Interview with Thomas Mizer and Curtis Moore

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Tom and Curtis (Photo by Xanthe Elbrick)

In a series whose retro shades and costuming practically pops off the screen, one of the most vibrantly wonderful qualities of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” beyond its hilariously off-color comic monologues is its soundtrack. Populated with jukebox hits, nightclub jazz and showtunes that immediately evoke the pilgrim’s progress of a trailblazing lady Lenny Bruce from the late 50’s onwards, “Maisel” also stands tall for its original songs by the acclaimed team of Thomas Mizer and Curtis Moore. 

(Photo by Xanthe Elbrick)

Hitting the boards from the Williamstown Theater Festival to the Great White Way, some of duo’s numerous credits include “Triangle,” “The Amazing Mr. X,” “The Bus to Buenos Aires” and “The Legend of Stagecoach Mary.” It’s a partnership whose melodies have spanned romantic suspense to rip-roaring westerns, a wide variety of styles perfectly suited for the rhythmic fabric of the Emmy winning Amazon Prime show from the husband-wife creators Amy Sherman and Dan Palladino. But what gives “Maisel’s” particular tunes their boisterous kick is their spot-on, you-are-there nostalgic feel that makes doo wop, bad Broadway and commercial jingles seem like wonderful, existing tunes that just happened to be discovered. 

Such is the rhythmic quality of a team that can change hats as much as these characters do is what distinguishes these tunesmiths. Both hopped aboard “Maisel” in Season 3 with the thirst-quenching pitch for “Bottle of Pop” and the dead-on, Emmy-nominated ballad “One Less Angel” that Sam Cook-esque crooner Shy Baldwin sang before ditching Miriam on the tarmac. Now with Season 4’s episode 4, they create the only good song “They Came, They Danced” for a Catskills-to-Broadway musical that goes bust thanks to Maisel’s dad Abe. Then with episode 5 they’re not only back in Baldwin’s company with the big wedding production of “City Lights Don’t Shine,” but create a Calypso-esque song for the very real icon Harry Belafonte in “Maybe Monica.” Way more than a three-hit wonder on this go around before “Maisel’s” final season, the delightfully varied tunes of Mizler and Moore are a truly wondrous part of the toe-tapping fabric that makes “Maisel” a saucy TV time cult capsule unlike any other throwback production. 

Tell us about your own musical careers, and how you came to team up.

Thomas: We met in college, at Northwestern University. I was a Theater and English major, and Curtis was an Electrical Engineering major. So naturally we started writing songs together. 

Curtis: Northwestern has a long tradition of student written musical theater, so we got paired up to write material for the big splashy review they put on each year. Larry Grossman, an amazing theater and tv composer, is an alum. He heard some of my stuff and told me I needed to be a composition major. I switched and blame him for all of this.

(Leroy McClain  as Shy Baldwin)

Before “Maisel” came your way, were you a fan of the song era of the 50’s and 60’s that the show takes place in? And what do you think made those tunes special?

Curtis: The music of the 50’s and 60’s, that was the music that was in our houses growing up, that our parents listened to. 

Thomas: My parents are both from Detroit, so Motown music had a special connection for them and felt like home. I can’t remember a day when my mom wasn’t dancing and singing (badly) around the house to Smokey Robinson or the Supremes. I once applied to a songwriting program and was asked to discuss my favorite composer. Everyone else submitted classical composers, like Mozart, but I wrote about Goffin and King. This was kind of meant to be.

Curtis: Those songs are so extraordinarily well-made. They seem effortless but that takes work. Every second counts. That era of songwriting, the songs are tight. Emotionally relatable. Melodic. And above all else, hooky. 

Thomas: They are hook missiles.

What do you think makes for a songwriting team that goes the distance on both stage and screen? Who are your favorites, and are there any that you identify yourselves with?

Curtis: I think longevity in a songwriting career for stage and film is all about being attuned to story. The old question of what comes first, music or lyrics, is wrong. It’s story first. Whether you are telling a complete story in 2 and half minutes or contributing to the larger show, great songwriters tap into characters and make you feel something, understand something. Our job is to collaborate in the storytelling process. 

Thomas: Versatility is also key. Disappearing into the world of whatever story you are telling. I think one of the greatest compliments for this kind of songwriting is that people can’t tell it’s your song, that the music and lyrics feel of a piece with whatever story is being told – and not about you.

Curtis: As people who started out in theater, it will always be Sondheim as the master composer and lyricist. He was both our gateway drug and the high bar to reach for.

Thomas: Always. And I was also, and remain, obsessed with Menken and Ashman’s work. If I could write a rhyme as good as “Le poissons, le poissons /He he he, haw haw haw” then my work on this earth is done. That is not found in a rhyming dictionary. I also love seeing people from our group, who started out together in New York around the same time, doing so well, like “Frozen’s” Bobby Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez. They are a team that is so versatile and tapped into what is elemental and fun about songs.

