Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” the disco-fied 1976 reinvention of the composer’s most famous symphony, seems like an unusual choice for the theme of “Mrs. America,” FX’s Cate Blanchett-starring series on the history of the 1970s women’s movement as seen from the perspective of its fervent opponent, arch-conservative Phyllis Schlafly. The song dates from late in the show’s chronology, its glitzy groove seems at odds with many of the characters, and most of all, it’s an instrumental.
But for the show’s music supervisor, Mary Ramos — who has worked on dozens of films and television shows, most prominently on several Quentin Tarantino films, including last year’s Oscar-winning “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” as well as Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” — it’s a perfect choice.
“It represents both sides of the story,” she says. “Phyllis and her conservative friends listen to classical music most of the time, so it’s that, combined with the sexiness and freedom of the feminists, all epitomized in one song — the disco version of Beethoven’s Fifth.”
As is the case with most of her work, Ramos’ choices for the series are well-suited but rarely obvious. Rather than grabbing a vintage Billboard chart and serving up default (not to mention expensive) choices that have been used in countless cues already, Ramos dug deep and emerged with songs that range from well-known hits of the era (Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” several Burt Bacharach songs) to ones that haven’t resonated across the decades (“Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” Cass Elliott’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music”) to some straight-up deep cuts (the Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Are My Thoughts With You?,” Cris Williamson’s “Song of the Soul”). (The music from all episodes is available on Spotify playlists.)
The songs — and the equally on-point score by Kris Bowers — illustrate and enliven the show’s formidable characters, who are played by equally formidable actors: Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Shirley Chisolm (Uzo Aduba), Betty Freidan (Tracy Ullman), and Alice, a composite conservative character portrayed beautifully by Sarah Paulson. There are also some deep musical winks: Schlafly’s daughter’s teen rebellion is soundtracked with the Runaway’s 1976 anthem “Cherry Bomb”; one episode features two songs by staunch anti-gay-rights activist Anita Bryant.
Ramos is quick to share the credit for the show’s imaginative musical choices with “our amazingly creative and passionate team,” she says, listing executive producers Dahvi Waller, Stacy Sher, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, along with several other directors and editors. “Everything was discussed, nothing was a throwaway, and rooting things in characters and story choices kept us from the trap of just picking the top hits of the era.” Variety caught up with Ramos over the phone late last week.
Did you know much about the women’s movement coming into this project?
Not really — when I first met Dahvi, all I knew was it was going to tell the story of the [rise and fall of the Equal Rights Amendment] through the eyes of its most potent objector. So at first I was thinking maybe we’d use editorial-type songs that comment on the story — there are so many great songs that could do that — but it became obvious that we were really going to tell the story most effectively by rooting the song choices in the story and in the characters.
There are so many songs in the series — was clearing them a challenge?
Because “Mrs. America” is a period piece and about this era, I knew that it was going to need tons of music, and I also did not want to make difficult, uncreative decisions based on budget: This story deserved well-known, great, vibrant songs from this era. So one of the first things I did was give Dahvi music that was almost pre-cleared for use, so we could pick things freely without fear that we’d have to replace them with score or library cues. For instance, in episode 102, there are so many song cues — Sly and the Family Stone, Etta James, the Temptations, songs from “Hair,” the Kinks — and that was basically our entire music budget for the show (laughter). So it was important to make deals with people, and I was able to because people understood the story and were as passionate about helping to make it happen.
And these actors are so amazing that a lot of different music can work over their performances, so it becomes an issue of not just finding something that works, but something that’s right. Everything should be chosen for a purpose, because you only get so much real estate for music, so it’s ideal to have something in there that has impact, that says something about the character or the story, and moves the story forward.
Some songs are fairly obscure — was it hard to track down the rights?
Those Anita Bryant songs were not easy! The rights had sort of disappeared and at one point it looked like we might have to abandon that idea, but from my work with Quentin I have learned never to give up. When it looks impossible, if you just keep doing research and asking questions and pursuing, it finally happens.
It’s unusual that the theme for a show like this, which would seem to have so many applicable anthems, is an instrumental.
