(Welcome to our Emmys FYC miniseries for “Notes on a Score,” GVN’s interview series highlighting the composers and musicians behind some of the year’s most acclaimed films and television series.)
For Christopher Willis, composer for the score of Apple’s hit musical comedy series Schmigadoon!, the inspirations for Season 1 were fairly straightforward: Brigadoon, Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, and a slew of Golden Age movie musicals from the ‘40s and ‘50s. It was a thinly veiled but loving homage to the MGM era and musical theater fans ate it up. Season 2 sees the series dipping into another cornucopia of beloved musicals, but there was one major difference this time around.
“Some of the musicals were never movies,” explains Willis. “In many cases, the stage version is more iconic or the movie version is so different from the stage version. So many people know Sweeney Todd but not necessarily through the lens of the movie. They think about it through the lens of the Broadway recordings. That raises a lot of questions.” Without a more streamlined canon of films to aspire toward, Willis was forced to expand the boundaries of what the score for Schmigadoon! could sound like.
“You end up in a slightly noir-ish place because of the subject matter,” he continued. “There’s a mystery and a murder and darkness and shadows and jazzy songs. I ended up listening to old film noirs, Chinatown and even Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, because that’s wonderfully on the nose.” Sometimes, inspiration struck from musicals that weren’t even referenced in the series, like West Side Story and Oliver!, the latter of which paired surprisingly well with Sweeney Todd, one of the series’ biggest reference points. “I was thinking about that for a long time afterwards,” he laughs.
“[Stephen] Sondheim looms really large in the show,” Willis points out. The seminal composer and lyricist passed away just a few months after Season 1 concluded. “When you look very closely at what the orchestra does in Sweeney Todd, it’s extraordinary. He achieved this synthesis of being very dissonant while still retaining his Broadway melodic instincts. I spent lots of time thinking about that Sweeney Todd color to try and do something vaguely approaching that vibe in some of the underscore.”
Balancing such varied instrumentation required what Willis described as “a smash cut in the music” between scenes. “What gradually became clear is that the underscore should cluster around the genre of what’s on screen at that time, which occasionally means there have to be some really adventurous transitions. We [would] end a scene with a hippie outro and then, on the downbeat, suddenly it’s Sondheim or suddenly it’s film noir.” The result is an ever-changing series of cues that highlight Willis’ musical dexterity. Few people can go between Chicago and Jesus Christ Superstar and make it work.
Willis believes that his experience scoring Disney’s modern Mickey Mouse shorts helped prepare him for the challenges of Schmigadoon!. “It’s in the nature of the comedy of the shows that you have to have different styles next to each other and you have to decide when to flip [between them] in a way that’s funny rather than just bad,” he says. “The Mickey Mouse cartoons were full of that. There would be a heavy metal thing and then, at the end, you hear an orchestra in the style of Mendelssohn playing the same melody or something.
“I think both projects live in a world where people have such good memories of the original music, which is so well crafted. Rodgers and Hammerstein are so great, but so is Pinocchio and so is Mary Poppins. I tried really hard to dot my I’s and cross all my T’s.” Considering his Emmy nomination for Season 1 back in 2021, and a potential nomination for Season 2 in July, we’ll say he did just that.
In this exclusive interview with Geek Vibes Nation, Willis breaks down the differences in his creative process for Season 2, why Sweeney Todd and Oliver! make a strong double bill, and how he approaches leitmotif foreshadowing in the season’s early episodes. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
In previous interviews, you said that you had to learn a lot about musicals as a genre when you were working on the first season. Were you any more familiar with Season 2’s era of musicals, or was the research process similarly about diving into the roots of musical theater?
In terms of musicals, I was in a fairly similar situation. I love musicals, but I love lots of things. I couldn’t claim to have spent my life thinking about the orchestration in Oklahoma! or the nature of the bass lines in Sweeney Todd. I was on a steep learning curve, getting hold of lots of music and talking to the [show’s] arrangers who had already been working on the songs before post-production. However, there was one big difference. Cinco [Paul, the show’s co-creator and songwriter] described Season 1 as being explicitly about movie musicals. Most musicals in that mid-century era were stage musicals first, but it was specifically the idea that [the characters] were stuck in a movie. That remained front and center stylistically. It looks like they’re on a soundstage, and the color grade is very MGM. The underscore was very much inspired by what happens in those classic movies.
With Season 2, some of the musicals were never movies. In many cases, the stage version is more iconic or the movie version is so different from the stage version. For example, so many people know Sweeney Todd but not necessarily through the lens of the movie. They think about it through the lens of the Broadway recordings. That raises a lot of questions. If the story goes through clearly cinematic beats, surrounded by all of these kaleidoscopic but Broadway-influenced tropes, what exactly does the underscore sound like? We wanted it to seem natural, but it actually required quite a lot of thinking. For instance, one of the strange things that happens is that you end up in a slightly noir-ish place because of the subject matter. There’s a mystery and a murder and darkness and shadows and jazzy songs. I ended up listening to old film noirs, Chinatown and even Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, because that’s wonderfully on the nose. There was a lot more abstract thinking to do in order to make it feel natural and right.
