The Secret to Writing Songs for TV From Veterans of ‘Empire,’ ‘Smash’ and ‘Julie and The Phantoms’

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“Write a song that’s very specific and very universal at the same time,” Emmy-winning composer Marc Shaiman says

Julie and the Phantoms
Madison Reyes and Charlie Gillespie in "Julie and the Phantoms" Episode 7. Courtesy of Netflix

Imagine an episode of a crime drama without suspenseful music right before the villain goes in for the kill. Or a romantic comedy without the crescendo of the orchestra right before a kiss. Whether we realize it or not, music plays its own vital role on television, and so do the songwriters behind it. Madison Reyes and Charlie Gillespie, stars of Netflix’s “Julie and the Phantoms,” are some of the youngest in the game. At ages 16 and 22, the pair wrote their first-ever song for television last fall while on the set of the fantasy musical-comedy series, which premiered Thursday. It all started when they were working on a dance number for a song that had yet to be written. The two decided to sneak off and write it themselves — and what came out was a love letter to one of director Kenny Ortega‘s greatest hits. “Both of us being massive ‘High School Musical’ fans, we were asking Kenny, can we have this moment? This moment that you gave us when we were kids, the one that Zac [Efron] and Vanessa [Hudgens] had when they were dancing on the rooftop?” Gillespie told TheWrap. “When we brought it up to Kenny, at first he thought it was a cover of a Camila [Cabello] song,” Reyes said. “We just had to explain to him our thoughts and inspiration for the song, and he instantly fell in love with it.” The result was a song called “Perfect Harmony” that the pair perform in Episode 7. “It just seemed so appropriate for the show and just a great idea to have the people who were singing and dancing in the scene also be the songwriters,” said David Hoge, who serves as co-showrunner with Dan Cross. But Gillespie and Reyes both agreed that while writing songs in and of itself is one thing, the process of writing for TV is entirely another. The song doesn’t just have to work by itself, it also has to fit into the plot of the show and tell the characters’ stories just right. It’s a sentiment echoed by two veteran TV songwriters with many more years of experience under their belts. “Music for TV and music for radio is completely different,” said producer Jim Beanz, who wrote, produced, and recorded music for three seasons of Fox and Lee Daniels’ “Empire.” Before that, he worked with solo acts including Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Diddy and Danity Kane. “A lot of times, people think a hot song is just a hot song and it’s gonna translate over to television the same way it would for radio, but it doesn’t,” he said. “When you’re dealing with a character on television, you also want to make sure you can pull it off visually, vocally, artistically. It’s sort of like a package deal.” “One thing I do know about TV is they prefer it to be as short as possible,” said Marc Shaiman, an Emmy- and Grammy-winning composer and lyricist who co-wrote the music for NBC’s musical drama “Smash” (he’s also involved in the upcoming stage musical co-produced by Steven Spielberg) with Scott Wittman, and has music department credits on “Mary Poppins Returns,” “Girls,” “City Slickers,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Hocus Pocus,” and several theatrical productions as well as the Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, and Academy Awards. “There’s just so many people involved that have opinions and pick everything apart that it’s a miracle that anything finally gets on screen,” Shaiman said. Both men described the process as extremely stressful but also rewarding. “A lot of crazy moments happened where I kind of got pushed to do maybe like three or four songs in a day,” Beanz said with a laugh of his time working on the first, second, and fourth seasons of “Empire,” which had its series finale earlier this year. “That’s not just writing a song, that’s actually writing, producing and demoing, and still delivering what they call a hit. That was the hardest process, getting so many songs done in a small amount of time.” “I remember there was a time when I was doing ‘Keep It Movin’ for Serayah, and Timbaland had given me a track to write for,” he said of Serayah McNeill, who played singer Tiana Brown on “Empire,” and musician and producer Timbaland, who was head of the Fox series’ music team for its first two seasons. “I was so behind schedule I had to write it on my flight going to Chicago, and the song still wasn’t even fully produced. By the time I landed, I pretty much finished producing the track in the studio right before Serayah walked in, using a trash can, an aspirin bottle, and this one instrument that was laying in the studio.” Shaiman has also had many a nerve-wracking moment while writing for “Smash,” which ran for two seasons on NBC and ended in 2013. “There’s a lot of it I blacked out from my memory,” he joked. “At the end of the first season, I remember we wrote a song that Marilyn Monroe [sang] in the musical, and although people liked it, they still said to us, ‘Why don’t you take another whack at this?’ And we didn’t know what to do. But then when we did go back to the drawing board, we ended up with the song ‘Don’t Forget Me,’ which was probably a lot more powerful than the first song that we wrote.” He also divulged the one thing that he calls the “holy grail” of songwriting. “Write a song that’s very specific and very universal at the same time,” he said. “If you can pull that off, you’ve really done something.”

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