Fleming can be reached at or (727) 893-8716.

* * *

If you go

Totally Awesome '80s

Sarah Hicks, above, conducts the Florida Orchestra, a rock band and vocalists in a pops program at 8 p.m. Friday at Morsani Hall of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa; 8 p.m. Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $20-$67, with students tickets for $10. (727) 892-3337 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286;