Behind the Film’s ‘Demented’ Songs and Score nwnews

The songs and score of the new film “Dicks: The Musical” are deadpan, but about as far away from dead and humanly and musically possible. It sounds like a fully fleshed-out Broadway musical brought to vibrant life on the big screen, even though it went directly from being a two-man mini-show in a New York comedy club to a movie with a traditonal-sounding, fully orchestrated song score, the scope of which is matched only by the gleeful vulgarity of the lyrics. (We’d say that, when it comes to the music of “Dicks,” size matters, but going that route would open quite a Pandora’s box.)

Creator-screenwriter-stars Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson wrote the lyrics for the songs. But when it came to lending them total-earworm melodies, or production values that sound like the Great White Way or golden-era Hollywood, those responsibilities fell to Marius de Vries (above, right) and Karl Saint Lucy (above, middle). The latter co-writer has been in on the job with Sharp and Jackson since they first birthed a miniaturized version of “Dicks” (then known as “Identical Fucking Twins”) at UCB in New York nearly a decade ago. When the project got picked up for film treatment, de Vries came on board, to lend a hand that has been practiced on other movie musicals, from “Moulin Rouge” to “La La Land.” (You may also know him outside of filmdom as a veteran record producer who’s done notable work with Madonna and Bjork, among countless others.)

Variety had a serious talk with Saint Lucy and de Vries about their somewhat straight-faced show tunes and score for the outrageous new musical. (Meanwhile, if you want to know what prompted writer-stars Sharp and Jackson to come up with something so completely berserk in the first place, a separate interview with that duo will follow.)

Did you have an inherent philosophy about how to treat the music in “Dicks”?

Marius De Vries: I think we always felt we had a responsibility towards being particularly attentive to the detailed work in within the songwriting and the arrangements, because the overall mission of the show is so anarchic and uprooted… and demented, as some reviewers have called it, with some justification. As the custodians of the music, we felt that the one thing that would enable all of that anarchy to fly would be a solid foundation in terms of musical structure. And more than a technical thing, that the music should never be seen not to take itself seriously. There’s no overt music-driven comedy in this. There’s a little bit of supportive comedy score, but there are no places where the music treats itself with the same kind of lack of respect as the narrative does and the direction does and the acting does.

Every song is very different in the way that it would be in a really good Broadway musical, hitting different beats. And without making the satire obvious within the music, it feels like there are subgenres of musicals that are being parodied or paid homage to, from an “I want” song near the beginning to a rousing brotherhood-of-man anthem at the end.

De Vries: I think that was just paying attention to the art and the discipline and the canon of the form we were working with. But there’s not much specifically parodic writing going on. I don’t think we’re trying to elicit humor by referencing other particular, specific songs.

Karl Saint Lucy: That’s totally right. But there are certainly gestures, right? Like the fact that “The Sewer Song” song is a quodlibet, a device that’s done in many musicals, where a few songs are written to sort of eventually go on top of each other, like “Joanna” from “Sweeney Todd” or “One Day More” (from “Les Miserables”). So yeah, we hit a lot of kind of familiar song types. … I think relying on the understood grammar of those things is really crucial to tying it together, but also setting up expectations that we can then subvert.

If people thought that “Book of Mormon” or something like that was an irreverent musical, “Dicks” might be “Book of Mormon” squared.

Marius De Vries: I don’t know — is it that much more edgy than “Book of Mormon”? My yardstick for this is a show which you might remember, which was on in London and had a very brief run in America, called “Jerry Springer: The Opera.”

Yes, I saw “Jerry Springer” in London and loved it.

De Vries: I mean, there’s a certain kinship that I perceive, because I worked on that as well. I have a similar feeling about the two of them, in that they cover similar ground. I’m not sure that we’re any more outrageous than any of those other properties. I think we’re in the same league.

