Robin Urdang

Courageous Emmy-winning and Grammy-nominated music supervisor, Robin Urdang returns to take us behind the scenes of irresistible musical moments from the prestige projects she oversees. A gifted matchmaker of story and song with powerful skills of persuasion, Robin perpetually delivers mesmerizing results, which can be experienced in films and television shows including Call Me By Your Name, Suspiria, Younger, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, A Bigger Splash, Billionaire Boys Club, and The After Party. After last year’s momentous “Outstanding Music Supervision” Emmy win, Robin, alongside Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, is nominated again in the same category for her contributions to the much-heralded period comedy-drama, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In our enjoyable exchange, Robin details how they captured the essence of 1959 Jewish summer resort culture in the Catskill Mountains and drums up excitement for her reunion with Luca Guadagnino on the forthcoming HBO limited series, We Are Who We Are.

Source: Paul Archuleta

Source: Paul Archuleta

First of all, congratulations on your “Outstanding Music Supervision” Emmy nomination for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. As last year’s recipient of this accolade for the very same show, how did you, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Dan Palladino expand upon the exemplary musical identity you established in the first season? Were there any specific songs on last season’s wishlist that made the cut this time around?

Thanks. We are all excited about being nominated. 20 Emmy nominations – it’s wild!!!

The music of the show continues to run the gamut from the obscure to the more popular songs of the 1950’s. We start the season with Barbra Streisand’s “Just Leave Everything To Me,” as Midge takes charge of the switchboard at B. Altman’s. The shot is a “oner” — they don’t cut, but shoot one big, long take each time — and the music carries it through almost as if it’s a dance number. 

We have also used some Parisian music, and we have a lot of musical numbers in season two. Not only do we have the Catskills, but we introduce Shy Baldwin at a telethon, where he performs his first song for us. In that episode, we also have a very fun dance number to “Pink Shoe Laces.” So, the music is still of the same identity — just more featured uses, more musical numbers, more dancing, and a bit more variety.

Every so often, there are songs that we want to use, but just don’t work in an episode or even that season, but we save them for the future or wait until we head into that year. Season three will take place in 1960. 

At the start of the second season, Midge and her father, Abe leave Manhattan to follow her unhappy mother, Rose, to Paris with the intention of persuading her to return home. With your musical selections, how did you intend to embrace the magic of Paris while creating continuity with the familiar, fast-paced Manhattan energy of the show? 

Paris doesn’t need much embracing! In general, season two, even in Paris, we still keep within the style and sound of the show. We added some Parisian music of the time [for scenes] in restaurants and on the streets. There were a few lush numbers with Midge at the Seine when we used “Tea For Two,” or the dancing [sequence] with Rose and Abe when we used “What A Wonderful World.” 

We got to shoot a musical number at a place called Madame Arthur’s, which was a drag queen club in the 1950s. I actually got to correspond with one of the original drag queens, Bambi, who emailed me a lot of information in French about the club and the music she performed. Thank goodness for Google Translate.

The difficult thing about the French music is the song clearances. French rights are different than American, and when Amy chose one of the songs for the club which I suggested, it wasn’t until the morning of the shoot that it cleared. I was beyond stressed — to think we were shooting something without a clearance first, ugh — but it all came together.

In episode four, we were treated to an exploration of 1959 Jewish summertime resort culture in the Catskill Mountains. Interwoven with nostalgic licensed tracks, you facilitated a group sing-a-long, live music, and a dance competition. What were the challenges of manifesting verisimilitude in a bygone era such as this? Can you elaborate on the logistics involved in executing these dynamic onscreen performances? 

As a Jewish New Yorker who had friends that went to the Catskills, and having gone to sleep away camp up in the area and loving musicals myself, the music and life of the Catskills were all very familiar. But nothing would look as good or have worked as well as it did if it were not for our amazing team. Together, we made everything work, but not without a few little hiccups, so to say…

On the first day of the shoot, I walked over to sound. There, in almost a cubby hole, was our sound mixer and playback, and our incredibly talented gem of a producer, Stewart Lerman, all ready for three days of singing, dancing, live recording, and playback. Last-minute shuffles and changes, recording live vocals before call, rehearsing dancers and hoping that nobody gets kicked in the head during the dancing — it was just insane, great and a bit terrifying as well.

One of the songs, which seems to be simple, was actually one of the most difficult songs to perform. It was the welcome song, Carolina In The Morning that Dan Palladino wrote. If you watch the scene, they sing, and clap, and stomp their feet…and it’s not easy. And you can’t rehearse extras, so we had the music playing over and over in their holding rooms. We had a vocal coach who could lead them, as well as a teleprompter. It was a lot of stress, but it came out great.  