Were there any particular stage shows that you worked on that prepped you for “Mrs. Maisel?”

Curtis: As a matter of fact, we were actually working on a stage musical with Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of “Maisel” before “Maisel” was a thing. We’d been paired up on a blind date by a Broadway producer to see if we would  hit it off and possibly write a show they were developing. We had an amazing time with her and that experience with her was invaluable for what was to come. Not to mention more fun than should be legal.

Thomas: Sadly, as we were getting going with writing she told us she had to take a few months off to work on “this little Amazon show that no one will watch” and that we’d get back to work on our musical when she was done. That little show was “Maisel” and needless to say she hasn’t had as much time to work on our musical since.

“Maisel” creators Amy-Sherman Palladino and Dan Palladino (Photo by Neilson Barnard/ Getty Images)

Popular songs have been the driving force for “Maisel” since its beginning – right down its counterpointed modern end credit tunes. Given how much everyone involved with the show obviously loves the era’s tunes and Broadway, did that make this an easy show to work on, or more difficult? 

Thomas: Amy and Daniel Palladino are enormously knowledgeable about music. Dan has an amazing music collection, like a nuclear bunker filled with everything wonderful and rare and fun that you just want to lock yourself away in. And Amy was a dancer and adores Broadway. So they speak the language of music. They think in musical terms. That makes them incredibly helpful and smart collaborators. You have a common language that is rare.

Curtis: At the same time, it was an enormous challenge because they use such smartly curated songs of the era, that any original music had to sit side by side with those classics and not stick out. We have to follow a Sinatra tune or be in an episode with a Cy Coleman song. No pressure. The worst thing in the world would be if our songs took you out of the perfect, period world they’ve created.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon Prime)

What was it like to join the show with Season 3? And when did your writing process begin, given that the songs would be filmed?

Thomas: As writers used to the years and years of development work in theater, “Maisel” felt like being shot out of cannon. A cannon strapped to the top of a runaway train.

Curtis: From Amy calling us and hinting she might need a few songs to actually being on set filming the first two was about 5 or 6 weeks. We had to write, approve, arrange, record, and shoot in just over a month. It was insane and thrilling. 

Thomas: Luckily, we had our years of theater training and collaboration to fall back on. And to be honest, it was exciting to see our work come to fruition so fast. That’s so rare.

What’s the trick to doing a song that seems like it was written back in The Day from its authentic instrumentation to its lyrics, especially when it comes to “Maisel?”

Curtis: We listened to a ton of music from the era and let it just seep into our bones. The hardest part is taking what you hear in the whole world of the era and capturing that, but not copying a specific song or artist. It’s about putting you, as a writer, into that world and coming up with what you would have done, your take on it. It was also huge to be recording with live instruments, live bands working together, conducting at the same time. We got to record one song, “No One Has to Know,” with a full orchestra, live on a stage together. It was always about using modern equipment but traditional techniques. That always makes it feel more authentic.

Thomas: Lyrically it’s an interesting conundrum. You can do all the research in the world and point to how a certain phrase was absolutely used at the time, but if it doesn’t feel right to our ears. If the audience thinks someone wouldn’t say that at the time, then you can’t use it. You are writing lyrics for our modern sense of a prior era and making sure the audience is never pulled out, whatever may or may not be true. There’s no time or place for a footnote about historical accuracy in a song.

Curtis: On the first day of recording, we breathed a huge sigh of relief that maybe we were going to be ok. One of the Silver Belles was preparing to sing “Bottle of Pop” and she said she had spent all weekend looking on YouTube for the “original” version. We laughed and told her she wouldn’t find it because she was about to be the first person to sing it!

Talk about your work in Season 3, particularly when it came to writing the songs for “Shy Baldwin.” Did you base his tunes on any specific performer, and what was it like to create that sound?

Curtis: Amy told us she wanted Shy to be a blend of Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke, which is actually a hilariously wide range. They are so different. But that actually was brilliant advice because it gave us room to create Shy as his own person.

Thomas: That was the key. We all wanted it to feel like Shy might be real, and not a thinly-veiled parody of someone specific. He had to feel like he was someone you just didn’t quite remember from the time. But if you went to a used record store you might find one of his albums. That was the illusion we were trying to create.

What do you think it was about the song “One Less Angel” that got it an Emmy nomination?

Thomas: That was such an incredible and surprising honor. And it really was about the team effort. Amy’s gorgeous direction of the USO episode, the joint performance of the song by Leroy McClain and Darius de Haas – it was such a wow moment on the show. You had Shy singing in front of 800 soldiers who were all singing along. Just being on set for that was a thrill. And I think that translated to make the song feel like an important moment of storytelling, establishing Shy’s character. 

