After producer Zoe Chace pointed out that the Republican leadership this year seemed like figures in a tragic opera, watching their party turned upside down, we set about looking for songwriters. We explained that we didn’t want to make fun of these politicians. We didn’t want to mock. Just the opposite. We wanted the composers to do what great songwriters always do: take us inside someone’s head and help us feel what they feel. Here are all three songs.
A Better Way
Songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez ("Frozen") teamed up with Neil Patrick Harris for Speaker Paul Ryan.
Michael Friedman ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson") and John Ellison Conlee on RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
We provided research. Forwarded articles that gave insight into the politicians’ minds. Robert Costa of The Washington Post, who’s covered Paul Ryan for years, agreed to a phone call with “Frozen” composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Mark Leibovich, who’s profiled RNC Chair Reince Priebus for The New York Times, talked to “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” composer Michael Friedman.
It was funny to hear the worlds collide in these conversations. Kristen kept running musical theater comparisons by the reporter, as she tried to imagine Ryan’s song. “So Ryan’s like Captain Von Trapp, head of the Austrian Navy, pretending to agree with the Nazi stuff when they sing Edelweiss?” “So right now Ryan’s kind of like an Aaron Burr who doesn’t want to be in the room where it happens?” “So the country doesn’t want what Ryan’s selling and he’s like a jilted lover? He thought they were going to get married and live happily ever after?”
Michael Friedman has been spending the year writing about the election, travelling and meeting Trump supporters and creating songs from their point of view. They’re great, and have been featured on The New Yorker Radio Hour here, here and here. He spent a lot of time talking to the Times reporter about moments Reince Priebus has been caught in the middle between Trump and Ryan, and about what Priebus has actually admitted to feeling about his situation.
Figuring out the angle on each song was the hardest part for each songwriter. What should the chorus be? What’s the focus? We had many conversations. Sometimes I’d be talking to one of them on the phone, and they’d say “what about this?” and then just start ... singing. I was startled every time. With Sara Bareilles especially because she’s got that incredible voice and nominated for Grammys and all. When she sings you a couple lines on the phone, she sounds like a person on a record. It was like standing on a corner chatting with Superman, and in the middle of a sentence he melts a lamppost with his heat vision, just to make a point, and then continues to the next sentence like, okay, that was normal.
This is not our first time trying to do journalism as musical theater. Back when Robert Lopez was working on “The Book of Mormon,” he agreed to write a song for an investigative story we did, a real-life story whose plot seemed to mirror the plot of “The Producers.” It needed a song. When we did a live show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a mini-musical for us based on a piece of reporting. Broadway director Michael Mayer put it onstage with an all-Broadway cast and production team. There’s video.
I feel grateful to the incredibly talented orchestrators and musicians who played on these songs, and to our singers Neil Patrick Harris, Leslie Odom, Jr., and John Ellison Conlee for using their skills in the service of news-related content.
I’ll close this post by thanking the team that made the videos, who are all so amazingly great at their jobs and such a pleasure to work with. Special thanks to Anna Hayes and Ryoji Yamada who coordinated everything, and to our gifted lead editor Geoff O’Brien. Here are the names. Like the old saying, it takes a video village. Cory Allen, Bjorn Bellenbaum, Dennis Clark, Rose Donnelly, Danna Feintuch, Jeremy Gould (who worked on our TV show back in the day; DP on the strings players for “Seriously”), Liz Hodes (story producer on “A Better Way”), Jason Jones, MJ Lat, Helen Levenson, Ethan Mills (DP on “Party Guy”), Jessica Moriarty, Dane Potter, Lucas Rainey, Malcolm Serrette (DP on “Seriously” vocals/bassist session), Katharine Vasquez, Kimberlee Venable, and Jared Ziaja.