It’s never too early to start looking ahead to next year’s Emmys. That’s why we’re using this column to spotlight the award-worthy shows that premiered after the 2015 Emmy eligibility cut-off (May 31, 2015) and put them on the voters’ radar for 2016. And just to make things extra easy for the Academy, we’ve specified the category for which they should be recognized.
The Category: Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics
The Nominee(s): Craig Wedren (Composer)
Suggested Episode Submission: Episode 6: “Electro/City”
Earlier this year, fans of the behind-the-scenes of Broadway series Smash lost their collective minds when members of that dearly-departed series reunited for a one night only reunion concert, performing songs from the show’s Marilyn Monroe-inspired musical, Bombshell. And then they lost their collective minds again when it was announced that Smash’s fictional musical might be coming to Broadway for real. So if Bombshell can successfully transition from television to the stage, there’s no reason to think that theatergoers won’t one day be able to queue up and purchase tickets to experience the pure musical magic of Electro City.
What’s Electro City, you ask? Only a toe-tapping tragic love story directed by the renowned stage legend Claude Dumet, with the invaluable assistance of “director-slash-choreographer” Susie, and her boyfriend Ben. Dazzling audiences at its ultra-exclusive 1981 premiere at Maine’s finest summer camp, Camp Firewood, Electro City mixes the sounds of Xanadu, Starlight Express and Meat Loaf to tell the story of a small-town boy who gleefully moves to the electric lights of Electro City…and promptly gets sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit.
Okay, okay: so Electro City doesn’t actually date back to the ‘80s summer camp circuit. For now, it only exists in the sixth episode of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, David Wain and Michael Showalter’s prequel series to their cult 2001 movie. But Craig Wedren, Wain’s longtime composer and the man who — along with collaborator Jefferson Friedman — made Electro City sing, has big dreams for his little musical. “This needs to be a full musical,” he tells Yahoo TV. “You know Milos Forman’s movie version of Hair? There needs to be a Milos Forman’s Electro City — a filmed version of this s—-y musical from 1981. I don’t think that David or Michael are into that idea at all, but I’m not giving up. If the 15 years between putting out the Wet Hot movie with a resounding thud and then making this hit series have taught me anything, it’s to never give up. Death can’t stop your dreams!”
That faux-inspirational line is borrowed from the title of Electro City’s big final number, when the small town boy (played by Paul Rudd’s blue collar counselor Andy) — having been fried in the electric chair — returns from beyond the grave to reassure his still-Earthbound lover (Marguerite Moreau’s eternal good girl, Katie) that “I’ve still got the one thing I wanted the most.” Wedren singles out “Death Can’t Stop Your Dreams” as one of his favorite songs in his fake musical and reveals that they recorded a full version in the style of a Broadway-level Original Cast Album. Sadly, not all of the tunes heard in the episode received the same treatment, as Wedren and Friedman didn’t have the time to create complete versions of every song. “We decided to create fragments that hinted at this larger musical,” he explains, adding that Wain filmed the Electro City numbers early on in production to ensure that they had the budget to faithfully replicate the look of amateur summer camp theater. “The design Electro City is part of what make is ludicrous, and it would have been a shame to compromise that.”
Even in its fragmented form, Electro City is filled with songs you immediately want to hear more of. Take “Zoot Suit,” a peppy number in which Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black sing about the pleasures of dressing dapperly while sharing an oversized zoot suit. “That song is completely out of character from the rest of the musical, but it features an important plot point in that relationship — they get in that zoot suit and discover that they’re both, ‘creative.’” (If you’ve seen the series or the movie, you’ll recognize the meaning of that euphemism.) And then there’s Rudd’s big solo number, “Mama, Take a Look At Me Now,” a hilarious cross between Yentl and Queen. “Every musical has that ‘Prove it to Mom and Dad/dark night of the soul’ moment. For that song, I had this cheesy ballad lying around that I wanted to find a way to use somewhere and finish it. So when I read that scene, I said, ‘This is perfect!’ It’s a little bit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and a little bit Meat Loaf. It changes from major to minor at random, and if you listen closely, it feels like it’s overflexing a little bit in the way that Broadway writing sometimes does.”
Werden confesses to not having little to no experience in writing show tunes prior to commencing work on Electro City. But immersing himself in Broadway’s musical history was part of the fun of his assignment. “It was a kind of pig in s–t situation, just an absolute joy,” he says, laughing. “There are certain things you’re allowed to do in a musical that you’re just not allowed to do in a pop song or a more classical composition. So Jefferson and I got to indulge ourselves in a lot of the compositional idiosyncrasies the we wouldn’t have otherwise allowed ourselves.” And when he wasn’t revisiting Xanadu for the umpteenth time, he could indulge the rest of his musical passions in the other songs we penned for First Day of Camp, including a revamped version of “Higher and Higher” (the anthem from the 2001 film) and the counselor campfire sing-a-long, “I Am a Wolf, You Are the Moon.”
Wet Hot American Summer composer Craig Werden (middle), with creators David Wain (left) and Michael Showalter (right)
The latter song is the one that Werden thinks would be the most likely candidate for an Emmy nomination, since it’s not based on prior material (like “Higher and Higher”) or heard in fragments like many of the Electro City tracks. And while the soaring chords and deliberately flummoxing lyrics of “I Am a Wolf, You Are the Moon” (which is already being covered on YouTube) would make it a fine nominee, Electro City best highlights his range as a composer and the variety of hilariously original music heard throughout First Day of Camp’s eight episodes. (Wedren says that he’s eager to release a companion soundtrack, but Netflix has yet to pull the trigger on that idea. Fortunately, you can stream selected songs from the show on his Soundcloud page.) “I’d love for the songs to get some love [from the Emmys]. David, Michael and I have been working together for so long and have done so many things that have gotten such varied responses. Sometimes people just don’t like our stuff and sometimes they love it! It really is a wonderful gift that people are responding so positively to the series.” Like the musical shows, in Electro City, anything is possible.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is currently streaming on Netflix.