BWW Interview: Rachel Bloom Talks CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, Sondheim, and Community Theater
"I'll watch the Tonys with you!" That's something I meant to tell the amazing Rachel Bloom, creator and star of CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, when I had the opportunity to speak with her on the occasion of the Season 2 soundtrack release. The trove of Youtube videos by Bloom includes a musical plea for a Tonys-viewing partner; it was her hilarious music videos, posted under RachelDoesStuff, that earnEd Bloom the attention that led to her TV series. Rachel is doing quite a lot of stuff at the moment-making a series that is ingeniously written and loaded with original songs (34, plus 5 bonus tracks, on the new album-and those are just from Season 2). She still found time to star in Manhattan Concert Productions' one-night performance of CRAZY FOR YOU last month. And she has her own stage musical ready for future production. Like her heroine, lawyer and full-time romantic (or stalker, as the situation requires) Rebecca Bunch, Bloom is a manic achiever.
One of the delights of CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND is its theme song-theme songs, because each season boasts a new one. Season One had a rollicking, retro-TV-style ditty explaining the title character's choice to move from New York to West Covina, California, where her summer-camp heartthrob Josh Chan just happens to live. It was not only a fun song but a useful way for latecomers to the season to understand the plot. The Season Two song is a Busby Berkeley-style valentine in which Bloom and a line of chorus girls defend any behavior of a woman in love, however crazy it may seem. Bloom, who is working on Season Three now, has already come up with the new song, and sees the three opening songs as reflections of Rebecca's self-delusions in each season: "Every season has a slight restart...the first season she told herself, Josh just happens to be here...and the second season she told herself, Josh and I are in love, and this season is: I am going to destroy Josh; I am meant to be the vengeful woman...and so that's the story that she's going in telling herself."
Bloom consistently pushes the envelope in the content of songs in the series. This season alone, Rebecca has sung about "Period Sex," which might be one of the last remaining TABOO subjects on TV, and her ex-lovers Josh and Greg have sung (in Rebecca's imagination) "We Tapped That Ass" while tap-dancing their way around her house and pointing out various consecrated spots. But Bloom says the CW Network has been as supportive as television standards allow. And if Rebecca as avenging angel seems like a (deliciously) dark direction for the series to take, there have been hints all along. In Season One, Rebecca sings a ballad excoriating herself: "You Stupid Bitch." In Season Two, rushing to put together a wedding and overwhelmed by stress and nagging doubts, a frantic Rebecca begs a UPS delivery guy to "(Tell Me I'm Okay) Patrick." The same woman who would do anything for love will no doubt now do anything for revenge (spoiler alert: the cause for this is Josh disappearing on their wedding day to train for the priesthood).
All of this is no surprise when you learn that Bloom's favorite musical is ASSASSINS: "It's just so much my sensibility. It really in so many ways defined me and what I want musical theater to do and be, and my love of pastiche, and my love of dark pastiche. And I really gravitate toward shows like ASSASSINS, CHICAGO, CABARET. I mean, between Sondheim and Kander and Ebb, just the way that they think, take an established trope and then find a twist on it....when I saw THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, they do the same thing...taking these classic genres and finding the darker twist. I really gravitate toward those types of shows." And she accomplishes something similar with the genre of romantic comedy: "My writing partner [Aline Brosh McKenna] comes from years of writing romantic comedies...she and I both really have a passion for taking the piss out of the genres that we love."
Rachel Bloom may have grown up in Southern California, but she's a Broadway baby: "I grew up seeing a lot of theater. My parents really lived like New Yorkers. They see a lot of theater. My grandfather was an amateur director and actor, and so one of the first shows I saw was Guys and Dolls at this community theater called the Kentwood Players, where my grandpa had directed a lot of shows.
And so between my grandparents and my parents, I saw quite a bit of live theater when I was a kid." And she grew up performing, too: "I did my first play when-I think I was like four? In the community theater, you do these community programs that are theater for little kids, like a little kids' theater workshop, but then at the end you do a short play on their stage. So I started performing as soon as I could."
As writer and performer, Bloom would be at home on Broadway, too, so I wondered whether, after the series ends its four-season run, she might head there. She's more than ready. "Before CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND was ordered as a series, I wrote a full musical. I have a full musical that's just hanging around. Actually, unrelated to CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, because I came up with the title before CRAZY EX, it's called BROADWAY CRAZY. It's a f***ed-up THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE/42ND STREET type of thing. The second I have time, I want to put it up somewhere. I love the show....And then there's the question, after we finish the series CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, do you do that as a Broadway show? And I think there's a world in which it makes a show. You would just have to decide what story you're telling...taking a four-season hour-long show and condensing it into two and a half hours."
Broadway-style songs feature in CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, but so do songs in various pop styles. Bloom is inspired by the music she loves. "I grew up listening to Broadway so, so, so much. I would say that pop music in general is a big influence because it's supposed to represent the masses yet I think misrepresents the masses, so it gives me an urge as a writer to write my take on pop songs. And it's why I gravitate, I really gravitate, toward writing pop or musical theater, because both of them are genres that I love...and are escapist...I love music from the 60s: the Ronettes...I love listening to that kind of big Phil Spector sound. And then Roy Orbison. I love Dusty Springfield, so I kind of have an older taste in things. And then from a writing perspective, it gets a little harder to parody indie music, because all of it is so specific, and all of it is so aware of what it is....For comedy you need a good straight man."
Season Two features a notable 80s influence. Bloom explains, "There's three main music writers of the show: me, Adam Schlesinger, and Jack Dolgen. And Adam Schlesinger-you know, I make a joke that if we want to write a song, Jack will usually want to write some sort of guitar, singer-songwriter kind of thing, like 90s to present day, Adam will always want to write something 80s, and then I will always want to write either pop or musical theater. And so 'You Go First,' which is that big 80s power ballad...and that's one of my favorite songs this season. That is all Adam. It's just really well done." "You Go First," a duet between Rebecca and her estranged best friend Paula, in which each wants to apologize and make up, but not until the other does, is unquestionably a highlight of Season Two. As they sing their song, the setting becomes progressively more 80s, with both woman sprouting big hairdos and an aerobic dancer catapulting through the scene, because-why not? It's this sort of inspired creativity that makes the show so much fun to watch, and the songs so enjoyable, that, as Bloom says, "if I pick my favorite song it'll be like a neverending conversation of me being like, 'ah, but then there's this one...'"
I couldn't resist telling Bloom that, like the songs from the series SMASH, the songs from the first season of CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND are enjoying an afterlife at Marie's Crisis, the show-tunes piano bar in Manhattan's West Village. "Oh, my God! That's great!" she exclaimed, and promised to stop by on her next visit to New York. Now that the Season 2 album has been released, there will be even more to sing.
Click here to purchase Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Original Television Soundtrack (Season 2).