So, during the research process, you were balancing both the musicals being sent to you as well as other inspirations outside of musicals?
Yes, and also sometimes musicals that don’t have a presence in the show. There’s quite a lot of Pippin, Godspell, Hair even, but those ‘70s movie musicals were quite experimental and out there. Hair, I don’t think, has any underscore. I needed a kind of lingua franca, so I actually went off to other musicals that aren’t [in the show], like West Side Story and Oliver!, just to hear the texture of it, what the mics sounded like and what the mix sounded like. The sound quality of movies from that era was good to get in my head even if they weren’t the right ones.
I know that The Music Man was a film that you rediscovered during research for Season 1 and it became one of your favorites. Was there a musical that you encountered for Season 2 that became a favorite?
At the start of each season, I’ve gone on a big binge with Elise, my wife, who’s really into musicals and is a session singer and even sang on the first season. There was a double bill one night where we watched Sweeney Todd and Oliver! next to each other. I was thinking about that for a long time afterwards because they’re set in the same era and yet they’re two different styles, two different philosophies behind a great musical. Sweeney Todd is so organic and so carefully done and Oliver! is this blinding, indelible thing. Each song feels so iconic in a way. Some things are so abstractly right and some other things are just as good but in another way where they just seem larger than life. Sort of Bach versus Handel. You know, everything [composed by] Bach is perfect, but there’s nothing in Bach quite like [Handel’s] Messiah, you know. One thing is so intellectual and the other thing is so unforgettable.
I feel like they’re not as deeply far apart as one would think.
That’s what’s kind of funny about it. They’re not separated in terms of authorship that much [Editor’s Note: the character of Sweeney Todd first appeared in 1846, and the original Oliver Twist was published in 1838]. I don’t know my dates that well. Then, of course, they’re both set in that dark Dickensian London. What else? They both have a very confident, loud-mouthed kid who sings a great song. You know, lots of interesting details.
Were there any particular styles that you really enjoyed arranging for?
There’s one interesting area that I have a soft spot for. As far as counterculture goes, you’ve got two strains in musicals. You’ve got the people who were part of it, or at least doing it in a way that sounds right; that would be Hair, Godspell, even Jesus Christ Superstar. Then, on the other side, you’ve got more established Broadway people trying to do the new cool thing, and the way that they do it is quite different. It involves more big band and more orchestra. I associate it with those weird dance moves that they do in Sweet Charity. It’s more like the ‘60s happening as this bizarre dreamscape, like, “What the hell is this?” It feels more exotic and foreign. I loved doing some of that. It’s almost Austin Powers. I’ve been in that territory in the past doing the Mickey Mouse cartoons and other vintage Disney things. The middle of the 20th century is so fun and kitschy and interesting.
I am interested to hear a little bit about the connection between your work on Schmigadoon! and your work on the modern Mickey Mouse cartoons, which I love. They both are trying to recapture the sound of a specific era. Do you think they may be kindred spirits?
I think so, yes. It was probably some of those vintage, retro colors I was working with [in Mickey Mouse] that Cinco heard and made him think I might be a good match for [Schmigadoon!]. It’s funny actually, when I started Shmigadoon!, it didn’t seem philosophically or aesthetically similar. In my brain, it was very different. I was listening to lots of Rodgers and Hammerstein and I was struck by how symphonic a lot of it is. It was less rinky-dink than Mickey Mouse. But as time went by, a lot of the challenges were actually very similar. It’s in the nature of the comedy of the shows that you have to have different styles next to each other and you have to decide when to flip [between them] in a way that’s funny rather than just bad. The Mickey Mouse cartoons were full of that. There would be a heavy metal thing and then, at the end, you hear an orchestra in the style of Mendelssohn playing the same melody or something. I think both projects live in a world where people have such good memories of the original music, which is so well crafted. Rodgers and Hammerstein are so great, but so is Pinocchio and so is Mary Poppins. I tried really hard to dot my I’s and cross all my T’s.
You came into Season 1 while they were in production and there was a lot of catch up that needed to happen for you. I have to assume that you knew you were going to be involved with Season 2 while it was still in its conceptual stages. Did that allow you more time?
There was more time between starting to get versions of episodes and them having to actually be done, but somehow it was still crazy.
You never really get enough time.
I suppose you could argue there was so much to learn that I could have used an infinite amount of time to keep wrestling with things. It still seemed crazy and, in a way, I don’t mind that. That just seems to be the way creativity goes.
In Season 1, the players had to use specific techniques to recreate that MGM sound. Were there any special techniques that some of your musicians had to incorporate for this season in order to recreate some of these genres?
Yes, and I’m lucky in that so many of the players that we work with here in LA are into all of these same things, so they know what you’re talking about. Many of our band members have actually done Chicago and Cabaret runs in LA, or even in New York. Some of that stuff gets very, very specific, and yet there’s a wonderful shorthand whereby the people actually know very well what it is we’re talking about already. What you’re supposed to do is beyond any kind of vocabulary. Roger Wilkie, who leads up strings, is not only a wonderful violinist, but is natively very passionate about musicals and Broadway and even the movie versions. He lends so much authenticity to it. He’s the reason why the strings sound so lovely.