Karl Saint Lucy: But I think that we’re doing different things than they were doing, right? At the core, I think there’s a sort of disrespect for institutions and, at the same time, a deep care for where our audience is coming from, meeting them where they’re at and grabbing them by the hand and taking them on this journey. I would say at the end of the day, “Book of Mormon,” for everything it has to say about religion and imperialism, is kind of a love letter to the actual Book of Mormon. “Faith is good” is sort of the message, and I think it makes sense why they did it that way. But our show doesn’t live in that sort of place. There’s a different ethos that governs the choices we make. There’s a different pole we’re swinging around.

A lot of subversive musicals will revert to a serious and/or sentimental message at the end. “Dicks” seems to be headed that way at the end, with “All Love Is Love,” which is so catchy and seemingly sweet. And then there are lines in there about incest and even bestiality, so…

De Vries: (Laughing.) Yeah, you’re not getting off the hook at the end; that is true.

When the earliest, short version of this — then known as “Identical Fucking Twins” — was being performed live at the UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) theater in New York in the mid-2010s, there were only six songs in it. How was it, doubling that to a dozen for the film? And how much were the original songs rewritten along the way?

De Vries: The original songs were heavily adapted. If you were to watch the 30-minute clip of the theater show that’s on the internet, you’ll recognize bits and pieces here and there, and some of the bones of the story, but a 30-minute cabaret show and a one-and-a-half-hour movie are two very different things. We had more characters to deal with and a more developed and complex story to cover. There were all sorts of holes in the narrative that needed to be filled out by an expansionist approach to the songwriting, specially tailored to the characters as we began to understand who was going to be cast. It’s not like we had to reinvent the DNA of the piece, but we certainly had to come up with a lot of new material to support the larger version of the story that needed to be made.

Which were the songs that you adapted from the short stage production and which were the all-new songs?

Saint Lucy: I can do this, Marius. The ones that are brand new are “Out Alpha the Alpha,” which is the Megan Thee Stallion number, “Lonely,” “No One Understands,” “The Sewer Song” and “Nessuno Mi Ha Capita,” which is the Italian song in the sex scene. And then the ones that are from the original, either in spirit or in content, are “I’ll Always Be On Top,” “Evelyn’s Song,” “Gay Old Life,” “You Can’t Give Up,” “All Love Is Love” and “Desperate for Your Love.” None of them are in the same form. For instance, in “Gay Old Life,” the Sewer Boys in the original show (mutant creatures, portrayed by puppets) were referenced but never seen, and they certainly were never given a backstory, so that was a complete recomposition of how that number worked.

De Vries: And then with “Desperate for Your Love,” there was actually some feedback from Nathan (Lane) at a fairly early stage, that he needed for his acting performance for the song to start in a rather different way to what we imagined. So the first minute or so of that song had to be entirely reconceived to help him with what he needed.

Between the sum total of the songs and the score, the soundtrack album for “Dicks” seems to be almost as long as the film. There are not a lot of music-free moments in the movie.

De Vries: It turned into a bigger job than we thought it would. In terms of the amount of musical score there is in it, we went into it thinking, “Well, we’ve got a bunch of good songs and some strong actors — why are we going to need a score?” I think we imagined that we’d do the jazz sessions for the songs, keep the musicians behind for an hour, improvise a few bits of jazz, and just have that as the stuff that goes in between. And as we put the thing together in post, it became clear that the piece needed a very calibrated and thoughtful approach to the underscore to make it work. It was a joyful process, but an exacting one, to discover what that should be.

It sounds like it was always made to be big, and on Broadway, if not on film, even though the original set of songs was conceived back in the day for voice-and-piano performances.

Saint Lucy: I think it was always meant to punch above its weight. Even at UCB, we made a lot of what we had in that space.

De Vries: I always heard it big, and we had to employ a certain amount of subterfuge with the film company, because there was no way they were gonna agree in advance to paying for symphonic arrangements of these to be executed in a movie of this budget. It was a long, slow process of negotiation, and eventually they saw what we were trying to do and they were supportive and we were able to — at least with some of the songs — write them on quite a large canvas. But I think your point that it now sounds like it’s ready for Broadway is interesting, because I can see this possibly coming full-circle and going back onto the stage, and that would also be fun.

