9 Questions for Rachel Bloom

You’ve seen her Emmy- and Golden Globe Award-winning television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, you’ve downloaded her songs, you’ve bought her sheet music. (I know you have  you’ve asked me to transcribe her sheet music for you, and she has generously allowed me to do that.) You’ve even seen her in her viral, break-through, Youtube channel. Maybe, if you’ve been lucky, she responded kindly to one of your smart-ass tweets after the Tony Awards and you publicly apologized (I’m looking at you, NPH.) But you’ve never had this kind of access. As her hit show sets off on its fourth and final season, I sat down with the one and only Rachel Bloom for Musical Theater Today (volume 2 available now on Amazon.com) and asked her the nine most pressing questions I had. Here’s what she said:

1. You started out in musical theater in the more traditional sense of the term, and transitioned to film and TV. Lots of theater people are able to do this, but usually that means sacrificing singing and vocal performance. Can you talk a little bit about how you were able to keep those traditions alive in your work on camera?

    It all goes back to creating my own work. I knew I wanted to combine my loves of sketch comedy and musical theater and there wasn’t really a space for that, so I took a cue off of other comedians I knew who were making their own live stage shows/web videos and started doing that.

    I was a musical theater major for the first half of my college education and it burned me out on the form. When I took a break and transferred to NYU’s experimental theater wing, I found myself still in love with musical theater but, having now been exposed to comedy writing and experimental theater, I wanted to do it my own way.

    Bloom's original viral hit "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury" 
    was posted a week before the writer's 90th birthday.


    2. You and I met shortly after your song "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury" went viral. Can you walk us through how that video came about? For how long had you been songwriting at that point? What were you hoping to get out of releasing it, and how did that stack up to what you got?

      I was on a sketch group in college, and when you have to put up a new sketch show every month you’re always thinking of sketch ideas. One summer I was re-reading “The Martian Chronicles” and I got an idea for a silly song called “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury.” I didn’t know what to do with it so I just kind of saved it to Microsoft Word and forgot about it.

      After college, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be my own one person sketch comedy group. I would write and star in the sketches and, be it on stage or film, I would get friends to direct and co-star in them. I had a potential sketch show I was writing for UCB (The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater) and there was a comedy song about the movie space jam in it. When my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) heard the “Space Jam” song, he said, “Forget the sketch show – make songs like these the whole sketch show.” So, as I was doing that, I was also looking for content to turn into my first web video and that’s when I remembered the Ray Bradbury song.

      I had starting writing funny lyrics for various things in high school and early college. By the point I released “Ray Bradbury,” I had already taken a summer musical theater writing intensive at the Graduate Musical Theater Writing program at NYU. So, when I released my first web video, I’d been seriously writing songs for about 2.5 years.

      I had hoped that the “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” video would be a calling card for me as a writer, comedian and singer. However, it went viral and led to me almost instantly getting representation and my first tv writing job.


      3. Most contemporary musical theater writing (be it traditional or innovative) still often relies on a fairly standardized bag of tools. e.g., leitmotif can be a quick and easy way to establish character, or a person will start singing when they are no longer emotionally able to contain their emotion in speech. How does that translate to serialized TV? Are those tools helpful? Do you always adhere to them?

        The classic tools of musical theater writing really apply to the way we do “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” At the end of the day, we are writing a musical dramedy that just happens to be 50 hours long. Story always comes first before song ideas; in the rare example we write a story around a song idea the song idea must thematically inform the story.

        We make frequent use of things like leitmotifs and reprises. A big theme of our show is how people break out of and stay stuck in their old patterns and there’s no better way to show someone falling back into a pattern than having a literal musical theme or even a reprise of a past song come in under the scene. Reprises especially help us connect the thematic dots between situations and characters; it’s really gratifying to take a song from season one and reprise it in season three.


        4. Talk to me about your process. When you break story in you writers room do you already know what song moments you’ll need, or do you structure your arcs around song moments you know you want? At what point did you say “I think it’s safe for other characters who aren’t Rebecca to sing.” Did that change any of the governing rules or the show Bible significantly?

