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Oscar-Nominated Songwriters Discuss Craft… and Mysterious Happy Ending to Show’s Song-Axing Controversy

Songwriters from "Mary Poppins," "RBG" and "A Star is Born" bantered at a panel put on by the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Variety.

Songwriters from three of the five Oscar-nominated songs gathered at the Los Angeles Film School in Hollywood on Tuesday night to discuss their craft and to touch on, however reluctantly, some ongoing controversies related to the telecast.

The “Conversation with the 2019 Oscar-Nominated Songwriters” panel included Diane Warren, who received her tenth Oscar nomination with “I’ll Fight” from “RBG”; Anthony Rossomando, fresh off a Grammy and Golden Globe for “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born”; and longtime collaborators Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who co-wrote “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from “Mary Poppins Returns.”

The evening was hosted by Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee Paul Williams and moderated by Variety‘s Chris Willman. Although the panel mostly covered the process of tailoring the material for those respective films, the topic was broached of how several of the nominated songs nearly got nixed from the upcoming telecast, until the Academy had a mysterious change of heart.

Shaiman paused before answering, then cryptically said, to much laughter, “Mary Poppins doesn’t explain anything. On this subject, the less explained, the better… I just want to say, there are some real heroes to the story that will eventually be told… and finding out that there are people in show business who are really decent.”

“Hero-ines, as well,” added Wittman, for even more mysterious emphasis.

A reprise of Shaiman’s all-purpose deflective answer came up when they were asked why, if Emily Blunt has the unerring perfect pitch the writers claim, she was reluctant to sing “The Place Where Lost Things Go” on the telecast — or so some have surmised from the Academy’s tweet that that performance would involve a surprise guest.

“I would just say that Mary Poppins never explains anything,” he repeated. “On the car ride ever, I said, ‘We’re gonna be asked that question. What would be a good answer?'” They found one.

Williams kicked off the panel discussion by praising all of the films, especially one he has a special affinity for — “A Star Is Born.” In 1976, he won a Grammy and Oscar for the hit song “Evergreen,” as sung in the film by (and-co-written by) Barbra Streisand.

“I wrote seven of the songs for the (previous) ‘Star is Born,’ and I’m proud of the work and it got me something that I’d been trying to get for a long time,” said Williams. “But the fact is, when I watched what Bradley Cooper created and what all of you created, I responded… and by the first 30 seconds of the new one, I was already lost in the story.”

Rossomando, a former member of rock bands like the Dirty Pretty Things, then revealed that he, Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt originally wrote “Shallow” with a much different tone.

“Mark had a little bit more groove production to it, but I reckoned the epic power ballad couldn’t be contained,” he said. “The ‘in the shallows’ used to be a little more ’60s doo-wop when we did it, but it rubbed a little weird. [Lady Gaga] pulled a lot of the ‘la-las’ and ‘ah-ahs’ out and it gave it much more resonance. There were little nips and tucks after that original production.” He added he thought Bradley Cooper’s input on the direction the songs vital, and “I think his vision should be recognized just as much as the writers’ on this.”

But the familiarity of the four writers helped during the “Shallow” writing session. “I’ve been doing a ton of stuff with Mark. They’re two of my best friends, and I spent a lot of time with Stephanie. We really come from a very similar place. We’re all like tri-state area kids —  we could have been in a band together.” They were, two nights earlier; although the writers didn’t play on the version that ultimately made it into the movie, Rossomando was fresh off reuniting with them for a more rock ‘n’ roll version of the song Gaga did Sunday on the Grammys.

Warren has long been known as one of the foremost writers of love and heartbreak songs, but her Oscar nominations in three of the last four years have been for inspirational or socially conscious film themes, like “Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall” and the sexual assault-themed, Gaga-sung “Til It Happens to You” from “The Hunting Ground.” Warren discussed the impact these songs have had on listeners.

“Music is such a powerful force,” she said. “I met a woman that works in the Justice Department, and she said she blasts ‘I’ll Fight’ when she’s working for victims. I thought, ‘That’s the coolest thing ever, the fact that that can inspire people to help other people.'”

Unlike the other writers on the panel, who work in teams, Warren has almost always been a solo songwriter — although, she pointed out, she did cowrite a song with Gaga for the “Star Is Born” soundtrack too… “not the Oscar song in that movie, but it was fun.” Generally, though, she goes it alone because “I argue with my co-writer. I beat the shit out of myself.”

Warren had the shortest commute to get to the L.A. Film School. Her longtime office is in the same building. “I’ve been here since ’85,” she said. “I love Hollywood — old Hollywood. I liked it when it was really sleazy before.”

Shaiman and Wittman had a longer journey to get there. “It’s exhausting, I mean, I’ve been on so many planes in the last four months,” Shaiman said of the awards season. “I was losing a BAFTA award on Sunday and we flew here and then we had to beat the snowstorm out of New York, so we got three hours sleep.” The songwriting team are busy enough on the stump that they had another Q&A to get to after this one. “At the bus station,” cracked WIttman.

Although there was a happy ending to the brouhaha about which song performances will make the telecast, the newest controversial trim to the Academy Awards, announced on Monday, has the cinematography, film editing, live action short and makeup and hairstyling awards being presented during commercial breaks to save time. Once again, many fans and actors have voiced their complaints.

“No one tells the Super Bowl it has to be finished in a certain amount of time,” Shaiman said. “They just have this cazy idea that somehow because people complain about how long the Oscars are… well, that’s just part of what the Oscars are. But to actually start punishing the actual people who have worked their whole lives and reached this moment and have to get slapped down, it’s a very odd choice. I’m going to shut up now.”

The banter and mutual admiration factors on the panel was high, with Shaiman interrupting his answers just to marvel that he was sitting next to Paul Williams, and rocker Rossomando, a newcomer to the film-music world, calling himself a “small cog” and marveling that he was in the same company as any of them.

“Marc has been doing this for 200 years,” Williams said of Shaiman, while adding, “I’m a lot older than them. I‘m old enough to be to be your granddaddy, I think.”

“At least!” quipped Shaiman.

“And I hope you look this good when you’re 78,” Williams retorted. “I ran five miles this morning. What’d you run?”

“I stumbled out of bed and crawled to the bathroom,” Shaiman answered.

“’I stumbled out of bed’,” Williams began to sing, musically quoting Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” “It’s already been written.”

“All The Stars,” as performed by Kendrick Lamar and SZA for “Black Panther,” and When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” will compete against the panelists’ songs for the Oscar. The winner will be announced Feb. 24.

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