Yes, the music is not going to comment [explicitly], and that was really paramount to Dahvi. Like the end-title song in the pilot, where the feminists are toasting [an ERA victory] and the camera pans over and you see Phyllis’ photo on her newsletter, the song is “Make Your Own Kind of Music.” That actually speaks to both sides of the argument as well, and brings out one of the biggest ironies of “Mrs. America”: That Phyllis Schlafly is in fact a feminist, so she’s making her own kind of music and seizing the moment just as much as the feminists.
How did you get into this line of work?
Every music supervisor has a different orientation to music and a different orientation to this job, and I became one because I met Quentin Tarantino 28 years ago. At the time I wanted to be an actor or writer or director — I went to school for acting in New York and moved to Los Angeles with that intention, and I became friends with [actor] Tim Roth and met Quentin when they were shooting “Reservoir Dogs.” They introduced me to the music supervisor of that film, Karyn Rachtman. I started working with her and when she went [to work] in-house at a record company, I continued working with Quentin and took on other jobs as well.
But I cut my teeth on that kind of voluminous use of music, and that’s actually where I learned my tenacity in terms of pursuing it. When I take on a job I don’t just do one thing — I like to come on as a support to the director or showrunner and make sure that the goal is achieved, whether that’s suggesting songs or advice about the score, and I like to be responsible for clearances because it does no good for me to suggest something that we can’t get or can’t afford. But also, my acting and directing background come in handy. For example, when I started on this I made playlists for characters, like Cate’s portrayal of Phyllis, based on what her character would listen to.
One aspect of both “Mrs. America” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the strict historical accuracy of the music choices — is that true of most projects you’ve worked on?
It depends, every story is different, every director’s way of telling the story is different — and, if you recall, Quentin is not always rigid about historical accuracy (laughter). But because that was a memory story for him, it was based in L.A. radio and really was rooted in that specific time period, there was no wavering. Other stories have not been so specific, but for this one, we absolutely didn’t go past the time the action was happening. There are a few songs from the ‘60s, which is fine because they were still popular at the time. But in certain aspects we had to pay attention to the month something was released — like during a bar scene at the National Women’s Conference, I wanted to use a Pat Metheny song, but it was released too late.
Which are your favorites?
Oh, there are so many. But one is using “Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up” in Episode 107, when they’re all getting their delegates badges in the mail, that’s one of my all-time favorite uses. I also love at the end of  where we used Cris Williamson’s “Song of the Soul,” I hope that it brings people to look her up and look up Olivia Records, the first feminist record label.
Many of the feminist characters have strutting soundtracks, but it seems like the conservative characters may have been more difficult to find music for?
Well, when I made my playlist for Phyllis, there was a fair amount of Carpenters and songs like [the Association’s 1966 shlock hit] “Cherish,” but you’re right — we didn’t want to use [Helen Reddy’s equally schlocky 1971 feminist anthem] “I Am Woman” or any of those trope-y types of songs. I know I keep saying this, but it was refreshing just to go back to the characters. For example, in the pilot episode, when Phyllis is getting her hair done, way off in the background you hear [B.J. Thomas’ innocuous 1969 smash] “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” on the radio — “Nothin’s worryin’ me,” it’s not gonna push anybody’s buttons, it’s just a nice pop song playing in the background.
It fed into Phyllis’ aesthetic, but another Bacharach song fit into Betty Friedan’s aesthetic and showed the other side of her that you don’t see in most episodes. During the scene where she’s on a date, Dionne Warwick’s “This Girl’s in Love With You” is playing softly in the background. It’s such a well-known song that it informs the scene even more, it lends this quiet, romantic feel. So there are things that may seem like throwaway moments or, “Why are we gonna spend money on that? You can barely hear it, why don’t we use this library cue?” No! You might only hear little bits, but it’s so effective when you do.
What are you working on next?
I’m finishing up one last episode of “Mrs. America,” and I am working on a movie with Tom McCarthy, who directed “Spotlight,” starring Matt Damon called “Stillwater.” Luckily we’re in post-production and we’re working with our composer Mychael Danna right now and creating demos for cues, and hopefully we’ll be able to continue and record soon.
It’s kind of hard to believe the final “Mrs. America” is airing in just a few days and you’re still working on it.
Oh, it’s done, it’s just a matter of crossing t’s and dotting i’s. … And maybe, just maybe, I’m lingering a little bit because I don’t want to say goodbye to this project, it was so fantastic and enjoyable.