BWW Interview: Justin Paul and Glenn Slater Talk Collaborating for the AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE Musical Episode
Justin Paul and Glenn Slater are renowned composers: Paul has written for Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman, and Slater for Disney's Tangled and School of Rock on Broadway. Paul and Slater recently joined forces for the first time to write songs for the ABC sitcom American Housewife, which is airing its first musical episode Tuesday, May 21.
The episode includes four original songs by Paul and Slater, as well as choreography from Ashley Wallen. The series stars Katy Mixon as Katie Otto, Diedrich Bader as Greg Otto, Meg Donnelly as Taylor Otto, Daniel DiMaggio as Oliver Otto, Julia Butters as Anna-Kat Otto, Carly Hughes as Angela and Ali Wong as Doris.
The duo took the time to talk with BroadwayWorld about their first collaboration together and what it was like writing a musical for television!
How were you approached to do a musical episode of the show?
Justin: It was talked about at different times, through different channels. I know Glenn, you had a connection to some of the folks on the show from working previously on Galavant. Once upon a time it came upon your radar, and then mine. I'd like to think they thought of me for my talent, but I I think mostly it was because I'm actually from Westport, which the show is about and lovingly makes fun of. Glenn and I had talked for awhile about finding something, so just kind of very naturally came together. So it made perfect sense of, 'hey, let's jump in and try our hand at working on this musical episode together.' The tone of the show and it's brand of comedy lends itself so well to music.
Glenn: It just worked out very well. Often on these sorts of one off musical episodes, the writers don't have a lot of connections with the piece that they're doing. But this was just a fortuitous combination of Justin being from the town that the show and episode was about, my having worked withKenny Schwartz, Rick Wiener, who are the showrunners, and my also having worked with the episode producers - four of them were Galavant writers. So when they said, "oh, why don't you and Justin and work together on this?" I think for both of us a great opportunity to get to know each other and to get to work with each other on something that we had a comfort level with. As Justin said, it's, it's sort of a great combination of great contemporary characters with really defined characteristics. If you watch one or two episodes you already know "oh, I can hear these characters sing." When we finally sat down to jump into it, it came very easily.
If a new viewer had turned on this episode, they may not have even realized it wasn't a musical series, that is how well it fit into the show.
Justin: I know! I was like "is this going to become a musical TV show?" Alas, it's not. But, when we were working on this, we were like, "these characters could probably sing every week if someone wanted them to."
Glenn: As with any musical, it's big wants are what fuel the songs, and these are characters who have big wants, core wants and big emotions. It's so easy to tap into those and get them to sing. We didn't really have to even work hard to figure out, "how does this become a musical?" It just fell into place.
Writing the "Full Westport" number must have been very fun, especially for you, Justin, since you grew up there.
Justin: Yeah, for sure. We decided that it would be a lot the fun send up the town of Westport. It's certainly a heightened version of the town I grew up in, and even the town it is now, but there were so many fun clichés, stereotypes and tropes to sort of play into and musicalize. The characters and the ideas in the show are so well defined and big that it really naturally lent itself to a number where these moms can sing about life in Westport. It was a lot of fun for me to lovingly poke fun at the place I grew up.
Glenn: One of the things that fuels the whole town as character in the show is that everybody thinks of themselves as so cutting edge and so up to the mine, so it made the musical choice of finding something that felt as up as up to the minute as they think of themselves, especially having the grownups sing and what's typically considered a more youthful style became the instantly clear comic choice. It felt that way with all of the moments. There was something in the characters themselves that made the music choices very clear. For example, Katy Mixon is such a drama queen in the show, she wants to immediately grabs at your stage. The idea of writing her as a Barbara Streisand type diva was almost obvious. The same thing with the kids at the school, particularly with Logan pepper leading that. The way the show frames him as a teen idol fueled that, "let's go with a Shawn Mendez kind of a feel," to really capture exactly musically what those characters would see themselves being within the context of the show.
Katy Mixon's musical performance was so incredible, I was surprised to see she's never been on Broadway.
Justin: Exactly. When we started working with her and she was in the studio, we realized she has a big voice like Barbara Streisand and can really deliver those numbers. Right away I was like, "okay, what musical do I want to write next for Katie Mixon?" Everyone's going to be really blown away by her and she's definitely a musical theater star undercover that's about to explode.
