Show's legacy tied to unexpected tunes

In the third-season episode of “The Sopranos” titled “Employee of the Month,” Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) enters a sandwich shop and sees the photo on the wall of the establishment’s honored worker — who happens to be the same man who raped her. She becomes frightened, drops her soda and hurries out.

The song playing over the moment is Britney Spears’ “Oops! … I Did It Again.”

Such a choice might seem odd or incongruous to the uninitiated, but for the producers of the show it was about finding the ideal song to fit the situation, a task that involves many elements as well as instinct.

“Pop music is sort of the wallpaper of our lives,” notes Martin Bruestle, the producer in charge of post-production who, along with David Chase, is largely responsible for selecting songs for the series. (The two also worked together on “Northern Exposure,” another show known for its impeccable placement of tunes.) “At that particular time,” Bruestle adds regarding the Spears/Melfi pairing, “that would be something that would be playing in a place like that.”

While critics have praised the writing, direction and acting throughout the run of “The Sopranos,” the music often serves as the underappreciated workhorse. The perfect juxtaposition of song to moment has often richly enhanced already crackling scenes.

“It’s done completely by feel,” Chase explains. “A few times we’ve written music into the script and tried to make the action conform to the music. … Usually, we shoot the show and try throwing things against it. And when it’s right, you know it.”

Before joining the show to play Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s trusted confidant, Steven Van Zandt had been better known as musician-songwriter Little Steven, a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. A connoisseur of popular music who hosts his own syndicated radio show, Van Zandt says Chase has occasionally consulted him about songs, especially in the area of garage bands, one of Van Zandt’s passions.

Van Zandt says putting music to “The Sopranos” is tricky business, and Chase as overseer of the process has no peer.

“David Chase will go down in history as the absolute best at capturing or complementing the emotions of a scene,” he asserts.

Van Zandt says one of the more difficult aspects is making sure the lyrics don’t directly explain the images. He adds he had that concern about the theme song by Alabama 3 before the show first aired.

“I was worried it might be too much on the nose,” he says. “You know, ‘Woke up this morning, got myself a gun.’ But by the third, fourth, fifth show, it became a part of it, and I didn’t think about it anymore.

“Musically, you want something that works emotionally. Sometimes it represents precisely what you’re seeing, sometimes it complements the emotion you’re seeing, sometimes it’s the opposite of what you’re seeing.”

Among the more notable choices cited by Chase, Bruestle and Van Zandt are Frank Sinatra’s “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” playing over the scene in which Tony and the crew kill Big Pussy; Otis Redding’s “My Lover’s Prayer” over the scene in which Christopher is lying near death in a hospital; and the Kinks’ “Living on a Thin Line” to bookend an episode in which a stripper at the Bada Bing is beaten to death by Ralph Cifaretto.

Obviously, clearances for desired songs have to be obtained. Bruestle, who must deal with such matters, says most of the time getting the rights is not a problem, that artists are usually eager to have their music on the program.

“We’ve really had incredible luck getting artist approval and clearing things on the show,” he says. “Often they’re fans of the show and like the way we use music.”

Of course, there are exceptions. Bruestle says Bobby McFerrin denied the show use of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” for an episode involving a talking fish. “He doesn’t license music to R-rated programming,” Bruestle explains. Donna Summer also denied use of “Love to Love You Baby” to be played in a dance scene at the Bada Bing, because of concerns about violence and nudity.

But most of the time, the show’s producers get the music they want. “It became much easier after the show exploded,” Bruestle says. “Then people started sending us their stuff.”

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