‘Watchmen,’ ‘This Is Us,’ ‘Euphoria’ Tunesmiths on Defining Character Through Songs

Emmys’ song category (officially original music and lyrics) embraces a wide spectrum of tunes, from amusing late-night trifles to powerful concluding anthems. This year the Television Academy’s voting members chose seven worthy songs penned by Oscar winners, Grammy winners and more.

The Black Godfather
(Netflix)
When Clarence Avant’s daughter, Nicole, asked songwriter Pharrell Williams to consider writing an end-title song for the documentary about the music executive’s life, he confesses, “I thought I knew this man’s legacy. I had no idea his fingerprint was on so many things we all benefit from.” So, with fellow songwriter Chad Hugo, he penned “Letter to My Godfather,” drawing inspiration from many musical genres, “to reflect his eclectic reach in terms of business and influence.” The lyrics — “he’s our chandelier, to bring the light” — were Williams’ metaphor for Avant’s ability to throw open the doors to “these often dark spaces” where
artists would sign their contracts.

Euphoria
(HBO)
Composer-producer Labrinth was nearly finished with his score for the new drama when creator Sam Levinson decided to take an unfinished gospel-choral snippet and turn it into an elaborate finale with a huge choir, drum line and star Zendaya singing. “OK, whoa, this is intense,” Labrinth remembers thinking. “So I started writing the second verse [and] Sam helped me finish this idea.” The song “All for Us” becomes a dramatic, hallucinatory music video as her character Rue again succumbs to the lure of drugs. The song, says Labrinth, is a musical counterpoint to the images: “She’s like, ‘I’m going to fight this,’ and she’s not. It’s her dreaming of being that person, but she couldn’t make it.”

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
(HBO)
In November, the comedian closed the book on a failed libel lawsuit by coal magnate Robert Murray with what may be the most outrageous musical stunt in TV history: “Eat Shit, Bob,” a funny, profane, five-minute production number that begins in the studio, features a barbershop quartet of giant squirrels and ends with 50 dancers in Times Square. The challenge, says composer David Dabbon, was “figuring out the best way to make the material work in that outrageous way. With a comedy song, the rhythm of how the text is heard is really important — keeping it light and positive and still speaking such truth at the same time.”

Little Fires Everywhere
(Hulu)
Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, invited to contribute a song to the finale
of the Kerry Washington/Reese Witherspoon-led limited series, knew she wanted to write about “the complex relationship between mothers and daughters.” The song “Build It Up” begins as artist Mia (Washington) leaves town after the titular blazes. “The plan was to have it under that last scene,” Michaelson says. “We positioned it in a way that it wouldn’t overlap with the dialogue. But it ended up being too much information.” So the song was shifted into the end-title sequence, but set against Mia’s black-and-white photographs. “It was elegantly done, almost retelling the story through the images.”

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
(Amazon)
The series has won the music supervision Emmys two years in a row, but for the third season showrunners Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino enlisted veteran musical-theater composers Thomas Mizer and Curtis Moore to write five new songs. “One Less Angel” is the faux ’60s Motown-Brill Building-style hit that Shy Baldwin (LeRoy McClain) sings in the first episode’s USO show. “They told us [to] think Johnny Mathis meets Sam Cooke,” Mizer says. “Some of the smoothness of Mathis, but underneath there’s a grit.” They created so many demos that “we could create an entire LP of Shy Baldwin songs,” Moore quips.

This Is Us
(NBC)
Creator Dan Fogelman threw composer Siddhartha Khosla a curveball at the start of the series’ fourth season: write a song that will be a hit 30 years from now. Viewers were being introduced to a new character, Jack (Blake Stadnik), a blind singer-songwriter who turned out to be the son of Kate and Toby (Chrissy Metz, Chris Sullivan). His emotional performance of “Memorized” — with lyrics by Taylor Goldsmith (of folk-rock band Dawes, and husband of series star Mandy Moore) — shot during a Chicago concert last July at L.A.’s Greek Theatre. “The challenge here was to make sure that lyrically it spoke to the larger picture of the show without being too on the nose,” says Khosla.

Watchmen
(HBO)
Producer Damon Lindelof wanted a Doris Day song from the 1940s to play against a lynching scene in the alternate-universe limited series. When it proved to become impossible to license, he turned to his score composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for an original. Says Reznor: “Damon thought it would be better if we did it rather than drop in something easy. There were moments of extreme panic: How in the hell are we going to record a big band that sounds exactly like something from 1940 with a vocal that fits over this scene, and can we get that done in less than a week?” But they did it, enlisting jazzman Dan Higgins to produce it with a period-sounding Laura Dickinson vocal.

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