“Angelica!” she sings, doing her best Renée Elise Goldsberry, to which her colleagues will enthusiastically reply, “Eliza!” and, “And Peggy” in perfect Schuyler Sisters rhythm. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history musical couldn’t be more different from the CW series about a conflicted woman who moves across the country to pursue a childhood crush, but McKenna thinks the ethos behind the Broadway smash hit and the musical romcom is not that different.
“In terms of finding a way to take the genre and make it your own, we feel a kinship to them,” the series cocreator says.
While Hamilton brings a new musical language to the stage (hip-hop and rap), “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is essentially bringing an unfamiliar language to the small screen: specifically, that of musical theatre. No, this is not a made-for-TV sing-along or a live broadcast of a beloved theatrical property. And while other musicalized television series, like “Smash” and “Glee,” were set in theatrical worlds, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has nothing to do with the show business. The title character is a lawyer at a boutique law firm in West Covina, Calif., who just happens to express herself in song now and then.
“There’s an old adage about how to write musicals in general: When emotion’s too strong to speak, you sing, and when the emotion’s too strong to sing, you dance,” says Rachel Bloom, who cocreated the series with McKenna and stars as Rebecca Bunch, the titular ex who leaves her high-powered job in New York to live near her long-ago summer camp boyfriend, Josh Chan.
“So the idea of a love story about a person who is using love as an escape is the perfect format for a musical, because that’s where the emotions are strongest,” she continues. “Whenever we do a musical number, it’s never an emotional aside, it’s never tangential. It’s always ingrained in the plot and ingrained in the story. They’re our emotional tentpoles of the episode.”
The show was conceived around Bloom, who had gained fame from the viral popularity of her comedy music videos. (Her YouTube channel has more than 13 million views, and her Britney Spears-inspired anthem “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” has 3.5 million of them.) McKenna found Bloom’s videos while procrastinating and reached out to her to see if she could help her in some way.
When Bloom and McKenna started exploring the possibility of collaborating, Bloom kept suggesting stories about an aspiring Broadway performer—to which Bloom remembers McKenna responding, “Nobody cares.” Known for her screenwriting, mainly in the romcom genre (she wrote The Devil Wears Prada, Morning Glory, and 27 Dresses), McKenna had been brainstorming a screenplay around the concept of a “crazy ex-girlfriend.” She immediately thought a version of the manic character Bloom played in many of her music videos would fit the storyline.
“I didn’t really have any intention of doing TV at all,” McKenna says. “While I like musicals, I’m not a musical obsessive. That always seemed like the best way to capture Rachel’s particular brand of humor.”
Music industry and theatre vet Adam Schlesinger (Cry-Baby, Fountains of Wayne, “That Thing You Do”) was enlisted to oversee all the songs along with Bloom; staff writer Jack Dolgen also works on the music. Schlesinger says he thinks of the songs partly in theatrical terms but also in terms of universal appeal.
“The song has to move the story forward; it can’t just be a standalone joke,” says Schlesinger. “But I think the most successful ones are the ones that do stand alone anyway, even if you don’t know exactly what’s going on in the show. It’s a balance each time, and if we feel it tipping one way or the other, we kick it around.”
Bloom says she thinks about songwriting like essay writing, with the chorus as thesis statement. The music also varies in genre, and Bloom notes that using a genre as a mold is crucial for comedy songs.
“It’s rare to find comedy songs that aren’t some sort of sendup of a genre, because in a way, the genre acts as the straight man,” Bloom explains. “And automatic comedy comes from picking something that is familiar and then turning that familiarity on its head.”
For example, she always knew she wanted to do a Fred-and-Ginger number between Rebecca and local barkeep Greg, who has a crush on her. The song, “Settle for Me,” pokes fun at an old-fashioned notion of romantic bliss, complete with a soft-shoe dance break.
Some of the numbers are shot like music videos, such as “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” a pop anthem that comments on society’s appearance standards for women, or “I Give Good Parent,” a Nicki Minaj-esque parody about a girlfriend’s ability to please her boyfriend’s parents. Then there are numbers like “Where’s the Bathroom,” in which Rebecca’s mother bursts into her apartment in a fast-talking whirlwind, or “I Love My Daughter,” in which Rebecca’s boss expresses his feelings over a custody battle with Rebecca. While all of the songs are fantasy sequences, the latter two examples are more musical realizations of things actually being said by the characters.
“That’s the most typical musical theatre we get,” Bloom says. “At no point are the characters actually singing—this is not a world in which people burst into song, that’s not our universe. So everything is a dream sequence, but sometimes the line between reality and fiction get muddled.”
Producing a 42-minute musical episode a week can be exhausting. The series pilot was originally developed for Showtime, which would have meant about 10 episodes a season. But when the cable network turned down the pilot and it moved to the CW, the first season pick-up was for 18 episodes, meaning, well, a lot more music. Though ratings have been anemic, the show has a staunch critical and fan following, and Bloom recently won the Golden Globe for leading actress in a comedy series for her performance.
Schlesinger says the process of putting the show together is like writing a stage musical, just at a much quicker pace.
“The development process for stage musicals is years and years to get 12 or 15 songs onstage,” he says. With “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the team “sometimes have just a few days to write 2-3 new ones.” That’s fine with him, as his philosophy is that “all creative work takes exactly as long as the amount of time you’re given. It’s amazing how much you can get done if you have to.”
It doesn’t hurt to have actors with theatrical chops. Donna Lynne Champlin, who played Pirelli in the 2005 Sweeney Todd revival among many other credits, says her theatre experience and training has helped her adapt to the fast-paced work on set. She compares it to being in previews for a new musical.
“When we do workshops and readings, there are changes every single second, and that’s kind of how it is on television,” says Champlin, who plays Paula, a middle-aged paralegal at the law firm who befriends Rebecca. “If they had a cast of actors who did not have theatrical or musical experience there might a lot more panic going on.”
Tony nominee Santino Fontana, who plays Greg, agrees. “I can’t imagine people who didn’t start in theatre on this show,” adds Fontana. “I think they would have strokes.”
Bloom didn’t initially intend for the supporting cast to be singers; only Paula had to sing because she had a song in the pilot episode. The cast, which also includes Vincent Rodriguez III as Josh and Pete Gardner as Rebecca’s boss, all landed their roles on acting ability; their singing and dancing abilities were a bonus.
But now bringing in performers with a theatre background is deliberate. When the casting department was looking for someone to play Josh Chan’s girlfriend, Valencia, they asked some of the cast for recommendations, as they were looking to expand their reach within the Latina/o community. Champlin worked with Miranda and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire on the 2012 update of Stephen Schwartz’s Working, and she reached out to them for some names. One of the names they sent was Gabrielle Ruiz, who ended up landing the role.
Fontana notes that there’s a camaraderie among the cast based on a shared language and experience, but he doesn’t think the project itself feels outside the ordinary from an acting perspective.
“It’s so rare that it’s on television—that’s what so rare of about it,” Fontana says. “In television, at times, people can feel a little more constrained and limited. So the idea of doing this thing that is kind of boundless and is defining itself as it goes is exciting to people in television. I think theatre people are like, ‘Yeah, that’s what we do!’”