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How the Music of ‘Veep,’ ‘Pen15,’ ‘Russian Doll’ Evokes Emotion Beyond Humor

A classic song for time-looping, surprising tunes for political campaigns, music for angst-ridden teenagers and wacky scores for dysfunctional families. All of these musical elements helped set the tone and make subtle storytelling points in much-talked-about comedies this television season.

Netflix’s “Russian Doll” used a Harry Nilsson song (“Gotta Get Up”) as its signature tune, which plays every time protagonist Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) dies and then loops back in time to her 36th birthday party.

Creators Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler wrote the Nilsson song into their pilot script, music supervisor Brienne Rose says. Because music supervision is “always about world-building,” she says, the use of this song also aids the audience in understanding what Nadia’s world sounds like — literally and emotionally.

“It resonated so well with the story, this strong juxtaposition of feeling very happy on the surface, but with lyrics that are really tragic and sad.”

Rose estimates the song is used “12 or 13 times” during the eight episodes. She, and the executive producers, felt that the song had “a timeless aspect,” which spoke to the story of a woman who experiences the same night over and over. “Time is looping, and you’re not sure how many days have passed. So that timelessness was really important to us.”

Underscore can be equally effective in capturing the right tone of an overall piece or mood of characters. For “Pen15,” the middle school-set comedy created by and starring Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, composer Leo Birenberg created music he hoped would “connect emotionally with audiences: a contemporary synth palette, pads and burbles and pulses that are all in that electronic landscape.”

Birenberg wanted to “flavor” each episode with a specific sound he felt was “needed to tell that specific story.” He added tribal drumming for the pivotal masturbation episode, a “very despondent synth-based” score for the racism episode, and a “dark, late-Romantic symphonic [approach for] this very mysterious, Hitchcockian sequence” in the sleepover episode in which Anna watches her mother brush Maya’s hair.

For the final season of HBO’s “Veep,” in which politician Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) seeks to reclaim the presidency, music supervisor Heather Guibert needed to find campaign songs for both Selina and competitor Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons).

In the finale, Selina finishes her nomination speech with the Anna Mae female-empowerment anthem “It All Starts Now” — in classic Selina fashion, the song plays but the balloons don’t fall from the ceiling on cue.

“It’s the perfect example of Selina’s political career,” says Guibert. “She stumbles into another failure and continues to fail upwards.”

Meanwhile, Jonah’s sophomoric approach to his own political career was at times “so outrageous, that there were no limitations on what we could use” musically, she says. Chaptabois’ “Great Again” ended up becoming an essential piece. “A lot of thought goes into very small moments that might pass you by, but we want there to be an extra
layer that matters.”

Arrested Development” composer David Schwartz, who is among the few composers to be Emmy-nominated for a comedy score (for a 2013 episode of Mitch Hurwitz’s dysfunctional family saga), says he doesn’t ever try to write funny music.

After all, today’s comedies are not just going for laughs but also asking their audiences to feel in general. Therefore, there can’t be boundaries on the show’s musical styles.

Along those lines, Schwartz defines his main theme, and the basic sound of the series, this way: “If Django Reinhardt was born in Polynesia or Hawaii, and you take that Django-type swing and play it on a ukelele, it sounds like ‘Arrested Development.’ Beyond that, we’ll use funky music, western music, five different types of jazz — that’s the fun of it. We never limit it.”

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