“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” has an enviable batting average when it comes to Emmy Awards for music supervision — the past two have gone to the team of show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino and music supervisor Robin Urdang. But this year, the “Maisel” crew has its sights on the original song competition, unfamiliar territory for the Amazon Prime Video hit.
While the soundtrack to season three contains the showtunes, classical music, Klezmer and iconoclastic standards of the era, the showrunners set about creating a palette of new music for Shy Baldwin (LeRoy McClain), the singer for whom titular comedian Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) serves as an opening act.
The couple sought to give Baldwin a unique musical personality, someone rooted in a ’50s crooner style with a taste for the burgeoning soul music, and tasked songwriters Thomas Mizer and Curtis Moore to listen to Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke to create a body of work that included at least one hit record.
“It wasn’t so much to be a pastiche of those artists,” says Moore, the lyricist. “Amy was really clear from the beginning when she gave us those two names. She really wanted to feel like if you went to a used-record store today, you could search for Shy Baldwin’s album because you feel like he must exist.”
Mizer and Moore, who were working with Sherman-Palladino on a theater project prior to her embarking on “Maisel,” had little more than a month between receiving the assignment and the first shoot. Mizer gave Moore a page of 20-plus titles and musical hooks; they turned five of them into half-songs, basically a verse and a chorus, which they took to Sherman-Palladino. She immediately identified “One Less Angel” as the hit.
“In the writing process, especially with ‘One Less Angel,’ it was all about details, details, details,” Mizer says. “We kept singing the song to ourselves over and over again. We’d play versions back and forth to make sure that every note, every word felt right. We did everything very old school — sit in a studio and record all live instruments with the band and the singers in the studio at the same time. I think it helps to create a sound that reminds us of that era and is really helpful in elevating the songs.”
In the season’s first episode, “One Less Angel” is introduced via Baldwin’s performance at a USO show; where the soldiers clearly know the lyrics and the melody. The tune is reprised in a Miami showroom in Episode 6; both times, the song runs a full two minutes.
Why show the whole number? Mizer reasons: “Because it has to do the work of making [the viewer] believe that Shy’s one of the biggest stars out there.”
The season’s plot curveball involves a secret Baldwin is keeping and, bizarrely, the duo crafted “No One Has to Know” before they even knew the details of the scenes.
Mizer says his theater chops came into play on that one, writing an 11 o’clock number in which Baldwin reveals his inner truth. “It also had to feel like it could be his romantic hit at the same time. So that was the needle we had to thread.”
Whether it was “No One Has to Know,” “One Less Angel” or the early Motown style of “Bottle of Pop,” Mizer says the ambition was the same. “It gets to a point where we hopefully created a really hooky song that lands in your ear and tells a story.”
The “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” team of the late Adam Schlesinger, Rachel Bloom and Jack Dolgen took home the original song trophy at last year’s Emmys, topping songs from an awards show, two specials, a mockumentary and “Saturday Night Live,” which has had a nominee each of the past three years.
(During the lockdown, the “Maisel” creative team came up with an inventive way to showcase the musical talents with a faux talkshow that doubles as an awareness campaign for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, MusiCares, and Swans for Relief. Watch it here.)
Also Off to the Song Races:
Other high-profile songs in the 2019-20 season include Ingrid Michaelson’s “Build It Up” for Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” a show that consistently commanded attention for its synch uses. Kenya Barris’ new ABC series “Mixed-ish” had a high-profile singer locked in for its theme song, Mariah Carey, who sings “In the Mix.” And after extensively using Jonathan Coulton’s songs a year earlier, “The Good Fight” on CBS All Access, saved him for one special tune (“Secret Law”) in the current season. If history repeats itself, “SNL” could well be looking at another nom for one of its spoofs; among the contenders are a sexually charged folk song from 1962, Chance the Rapper’s Halloween-themed “Spooky Song;” the bubbly pop of the Aidy Bryant-sung “Overnight Salad;” and the Weeknd’s “On the Couch.”