          When it comes to other characters singing, it’s honestly an intuitive feeling thing. It just depends on the song idea. However, if you want to intellectualize it, the way we see it is that other characters sing when they have been inflicted with Rebecca’s brand of madness. There’s also a big difference between a character singing a song that’s in Rebecca’s head versus them singing a song on their own; Nathaniel sings “Let’s Have Intercourse” early on in his character arc because it’s imagined by Rebecca, but “I Go to the Zoo” is sung on his own because, by then, he’s been touched by her and the way she thinks.

          5. Traditionally musical theater has tended to eschew trends of the day as the development time from page to stage can take many years. There’s a faster turnaround for network TV. How has this affected the way you handle thematic content and storytelling? How has this affected composition, arrangements and lyric writing?

            With so many songs and scenes to write, you have to mine on current problems and the themes underneath those problems. Good comedy songs need to surprise the audience and the element of surprise is always in the specifics of the lyrics. Sometimes, those specifics are plucked right from our own experiences. For instance, in “Strip Away my Conscience,” the line “You’re like Professor Snape in his sad dungeon with his potions” is not only a surprising specific, it also builds on the dynamic between Rebecca and Nathaniel and their mutual love of Harry Potter. If that line were something more generic like, “You’re like an evil wizard in a dungeon with his potions,” that’s less funny and less interesting.

            It’s funny that we seem current, because we often feel very behind compared to a show like SNL that can do incredibly topical songs. They have a turnaround of a week whereas we have months between the moment we write the episode and it goes on the screen.

            "Let me choke on your cocksuredness"


            6. Piggy backing off that, a lot of new musicals nowadays aren’t afraid to tell stories that raise awareness of under-represented people or stigmatized lifestyles/conditions. This is largely due to shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Had this always been the intention? How have you had to adjust this over the last three seasons?

              Mine and Aline’s goal was to tell a story about a type of character that hadn’t been seen before in tv, film, and, to some extent, theater. Although we’ve had a loose four season plan since the moment we pitched the show, that plan has morphed in so many amazing ways. A big example of this is the character development of Josh; initially, he was more of a Brechtian symbol of infatuation but, since Vinnie played him so warmly, it became important to us to show the ways Rebecca was affecting his life.

              7. While it’s certainly more common nowadays to have song moments in film and TV, it certainly isn’t Where do you see this trend going in five years? Ten?

                I honestly have no idea. I grew up in a town where musical theater was definitely a niche thing, so whenever something like “Hamilton” or “La La Land” goes mainstream I’m still shocked. At the end of the day, all any of us can do is create good work and hope people dig it.

                8. I would love to hear your thoughts on new musicals you’ve seen on stage in the last five years.

                  The thing that continues to wow me with some modern musicals is tone. Tone is the hardest thing to nail down in a new project, and, with some musicals out there, I’m in awe of the way the songs work with the libretto, choreography, direction, costumes and stagecraft to create this whole new world. A lot of musical theater either reverts to that old fashioned musical tap feel or a kind of stripped down contemporary musical that feels like generic, off-brand Flaherty and Ahrens. When I think of musicals with unique tones, I think of pieces like “Fun Home, “Hamilton” and “Groundhog Day” (especially that second act opening number, wow) that are just so specific and ambitious.

                  9. What’s next for you?

                    Now that I’m on hiatus, naps!

                    About the author:
                    Timothy Huang is an NMT composer/lyricist. Recent works include: Peter and the Wave (DG Fellowship, Rhinebeck Retreat) American Morning (Winner: 2016 Richard Rodgers Award, 2015 B-Side New American Musical Award, ASCAP MT Workshop, BMI Master Class with Steven Sondheim, 2015 NAMT Festival) A Relative Relationship (2013 Sound Bites Festival Winner: Best Musical), Missing Karma (2016 Samuel French Festival), Crossing Over (NAAP).

                    Timothy was a 2012 Dramatists Guild Fellow, a 2012 Fred Ebb Award Finalist and a two time Jonathan Larson Grant finalist. Proud member of the BMI Workshop, Dramatists Guild Council, husband to Laura. www.TimothyHuang.net