Warning: Spoilers for Only Murders in the Building season 3 ahead. When music producer Ian Eisendrath first heard that the characters of Only Murders in the Building would stage a musical for the series' third installment, the Broadway alum knew that season 3 would be a natural, “delightful” progression for the series. Eisendrath, whose other credits include the musicals Diana and Come From Away as well as Disney’s upcoming live-action Snow White, was a fan of the Hulu comedy before joining season 3’s creative team, where he oversaw the composition of original songs for Oliver Putnam’s (Martin Short) Broadway comeback. To turn the fictional play Death Rattle into a musical full of showstoppers and emotional melodies alike, Eisendrath worked with songwriting duo Benji Pasek and Justin Paul— as well as a who’s who of Broadway greats including Sara Bareilles, Michael R. Jackson, and Tony-winning pair Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman—on crafting songs that both propelled the in-universe theatrical show and the arcs of the OMITB characters themselves.
Here, Eisendrath chats with Marie Claire about channeling Oliver Putnam to produce Death Rattle Dazzle’s original music, the real-life musicals that served as inspiration, and recording with Steve Martin, Ashley Park, and Meryl Streep.
Marie Claire: What was your reaction when you heard that Only Murders In the Building was going the musical route?
Ian Eisendrath: I had grown to love the show during the pandemic and am such a fan of that cast. I love the New York world they've created, which feels contemporary, but also classic and nostalgic in many ways. I've really enjoyed the Oliver plot line of him being this genius, failed director. It was also just very, very exciting, because I worked a lot with Benji [Pasek] and Justin [Paul], and they told me early on when it became a possibility. I just thought, Oh, that's a perfect marriage of genres and artists. The fact that you have Steve [Martin] and Meryl [Streep] and Marty [Short] who all have backgrounds in singing and connection to musical performance and comedy [is perfect]. It just seemed like the greatest, obvious idea ever that no one had ever thought of.
Did you draw on any inspirations from real-life musicals?
IE: Absolutely. Most of us have a background in Broadway musical theater, including showrunner John Hoffman— this felt very much like his love letter to the musical theater. The Pickwick [Triplets] song, for example, is very much a throwback to the traditional Broadway patter song, which was ushered in by Gilbert and Sullivan and used to great perfection by many others. It very much feels like a Golden Age, Lerner and Loewe patter song, and that was the goal there. The opening number, "Creatures of the Night," was definitely drawing on Oliver's more gaudy instincts and sensibilities. We were talking about a lot of the big British Invasion musicals, like Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Frank Wildhorn. That sort of "poporetta," pop-opera. There's just a heightened poetic system to all of it that's over the top; it very much feels supported by who Oliver is, what he was imagining in Death Rattle, what he would write, and then what these actors would do. They weren't specifically like, ‘We are going to do this exact song from this exact musical,’ which is what a show like Schmigadoon! does. This was more, ‘Let's really capture the essence of Oliver's version of a Broadway musical.’
I'm also very curious about how the in-show musical not only intersects with Oliver, but with the other characters’ arcs. Without spoiling anything, one song in particular ties into an important development later on.
IE: What's really interesting for us is that we didn't always know all of the information of what would transpire across the season when everything was written. There were general ideas. I just think John and his really talented writers did such a beautiful job in finding thematic overlays between the characters and songs in the musical, and the characters and songs in the TV show.
We also need to talk about Meryl Streep’s musical moment, "Look for the Light". Was it purposefully made to mirror the show’s score?
IE: I just think it's one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I love the collaboration between Benji, Justin, and Sara Bareilles. I see all their identities across the song. The goal was that the production of the song would begin as if it was from the Only Murders score. So we tried to use a piano that sounded similar to the Only Murders piano, and give it that sort of intimacy that the score so often has. You'll notice that the piano is used throughout the season; it's not only in the score, but it's also the piano in Oliver's apartment. He writes the songs on the piano, and not until later in the season do they become fully realized [songs] with a larger palette. "Look for the Light," which is sort of this cinematic moment that starts as a piano and then blows into something that's much more heightened, gives just a little nod to where we're heading at the end of the season, musically.
Then Ashley [Park] comes in and just starts harmonizing with Meryl. It’s like, This is the magic of musical theater.
