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Chops: Finding Music for “Mrs. Maisel”

How music supervisor Robin Urdang helps give a popular TV show its jazzy edge

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Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel (L) and Alex Borstein as her agent Susie Myerson
Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel (L) and Alex Borstein as her agent Susie Myerson (photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Given the almost unlimited number of program choices that television viewers have today, the chances of having a top-rated show are slim. And if a program happens to be thought-provoking, touching, funny, intelligent, and ultra-hip—with music that’s frequently jazz-focused—the chances of it becoming an award-winning hit are even slimmer. Amazon Studios’ The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the story of a Jewish housewife-turned-comic who’s trying to make it, and make it her way, in the late-1950s man’s world of show business, is a program that has beaten the odds. In its four seasons on the air, Mrs. Maisel has garnered 54 Emmy Award nominations, and 20 awards.  

Three of those awards, for Outstanding Music Supervision, belong to music supervisor Robin Urdang, along with the creators of the show, Amy Sherman Palladino and Dan Palladino (both of whom also serve as executive producers, directors, and writers). Urdang and the Palladino creative team have fashioned a singular musical underscore that encompasses a variety of genres, including plenty of jazz. In a typical episode, viewers might hear Barbra Streisand, Kay Starr, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blossom Dearie, Frank Morgan, Charlie Parker, Helen Merrill, and perhaps a few nifty originals written for on-screen production numbers. 

Gathering vintage recordings and licensing them for use in the show is a role tailormade for Urdang, who came of age in a home filled with music of the Maisel era. “I listened to the kind of music that my mother, father and grandfather were listening to,” she remembers. “I grew up on show tunes. From the Manhattan Transfer, I learned a lot more about jazz.”

Urdang didn’t just learn from listening to that notable vocal group; she also worked with them, as part of their management company in Los Angeles. And it was actually the Transfer’s Janis Siegel who was responsible for getting her into music production big-time: “Janis called me and said that Robert Kraft, a composer and music producer, was looking for an assistant on The Mambo Kings and asked if I would be interested. I said, ‘Absolutely.’” 

For that award-winning 1992 film, Urdang was surrounded by musical giants like Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Arturo Sandoval, and Johnny Pacheco, and she learned the essentials of music production for film and TV, which encompasses not only song selection but the complicated world of rights, permissions, licensing, and clearances. After Mambo Kings, Urdang worked on a variety of films and TV projects, including Glitter, Out to Sea, and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.

Robin Urdang
Robin Urdang at the Emmys (Courtesy of Robin Urdang)

Mrs. Maisel, however, is something entirely different. The program takes place in an era when Broadway was still producing hit songs, jazz was experiencing a resurgence in popularity, and pre-Beatles pop ruled the charts—which can make choosing the music quite a challenge. And while any given segment might include tracks by, say, Duke Ellington or Nina Simone, there are also “era-sensitive” originals to consider. “The new songs written by Thomas Mizer and Curtis Moore,” Urdang explains, “sound like they’re from the era, and the work they do is amazing.” In some cases, existing recordings may be sweetened: “Stewart Lerman, our music producer, handles elements of music done behind the scenes that nobody’s aware of. We pre-record a lot of songs, most of which you see on camera, and we also add instrumentation to existing tracks, because we need to embellish them to get a richer, fuller sound.”

The music supervision process for each episode begins, Urdang says, “by getting outlines of the script, so we see where we may need on-camera music. That’s when we start deciding if we need a band for a scene, whether we need to choose a song, and how many songs we need.  When we do a big musical number, we know that there may be three or four songs, and maybe an original number. Sometimes, a song like Cole Porter’s ‘We Open in Venice’ may be specified in the outline or script. Other times, Dan or Amy have songs in mind that are not necessarily in the script. They have very specific ideas and songs that they bring to me. Musical geniuses!”

The version of “We Open in Venice” that was scripted for use was performed by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Getting it into the show was an example of how challenging the business of rights, clearances, and permissions can be. “The difficulty of that song,” Urdang explains, “was that it was performed by all those artists. They all had to be cleared separately, and I had to go to all of their estates.”

Urdang also has to deal with a budget for each episode, and from her wide experience, she knows which song rights will be expensive and which will be reasonable. “Sinatra is going to cost more than some other artists,” she acknowledges. “But the manager of [his] estate, Seth Berg, has been so helpful in approvals, as he really supports the show.”

The iconic singer/pianist Blossom Dearie, a particular favorite of the team, is heard often on the program’s soundtrack. “We love Blossom Dearie,” Urdang says. “I worked with Amy and Dan on a series called Bunheads, and I think that was the first time I heard Blossom Dearie. She has such a unique voice, especially for the show.”

A beautiful example of the way the music team’s passions and talents came together can be seen in season four, when the relationship between title character Miriam “Midge” Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) and her mentor Lenny Bruce (an absolutely spot-on portrayal by Luke Kirby) was consummated. During that scene, Blossom Dearie sings “Someone to Watch Over Me”—an emotional moment to remember. “It, to me, was such a stunning use of the song,” says Urdang.  

Season five will be the show’s final one, and though plot details can’t be revealed, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will no doubt go down swinging. What can be revealed is what has made the program work so brilliantly. “It’s a team of all of us,” Urdang says. “We all have our specialties and we all work together, and we all really like each other. We’re all on the same page and we all want the same outcome. That’s what makes it work.” 

 

EXTRA BENEFITS

One advantage of being an experienced music supervisor for a well-regarded TV show is that some good material just ends up coming your way. “A lot of music has been sent to me by publishers over the years for various projects,” Urdang notes, “and often specifically for Maisel. Many publishers feel connected to the show and want their artists to be a part of it. So when I’m looking for music, I have a huge library to rummage through, if necessary.”

Bruce Klauber

Bruce Klauber is the biographer of Gene Krupa, writer/producer of the DCI Music Video and Hudson Music Jazz Legends DVD series, and a working drummer since childhood. A Philadelphian, Klauber was 16 when he landed his first big-name job in jazz—with Charlie Ventura’s trio.