Glenn: There are a lot of cast members who really stepped up and surprised us. Um, Meg Donnelly and Julia Butters who play the two daughters have amazing voices. We both walked away wishing we had more songs to write, so that we could have spotlight them as well. And Carly Hughes, who leads the Westport number, has just a fantastic R&B voice. And then we have voices like Ali Wong that's not a traditional musical theater voice, just a smart comic actress with such a quirky sense of timing and you can give her anything and make it work and she was so game to do everything and made whatever lines we gave her, she'd made them hers as well.
Would you both want to come back and do another musical episode for the series?
Glenn: Oh, absolutely. It feels like we barely got dive into all the richness that these characters have. This is a show that is at the top of the game, it's, it's wrapping up its third season and its been renewed for a fourth season. It has a fantastic committed audience. All of the performers know exactly who they are, what they can do, and they are all working together in this fantastic way. As outside songwriters, we're given a script with a specific story, but in order to prepare for that, I know that I watched a lot of episodes, and the characters have facets that could be musicalized. It would be a pleasure to come back and find another reason for them to turn the episode into a showcase for their voices and to deliver that part of it.
Justin. Yeah, I completely agree.
What makes writing music for a television sitcom different or maybe more difficult than writing for a musical?
Glenn: Whether you're writing for theater or for film or for television, it's a very different process for each one. For theater, the songwriters are driving a lot of the process and you really have the opportunity to stretch out and to think of it as an entire musical experience. With film, it's being driven more by a director, their the one providing the vision and you try to match what you want to do with what they want to do into something that's mutually satisfying. With television, it's so driven by the process that's already in place. There's budget initiatives, there are time constraints, there's the cast. It's much more of an exercise of trying to make things work and you have much of a time frame in which to do it. I know that they spent quite a bit of time coming up with the idea for the episode and putting the script together, but I think once Justin and I jumped in to do the music, it was just a few weeks really, that we were working on music.
Justin: That's right, and then they were jumping right into recording and then right into prepping. We were delivering stuff as they were trying to choreograph it in person.
Glenn: Once you're in that process, you're also dealing with things like, "we have 18 minutes of dialogue and we want to have four songs, so can you say everything that you want to say in a minute and 45 seconds?" It's much more of a puzzle solving exercise a lot of ways. And yet it's becoming a part of a machine that's bigger than you and figuring out how to work with it, which was naturally a lot of fun.
Justin: Yeah, it forces you to do different things, it's a fun different kind of challenge TV operates on a certain schedule and they are going to get what they're going to get in that time frame. We were getting texts from the set being like, "FYI, we're not going to shoot this, we're going to shoot that instead. So we may have to cut that part, but we'll pick something else up." It happens on the fly and you have to accept that its apart of the process. As a songwriter you have to be adaptable, whereas on Broadway we can be much more precious about what we've written. You have to be nimble and be along for the ride of that collaboration.
Glenn" Part of the fun of that is what comes out of those spontaneous moments are sometimes better than what comes out of the preplanned thoughts. You leave yourself open for those happy accidents and when one of them appears in your path, you take it and you run and the exhilaration of doing that is just so much fun.
Would you like to collaborate again on something different now that you've had the chance to work together?
Justin: We haven't talked about this yet, but, absolutely. I think we have a great admiration for each other's work and I think it'd be a lot of fun. Even the first time that we got together before we had written something together, we realized we sort of shared many of the same experiences and got along well. We had a lot of fun writing, so its up to us to find some more writing to do together.
Glenn: When you're starting a new collaboration, there's always that question of chemistry and "is it going to be there or not?" And when it's not there, the full work can be very grueling, it can feel like it's a constant uphill slug, but as Justin said, we connected immediately. We have a lot in common and as soon as we sat down, we were able to start throwing ideas around with complete abandon. We've worked on a lot of the same kinds of things before, so we were speaking the same language very quickly and once we sat down to write the songs, we wrote four songs to just a couple of weeks, which is a pretty nice pace, and that was because we were able to develop a collaborative shorthand very quickly and jump in and not feel at all like we were fighting our collaborators, but having that sense of freedom that you get when there's somebody there who supporting your work.. Justin's probably the busiest composer of the planet right now, but if he ever had any free time and something came up, I would meet with them in a second. So absolutely.
The musical season finale of "American Housewife" airs Tuesday, May 21 at 8PM EST on ABC.