Rooster Revue #15 • Dear White People The Musical
An interview with Steven J. Kung, staff writer on the musical season.
In this issue we interview Steven J. Kung, staff writer from the new musical season of Dear White People, as well as explore some of the most notable musical TV series to date.
• The reviews are BAD for Dear Evan Hansen. [Atlantic, New York Times]
• But fans are loving it. It currently has a 94% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Check out this TikTok, which we found particularly enlightening.
• Is it okay to like bad things? [VOX]
• A cool “anatomy of a scene” on “Waving Through the Window” from the director. [NYT]
• A thoughtful comparison between Everyone’s Talking About Jamie and Dear Evan Hansen and the sacrifices required to create a film adaptation. [The Guardian]
• Husband and wife team Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne will direct the movie musical version of Mean Girls. [Variety]
• Sony is developing a new musical based on the Will Smith hit 90’s song, Summertime. [Deadline]
• David Wain is directing a musical with songs by Zach Reino and Jess McKenna, the team behind the improvised musical podcast, Offbook (highly recommended) [Variety]
• Q&A with Andrew Garfiend on why Tick, Tick … Boom! is so personal to him. [NYT]
Any show can do one measly musical episode, but it really takes something special to endeavor an entire musical series. In celebration of the musical final season of Dear White People, now streaming on Netflix, here are some of the most notable musical series to date:
Galavant is a shining example of what a musical series can be. With Alan Menken and Glenn Slater behind the music, it did so many things right. With epic sets and storylines, it might have been too ambitious for its own good. Cancelled after two seasons and is currently only available for purchase. Let’s hope it finds its way to Disney+ soon.
Cop Rock [DVD]
Yup, it’s a rock musical about the LAPD. Now made infamous by Last Week Tonight, this show was actually incredibly ambitious and does a lot of things right. It also does a lot of things laughably wrong. But it’s unapologetically a musical. You can only own this gem on DVD, but there are plenty of clips on YouTube, including the full pilot.
Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog [TVOD]
Did you know Joss Whedon made a six-episode musical web series starring Neil Patrick Harris as a supervillain looking for love? It’s also bootlegged on YouTube.
It’s a good hearted series that celebrates the musicals of the 1930’s. Cinco Paul is a fabulous writer/lyricist, and the talent is top notch. It’s short and sweet and includes an incredible three minute song from Kristin Chenoweth shot in one take.
Central Park [AppleTV+]
As far as animated musical series go, you can’t beat Central Park. Every episode has 2-3 original songs performed by an all star cast including Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr, Daveed Diggs, and Kathryn Hahn.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist [Peacock]
Jukebox musical that is incredibly heartfelt and captivating. Was cancelled by NBC but thankfully is coming back for a Christmas special on Roku, and if it's successful they'll make more episodes.
Julie and the Phantoms [Netflix]
Kenny Ortega (High School Musical) is back. Three hot ghosts appear to Julie and help her rediscover her love of music.
Writer/Director, Dear White People, Fresh Off The Boat, co-chair emeritus DGA Asian American Committee, boulevardier, defenestrator, dipsomaniac.
We had the pleasure of interviewing our friend and staff writer from Dear White People, Steven J. Kung. He also penned episode 3 from this new season. The entire season is a jukebox musical with songs from the 90’s. Check it out on Netflix.
Congrats on your first solo writing credit!
Thanks! It was a long road. I started out as the writer's assistant on season one, and worked my way up to staff writer in time for the last season.
I know you love musicals. Did you know this was going to be a musical season before you got the gig?
No. It was a shock to all of us. On the first day in the room, they're like “surprise, it's a musical season” and I lost my marbles, I could not believe it. I was running around the room singing. For the first two weeks of the writer's room, we were watching musicals and talking about them. And I was like, “I'm getting paid to watch musicals and talk about them? This is my dream job.”
What musicals ended up being the biggest inspiration for the season?
We liked Singin' In The Rain a lot. I never realized Singin' In The Rain is a jukebox musical. We talked a lot about the third act which I had never gotten before. I'd seen it so many times,, but I finally got it this time, watching it with everyone in the room, understanding it was about Gene Kelly’s character trying to tell you the truth about himself, right? Like, “this is how I actually made it in Hollywood instead of like the fairytale I tell at the beginning of the movie.”
Were you ever considering writing original songs for the season?
I think we decided that a jukebox musical would be easier instead of having a room full of non-songwriters write songs.
There is one original song, "Together All The Way." It's the final song of the season, written by Kris Bowers, and it’s really wonderful.
Some of the songs were tailored slightly to the show. For example, with “This Is How We Do It,” there's a lyric that goes “South Central does it like nobody does.” And I was like, “why don't we change “South Central” to “Winchester?” We mostly stayed to the original lyrics, making changes only if they were necessary.
Why did they want to do a musical in the first place?
Well Justin [Simien] loves musicals. I don't think you need a reason why, but he does have a reason. His reason is about black identity. The idea that black people have had to sort of shuck and jive for the public forever. They're always performing for others in one way or another, so let's just have them perform.
The movie musical has racist origins. The movie that’s credited with being the first picture with synced sound, The Jazz Singer, was basically Al Jolson in black face. I remember watching this backyard musical with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, Babes in Arms, and one of the numbers they’re all in black face. And then of course, Birth of a Nation, with the KKK. So there's all this racism baked into the Hollywood movie and movie musicals.
So I think it's also an attempt to reclaim that legacy. The students at Winchester are reclaiming the varsity show. Which, as they explained in the show, also has a racist legacy.
Another great thing about musicals, of course, is it’s a new way to explore the interior life of the character. In one of the episodes there's a scene where we really get to explore what Reggie has been going through with a tap dance number, with flashbacks to previous seasons. It's a great catharsis for the characters as you see them sing and dance their state of mind.
How did the actors feel about suddenly being cast in a musical and having to sing and dance? What was that process?
The producers had a talent show where they invited the cast to come and show off their singing and dancing talents. I wish to God that I was invited but none of the writers were—just the executive producers. And so they got to see what everyone could do.
Logan Browning can sing. Marque Richardson, who does the tap dance, came up through musical theater, so he's definitely got the singing chops and the dance chops. And if people couldn't sing, we found another way for them to participate. If you can't sing, you can rap.
Did you guys have any musical rules that you followed?
We talked a lot about the transitions. With a lot of musical numbers, you have to feel the moment coming, either with the rhythm or the dialogue or some sort of ramp up to it. So it doesn't hit you and it's jarring, right? So there's always something – people start snapping or marking time, something that leads us into song. So that was one of the rules we followed.
What were the challenges about making it a musical?
My knowledge of hip hop music isn't as good as I want it to be. I didn't grow up listening to it outside of mainstream radio hits, so I was not as valuable in the song pitching process, unfortunately. But we created a playlist at the beginning of the season of all the songs we wanted to use so we could write to them. And as you know I’m a musical lover, so I was able to bring that knowledge to the room.
In terms of other challenges, COVID obviously. In those early shoots, no one knew what they were doing on set with COVID in terms of safety protocols. Not just us, all of the productions.
I think some of the choreography was done with COVID in mind. I know that Marque Richardson trained for his tap dance number at home over zoom. I think a lot of the training and rehearsing happened socially distanced, which is of course tough.
Well you all pulled it off. We just love it.
Thanks! Yeah, everyone who worked on the show is very proud of it.
So what’s next?
I’ve got a few projects I’m developing. Nothing I can announce just yet.
Follow Steven on twitter @stevenjkung
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"Rooster Revue" is edited by Matt Andrews and Jeffrey Simon with contributions from the entire team at The Barn. Read past issues in the archive.