Saint Lucy: It would be he most circuitous route for any show to get to Broadway in the history of Broadway.

How did you work on the music, not knowing if you would be able to do big, lush arrangements in the end?

De Vries: We kept the songs fairly embryonic, even through the shoot. We were shooting and recording a lot of the vocals live, but basically the songs existed as just piano vocals until we hit post. But Karl and I had talked a long time about what else we could put onto the songs; it’s just we didn’t want to muddy the waters of making sure that the songwriting was robust enough by starting to dress things up until we absolutely had to. Also, when you’re recording live vocals on set, it’s much easier to record when the arrangements are simple. So it was when we got into post that we started to address the potential that each song had to be expanded into a more orchestral treatment — either symphonic or jazz or whatever language each requirement had. What you can do in those circumstances is give a fairly good account of what a song will sound like when it’s fully orchestrated with the use of a computer. It won’t sound good enough to consider it finished, but it’ll sound representational, and then you can sort of dangle these things in front of the producers and directors and say, “Well, you know, you could have this! — if if you were of a mind to pay for it.” And if you do your job right, that’s how you get them on the hook.

Saint Lucy: I remember when we were first talking about it, I asked what resources we had and Marius was like, “Well, here are the instruments you can use, but don’t use the whole ensemble very much.” And I was like, “OK,” and I found that I kept using the whole ensemble without meaning to.

How big did the ensemble get?

De Vries: It was kind of constructed in a fairly modular way, so we never had all of these bodies in the room at the same time, but if we had done it that way, we’d have been talking about a 60-piece orchestra, at times.

Marius, you’ve worked on a lot of film musicals, not always as a songwriter and scorer like you are here, but in different capacities, including “Cats,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Annette” and “La La Land.” How did the experience of “Dicks” compare?

De Vries: I’ve had the fortune to work on a lot of extremely different types of musical, including some of the ones you’ve mentioned. In most cases, each of those approaches has a great deal of its own idiosyncratic integrity. What I would say about “Twins,” as we’ve been calling it for years, or “Dicks,” is that it’s utterly unapologetic about being a musical. A trend I’ve seen in recent musical films is to kind of try and mollify the audience slightly by apologizing for the fact that you’re singing, or by softening the glow somehow, or by referring to the fact that you’re about to sing before you sing in the dialogue — these kinds of things. This was really refreshing, just to say, “Balls out, this is what we are.” To double and triple and quadruple down on that with so much confidence made this a refreshing experience and, I hope, an antidote to those sort of halfway in/halfway out approaches to musicals that we’re seeing on occasion.

Saint Lucy: The thing that I see more and more often is not only that, but also songs that just stop the action: “We’re going to stop the show to have now a musical set piece in which nothing actually happens.” You’ll notice that plot beats happen in all of our songs — except Megan Thee Stallion’s number. It does advance the plot, but in that case, we’re kind of winking at the fact that we’ve obviously stunt-cast this role. It’s obviously a vaudeville variety show number that, if you extracted it, could be a full show on its own. But that’s the only time that happens in our show.

De Vries: Although I’m having some late-career second thoughts about songs having to advance the plot in every occasion, partly because of stuff I’ve been doing that overlaps with Bollywood recently.

Speaking of the Megan Thee Stallion song, “Out Alpha the Alpha,” it’s been reported that this was conceived as more of a cabaret song before it became a rap number for her benefit. Were you able to take much what you had originally envisioned for the song?

De Vries: We were able to take the meaning and the intention of what we had, and not very much else.

Saint Lucy: Actually, you pulled a lot of my melodic gestures and harmonic movement from the cabaret piece. You turned it into a beat.