IE: Exactly. Credit to not only the incredible songwriters but John Hoffman for imagining that moment and figuring out a way. Something I love about Only Murders, and that I'm so thrilled about with this season, is that a musical is a very challenging thing to pull off, especially in film and television. To get the audience's buy-in, trust, and permission to sing a song is much more challenging than one would realize. What most people will say about a musical is that it's cheesy, which really means they felt the bump going from reality and naturalism to something that is more heightened and poetic, like singing and music. I think our number one job when creating songs and any heightened music for this medium is to figure out why this show deserves to be a musical, so that the audience can trust the creators, trust that they're in good hands, and not get uncomfortable when song enters the picture.
What John did was he made singing natural to the environment by saying, 'There is actually a real live musical that is being written, rehearsed, and performed,' and great efforts were made to make sure that it really felt live, authentic, and in the moment. He had his finger on the pulse of the moments where we could slightly break that or do something that was a little less than completely realistic, which was "Look for the Light." The way he built the sequence to a place that allowed us to welcome and accept Ashley Park spontaneously joining in with Meryl is a great artist at work. Ashley just has a really gorgeous voice and that was an interesting needle to thread, which is like, How do you do something that feels organic, when she jumps in and suddenly starts singing halfway through a song and spontaneously knows the song? We tried everything from her barely singing it to huge vocals. We sort of found this emotional experience for her character. I was just so thrilled the first time I saw the picture cut to see how that worked.
This is your first time specifically working in television. Did you find anything different from working in the medium of film versus TV? Did you need to take any added considerations?
IE: I think at the end of the day we're all trying to do the same thing, so that was nice. It's just a different machine in how it's made. With film, you're spending a long time developing and waiting for the full screenplay to fall into place, songs to be written, and then you have a period of prep, and then you're shooting, and then you're doing post-production. With television, all that happens at the same time. I started working on this in December when the first versions of a couple songs were written, but they were still writing episodes. We didn't yet know exactly where the songs were going to go, how they were gonna function. The writing process continued all the way until the week before our final day of shooting. So there's a constant development process going on.
Also, in film it's a little bit easier to say, ‘Okay, before we head into shooting, we're going to have total ownership of the cast for two weeks and we're gonna rehearse and record all the vocals.’ They started shooting the season before we recorded any vocals. We were constantly working closely with the incredible and generous production department. They treated us so well to figure out how in the world, when Steve [Martin] has to shoot for eight to 12 hours, are we going to also have a rehearsal with him to teach him Pickwick, and when are we going to record that? So it's much more of an ‘everything happening at the same time’ process. Anything could change anytime, and the only answer is ‘Yes, and.’ I loved it. I thought it was hugely stimulating. The great thing is we were working with people who understood our need to go fast, and we definitely went a lot faster in shooting these musical numbers than one would go in film, but they also really valued quality and integrity.
How was your experience rehearsing and recording with each of the cast members?
IE: Steve was such a hard worker. He had such respect and love for his song and the craft of learning, rehearsing, and recording. He knew he had something wickedly hard to do. It's a very, very challenging song that they gave him, and there was not a lot of time. He was very interested in giving to the songwriters and music team what they were after in terms of the vocal performance, while also bringing the thing that only he has to the table.
Then Meryl comes in and she is just a genius that you wanna let do their thing. She's very much an actor that wants to sing the full song from the beginning to the end so she can take the entire dramatic journey. There were things that we were after really specifically to get from her, as well as things that she really wanted to make sure she did. The way to do that is we really just kept singing, talking about it, sing the song, talk about it, sing the song, talk about it. We could have [made the composite recording of the song] many, many times over, because she just did so many unimaginable things that we just didn't expect to happen before she opened up her mouth.
Marty has a bunch of experience doing musicals, so he comes in with a huge Broadway background and complete comfort singing and making big, bold choices. He was the actor that was like, 'Yeah, don't over rehearse me. Let's show up. You gimme the notes, and I'm gonna do it.' We were laughing for the entire session every time he was in there. He would always give 110%, and he would just try things. Every phrase had a different take and a different idea behind it, and there were so many options to choose from. He was lightning in a bottle. There's so much talent and constant ingenuity that it really was a matter of figuring out which great choice and which great idea worked best ultimately for him and for his character from moment to moment, as well as what songwriters were imagining and what John Hoffman was after.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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