Curtis: We worked so hard on that song. Making sure each word and each note felt right. We rewrote sections of it again and again just changing a small thing each time. It had to feel like the song had always existed. Plus, we got right to the hook. No wasting time, get to the joy and romance right away. The song is about the high of falling in love and the moment hopefully makes you fall in love with Shy as a performer.

Thomas: My favorite thing is that the song is now a joke in the world of the show. In the first episode of season 4, I love when Susie says, “Shy who? One less what? F*** him.” Or in another episode when a patron shouts the lyrics at a stripper dressed like an angel. It’s so great to have a song woven into the reality that’s been created. That makes us feel like we’ve succeeded. 

I read that Season 4 of “Miss Maisel” was supposed to take place overseas before covid drastically changed the show’s plans. Did you actually write music for the season that could have been, and if so, could you tell us about it?

Curtis: The music requests come so last minute that we are lucky to see more than an outline, let alone a full script before we write. We have no idea what was planned or rejected, only what was needed in the end.

Thomas: That info is above our security clearance.

Curtis: Amy will drop us little teases and hints in advance, but until those scripts are almost done, we are waiting huddled by the piano waiting for the starting pistol to go off and race to work.

While we don’t see the number performed, “They Came, They Danced” is regarded as the one, and only good song in a one-time Catskills show that Abe eviscerates for the Village Voice to a Bar Mitzvah’s chagrin. Were you riffing on a particular Broadway show here, and what’s it like to write a ‘standout’ song as such? I particularly got a kick out of the Jewish lyrics.

Curtis: It is such a dream to write a good bad musical. And before we knew exactly what they would need for the episode, we actually did write a musical. We were given only a title and a few hints about how it had originally been written as a show for the guests of the Catskills resort. So we came up with a rough outline for the whole show and wrote 5 songs. Basically, we could do this show in rep with the fake musical from “Smash.” We always give Amy and Dan multiple options for each moment. Even if we only write half songs at first, it’s the best way to quickly get to what is best for a moment. For every song you hear on the show, there are always three or four others you don’t hear. 

Thomas: Amy did mention that Buzz, the composer on the show, was probably a huge Rodgers and Hammerstein fan. So we listened to a lot of their work and talked about what a second-rate version would be. The specific song “They Came They Danced” was in the tradition of those big R&H group numbers that establish the specific community of the show, like the Maine-accented “A Real Nice Clambake” in “Carousel.” In this case it’s a Broadway chorus doing their ridiculous version of a Catskills resort. I’m glad you liked the lyrics! I can’t wait for people to hear the full version on the album. I read a lot of reminiscences and menus from real hotels to get some of the details. Sounds like that research paid off. And whatever else, I got to work “Cabbage Rolls” into a song. Dreams.

On that note, and please forgive me if I’m wrong, I imagine that you’re Jewish Thomas, and that you’re a Goy, Curtis. How do you think that benefits a show where so much of the humor is about a particular brand of NYC Jewish-ness, as well as the culture clashes that happen when romance is found outside “the faith?” 

Thomas: I am proud to be mistaken for Jewish a lot. But alas I am of German/Irish Catholic stock. 

Curtis: As long time New Yorkers and theater people, we have lived in the melting pot of the city and culture. You can’t help but be absorbed in it and love that special New York energy which owes a lot to Jewish culture. We also wrote a musical called “Triangle” which required a lot of research into Judaism and Jewish immigrants of NYC. So maybe we have that to draw on as well.

Thomas: Ultimately, as with everything, it’s about scripts. Amy and Dan have created a world that is so rich that we dive into that and go. We take our cues from them and we count on them to correct us when we veer off course.

Tell us about “City Lights Don’t Shine,” which Shy performs at his wedding. And when it comes to a production number like this, do you work with the choreographer as well in creating the song?

Curtis: Marguerite Derricks, the choreographer, is such a legend. She is incredible. She choreographed “Showgirls!” We love every second that we get to work with her. 

Thomas: We want to be IN one of her dances. We always consult with her for numbers that involve choreography. On “City Lights,” she helped shape the first part of the song as it appears in the episode, with an instrumental section. We always are ready to adjust for staging as needed. 

Curtis: This song had to be another “hit,” like “Angel,” which is daunting. And we wanted to progress Shy’s sound, to feel like this is from his next album. So we deepened his connection to soul music, leaned further into his Cooke side. 

Thomas: I also feel like there’s an emotional undertow to the song. He’s singing about the one person he can come “home” to after all his world travels and, though he’s singing it to his new bride, we all know that this isn’t the life he wants. Where is Shy’s real home? There was a line in the original script, I’m not sure if it’s still in the episode, but it mentioned that Reggie, his childhood friend and manager, wrote this song for Shy to sing. That was a key for me. This is Reggie speaking with and through Shy. How bittersweet is that?