It’s an obvious question to ask, but we do have to talk about Sondheim because his sensibility is all over this season. What was it like to look back on his work and what were you looking to channel from him?
You’re quite right, Sondheim looms really large in the show. We have this storyline that gets very Sweeney Todd-esque. The biggest thing for me was a very specific thing, and it was very nice to be very specific because there’s so much to admire in Sondheim’s work. When you look very closely at what the orchestra does in Sweeney Todd, it’s maddening, it’s extraordinary. He achieved this synthesis of being very dissonant while still retaining his Broadway melodic instincts. He solved a problem that a lot of classical composers never solved in their whole careers. There’s the hot violin harmonics that he loves to do and certain scrunchy chords where the actual harmony is lurking in there but it’s got three extra notes. I spent lots of time thinking about that Sweeney Todd color to try and do something vaguely approaching that vibe in some of the underscore.
I also find it very liberating, if I’m focusing on someone as a reference, to ask myself what was that person listening to? In his life, Sondheim clearly listened to lots of things. Sweeney Todd sounds like lots and lots of classical music, but never that much. It always feels like it is its own thing. I often find it helpful to try and imagine one step earlier in history than the thing that is my main object of scrutiny.
Were there any other differences between Seasons 1 and 2 that stand out to you in terms of process?
We tried to do lots of clever things with the song melodies, like an old movie musical would, where they form the basis of the whole score, even to the point of putting the song melodies in modern bits of the score that feature Josh and Melissa in their regular life. Once you get to Season 2, there’s the possibility of calling back to Season 1, especially with the actors playing different characters and Josh and Melissa recognizing them. That was totally Cinco’s idea, and it was delightful. I know a lot of people noticed that.
One other big difference was we weren’t sure, at the start of the process, how exactly the underscore was going to deal with the fact that the musicals are so disparate this time. You know, we don’t know when it’s set. In fact, they joke about not being clear. “What is this place? What year is this supposed to be?” We seem to have interwar Berlin happening at the same time as hippies. What exactly should the underscore do? Should it have one main vibe that it’s doing, some cinematic thing that’s like a smoosh of all those things?
What gradually became clear is that the underscore should cluster around the vibe or the genre of what’s on screen at that time, which occasionally means there have to be some really adventurous transitions, like a smash cut in the music. We end a scene with a hippie outro and then, on the downbeat, suddenly it’s Sondheim or suddenly it’s film noir. There’s an interesting one at the end of the courtroom scene. It’s Chicago basically, and it’s triumphant – Josh has been cleared of all charges. Then, we come to the narrator and he looks like he’s not so sure. What we’re about to do is cut to the bad guy [Patrick Page] as he’s about to do a Jesus Christ Superstar song. We have to somehow, musically, get from Chicago to Jesus Christ Superstar.
That was a great transition.
Oh, you remember what I’m talking about!
Absolutely! I mean, I remember it partially because of Titus Burgess, who makes that moment so fun and menacing. But I do totally hear what you’re talking about. I also can hear you incorporating the Shmigadoon melodies into the modern segments. In the very first moments of the first episode [of Season 2], you certainly hear the melody stripped down in the piano playing over somber moments.
Exactly. We angst a little over how much to foreshadow. It’s really fun if you come back and watch the show again and realize that you were being played a song in the underscore for a long time before you heard it as a song. At the same time, it’s not going to be as resonant. If the person literally doesn’t know the song, then it doesn’t mean anything to them yet. I’ve learned a lot about musicals and the wisdom of those various approaches.
My last question for you is one that I ask almost every composer that I interview. Is there a score that you’ve heard recently that you’ve really loved and want to spotlight?
Oh, definitely. I’ve really, really admired Bullet Train by Dom[inic] Lewis. Dom’s a friend of mine and we’ve been talking about being virtuosic and having to jump around, and he does that just as much in Bullet Train as I might have done in Mickey Mouse. You’ve got ten seconds to do something but it’s got to sound absolutely like it’s a fully finished song and he just absolutely nails it. He’s able to do that in these very produced languages with so many elements and so much production that I’m a bit baffled as to how he can keep control of all those elements. The score to Bullet Train was so impressive in that way.
I did not expect a composer to bring up Bullet Train, but I’ll take it!
Yeah, absolutely. The things he’s doing are incredibly difficult in different ways. There’s a lot of different ways to write a score and a lot of different things that are difficult, a lot of things I think that one admires having been through the ringer a few times.
All episodes of Schmigadoon! Season 2 are now available on Apple TV+.
Larry Fried is a filmmaker, writer, and podcaster based in New Jersey. He is the host and creator of the podcast “My Favorite Movie is…,” a podcast dedicated to helping filmmakers make somebody’s next favorite movie. He is also the Visual Content Manager for Special Olympics New Jersey, an organization dedicated to competition and training opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities across the Garden State.