De Vries: In terms of countermelodies and musical content, absolutely. But in terms of vocal melody, that was almost not a discussion, because we knew she wasn’t going to sing it. And we’d written it as a tour de force, virtuoso, sung number. It had to be torn to pieces and then reconceived in a very fundamental way extremely quickly, because she was confirmed in the casting really quite late in the process. So we had barely a few days to create the number, barely a day to rehearse it, and a day and a half to shoot it. That all happened in a kind of white heat of panic. Of course in the end it couldn’t have gone any other way, and Megan is absolutely perfect, and what she brings to the film is exactly what we needed. It’s just that you sometimes don’t know what you need until it slaps you in the face.

You walk away from that and go, “OK, let’s have a full Megan Thee Stallion rap musical.”

De Vries: That’s not impossible. I might need a bit of a rest before I tackle that.

How did the underscore develop as you found you needed more of it?

De Vries: I think we ended up supporting the comedy in places, and that’s something we learned because there was no comedy score writing in it at all to begin with, and there needed to be some to kind of gently support the comedy. But the music is never self-consciously funny in its own right. … But basically it was a calibration of how much should the music be supportive of the action, as opposed to the psychology of what’s going on? To begin with, we were very much into the “supporting the psychology” camp. And as things evolved, the pacing of the movie felt like it needed more stuff that was underpinning the sequences of events rather than the internal emotional state of the characters. So that was a twist. That’s all a bit esoteric. Suffice to say we had to try it a number of times. We probably wrote this score three times, and I think we probably got it right the third time around.

Saint Lucy: Yeah, and I think it’s a good marriage (between the composers). I mean, it’s fun listening to the score moments now because in some places it’s really like, “Oh, that’s 32 bars of Marius, 16 bars of Karl, 16 bars of Marius… Matt Robertson (a third score composer) here…” I can tell where everything is. But the way that it all works together is kind of like a patchwork and it’s kind of fun.

The vocal performances include some interesting choices. As the aged mom, Megan Mulally does her whole performance with a kind of an elderly lisp thing, albeit with moments of belting breaking through that.

De Vries: Yeah, she turned up with that speech affectation rather late in the process, and it did make us think: Have we written lyrics which are too busy for that voice to circumnavigate? But she stuck to it, and it was a tour de force in the end.

Working on something like this, you take it very seriously, and may not have time to look up a lot and look at the big picture. But at the end, over the end credits, there are  these outtakes where Nathan Lane is stepping back and kind of going, “What am I doing? How’s my career led to this?” As, you know, he is spitting food into the mouths of the mutant puppets. Did you ever have moments like that where you were working on something and a lyric was so insane that suddenly you think, “What are we doing here?”

De Vries: You do become acclimatized to just about anything, so the moments of pure outrage that are in there sort of became workaday through the process of repetition. But every so often a particular moment in the performance would sort of break through the surface and you’d have to pinch yourself and just ask the question, “Why is it that we’re being allowed to do this, in our grown-up industry?”

As you say, you see Nathan and his soul-searching about how his career had led him to end up in this terrible place, in the bloopers at the end. You have to remember, amongst our other responsibilities, we were his vocal producer, and we had to get him to sing all of those songs. And there’s a duty of care in that job, which means that you’re acting as sort of a counselor to the acting talent when they’re going through that process. So we did spend a lot of time comforting everyone, and telling them that it was going to be all right. In their careers, and the movie.

Saint Lucy: I told Nathan Lane at one point that this movie was going to be his apotheosis. He was worried, but then I said that and he laughed, so, mission accomplished. He’s pretty happy now.

I mean, you can’t possibly imagine what it’s like, in a shitty, $17-an-hour rehearsal studio where you’re hashing out these songs and talking about throwing a pussy across the room… You go from that to a room where every minute that you’re on campus costs the production thousands of dollars, and there’s 12 professionals in the room, and you’re talking about how many pussy models you need, and which one is right for which shot, and at what angle… It’s insane. I mean, it’s enough to drive you absolutely mental when you think about it.

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