Harry Belafonte (Getty Images)

“Maybe Monica” is performed by an actor portraying the real icon Harry Belafonte. Did you research Harry’s Calypso sound to create the kind of number he could have sung?

Curtis: This was probably the biggest challenge of season 4. Belafonte is so iconic and a true master. We wrote more options for this moment  than probably any other song we’ve written for “Maisel.” We kept searching and searching for what the song would be and coming up unhappy. The ultimate question was: when Harry Belafonte has such a beautiful, well-known music catalog, why is he singing a song we’ve never heard before at Shy’s wedding?

Thomas: After a lot of wrong turns, Amy gave us the perfect note. She said that the song wasn’t one of his recordings, but it was a wedding toast. That blew it open for us. We imagined the band and Harry getting together over drinks and writing it like a best man preparing a speech. They would be teasing Shy, making jokes about his supposed playboy ways and Monica getting him to settle down. It might be in the style of one of Harry’s popular songs, but this is something he and his friends made personally for Shy. It should be loose. It should be fun. It’s story and character. Suddenly, it was something we could write.

How has your collaboration with the show’s creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, as well as each other, evolved to this point? 

Curtis: Working with Amy and Dan, we realized we could write faster than we thought.

Thomas: Honestly, Amy is amazing and everything you want her to be from watching her characters. Only she is funnier. She is so collaborative, and her love of musicals makes us feel at home. I think, or at least I hope, that the more we’ve worked together, the more she trusts us. We absolutely trust her.

Curtis: The thing is, “Maisel” is the A-team from top down. Everyone is working at the top of their game and it makes you want to reach for your best as well. The music group is so incredible, with music supervisor Robin Urdang, music producer Stewart Lerman, and producer Matt Shapiro. 

How do you think your songs have helped the characters grow? And which ones do you identify with the most now?

Thomas: Shy will always be special to us. We connected to him as gay men and identified with that part of ourselves that was once hidden and the bravado we used to hide it. Whatever is happening in the plot or if he just seems to be singing a “pop song,” we care about him and want to make sure his songs speak his heart, even when he can’t always speak his truth himself.

Curtis: We love that “Maisel” doesn’t just use songs for rhythm or energy, but they also move character and story. The music builds on what is happening, commenting and enhancing. 

Given that “Maisel” has been given a renewal for a “fifth and final season,” do you see your songs playing an even bigger part in the show’s conclusion? And what can we expect from them?

Curtis: We started work on season five two weeks ago and it is already insane and fast and everything “Maisel.” But more so.

Thomas: All we can say is get ready. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

What place do you think that “Miss Maisel” will have in television history, especially when it comes to series that used songs so prevalently?

Thomas: First and foremost, and this has nothing to do with us, it should always be on the list of all-time comedy greats. Period. What Amy and Dan have created and executed is mind bogglingly difficult and they have maintained that high level of quality for four, going on five seasons. 

Curtis: In terms of music, I hope the show is remembered for how it respects the process of making music, devoting time and resources to getting it right, from hiring the best musicians to making sure how an instrument is played on screen matches what you are hearing. They made music as important and integral to the world as the deservedly lauded costumes and sets and cinematography. Music shouldn’t be an afterthought. It’s essential. And “Maisel” highlighted that.

Thomas: Also, I think people will ultimately see that it was a stealth musical all along. Like we’ve said, from needle drops to originals, the songs tell story and are essential to the whole work. How awesome is it for those of us who love the power of music to have this long-running, hit musical series?!

What’s ahead for you both, and individually, beyond “Miss Maisel?”

Curtis: When we come up for air from season five, we are developing two stage musicals for Michael Cassel Group and another for Universal Theatricals. 

Thomas: But we’ve also fallen hard for the speed and collaborative energy of the TV and film world; so many amazing, talented, welcoming people. We are working with a producer on a few musical television series ideas of our own. Stay tuned.

Curtis: And we will always be looking for what we can do next with Amy. We three text each other ideas all the time, some better than others depending on how late the text was sent.

Thomas: And don’t forget, somewhere, on someone’s shelf, there’s the start of musical she promised we’d get back to one day.

Get Thomas Mizer and Curtis Moore’s songs for the seasons of “Maisel” HERE, and HERE

https://www.amazon.com/Marvelous-Mrs-Maisel-Season-Original/dp/B082JKSW6Z/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2MH4EED98AB1I&keywords=maisel+soundtrack&qid=1646323780&sprefix=maisel+soundtrack+%2Caps%2C152&sr=8-1

https://music.apple.com/us/album/the-marvelous-mrs-maisel-season-4-music-from-the/1611799829

Visit Mizer and Moore’s web site at:

https://www.mizerandmoore.com

Special thanks to Andrew Krop