Ironically, I want to add that the 2018 Emmy nominations for season one were announced on the day we were shooting the ‘We’re Going to the Catskills!’ episode, which is the episode nominated for the 2019 Emmys. I was off on the side of the stage with my unbelievably marvelous co-producer, Matt [Shapiro]. He and I were watching the announcements, and then he went online to look up the ones not announced on live TV which included “Outstanding Music Supervision.” It was unbelievable to be on the set with everyone when Amy [Sherman-Palladino] made the announcement congratulating the entire cast and crew. It was a moment I will always remember and cherish. 

In this season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, there has been an increase of live musical numbers, and you spared no expense in harnessing the greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and of course, Barbra Streisand. Please tell us about the artistic latitude you are enjoying with the expanding popularity and acclaim garnered by this show. 

The show lends itself to all of this music, and with each season, we have more and more musical performances — wait for season three. As with season one, Amy and Dan use music as a character. We do need to keep on budget, but the licensors are all working with us and amazing. I think it works for everyone. They want their music in the show, we want their music in the show, and we all work together to make it happen. We do have a decent budget though, and honestly, when there are live performances, the licensing is less expensive because we only pay for the publishing. The studio recording usually doesn’t cost as much as the master would because we record a few songs in one session. 

TV Land’s Younger charts the turbulent and entertaining journey of Liza Miller, a 40-something single mother masquerading as a millennial to achieve her dream of working in the publishing world. Since the very beginning, the show has served as a platform for such a colorful range of rising musicians.

Over the years, we have definitely used artists that today would be too expensive to use — they are too popular now. But we love to use emerging artists and get tons of inquiries as to where to find songs, and who the artist was, etc. I just try to keep on the cutting edge of new music while staying true to the sound of Younger. Over time, we’ve added a bit more edginess [to the soundtrack] than the first few episodes, I think. 

Can you tell us about how Liza and Kelsey’s performance of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” was envisioned for the season six premiere? 

Liza [Sutton Foster] and Kelsey [Hilary Duff] are both singers, so the writers knew they could record this. Because the episode is about Diana wanting to leave the company, they choose the song knowing she won’t be able to resist joining in their singing.

Now that Liza’s secret regarding her real age is finally out in the open, how will the show and subsequently, the music evolve going into the seventh season?

I’m curious about season seven too. The fact that Liza’s real age is slowly being revealed allows the writers and its viewers to accept the truth that ageism, especially in our business, plays a huge role in what jobs we can get. Liza had to figure out a way to get around it, and she did. I know we’d all like to be able to… maybe differently. Depending on what the writers give to us, we’ll determine any musical changes for the season.

Based on the Elizabeth Kendall’s memoir, “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy,” Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile interprets the biography of one of America’s most diabolical and depraved serial killers. Director Joe Berlinger’s deep dive into the pathos of Bundy was musically represented with intense modular synth music in the docuseries, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which predated the feature film. What guided the decision to assemble a ’70s classic and obscure rock soundtrack?

The Ted Bundy murders and sentencing took place during the ’70s, and we wanted to be true to the time. I didn’t want to use songs that appear in every show or film, though I know one song in particular, was used right around the same time as this. The songs that were chosen were meant to keep the audience in the 70s while working with the scenes, so the film wasn’t too dark and ominous. We had a lot more songs in the film, which, at the last minute, had to be pulled due to budget. One that I tried to get them to keep was “Bang Bang,” but at the last minute, the distributor said no going over budget.  

Our budget was so low that it was a huge struggle to get such great songs, but again, the licensors worked with me. Oh, and in the beginning, nobody wanted to allow us to use anything because of the subject matter. They didn’t want to glamorize, so to speak, a serial killer. I had to explain that the film was more of a love story and was not glamorizing murder or Ted Bundy. I’m really happy with how the film and music turned out — just wish we could have kept it all.

You will be reuniting with director, Luca Guadagnino for the limited HBO series, We Are Who We Are. It has been described as a coming of age story revolving around two American teenagers, who are living on a military base in Italy. What can we expect from the musical atmosphere of this series? Will it speak to the taste of the younger generation, and will it recognize any Italian musical traditions? 

YES! I am just starting Luca’s eight-episode mini-series and always thrilled to be working with him. We Are Who We Are is going to be amazing. It’s set in Italy in 2016, so the music will be from May 2016 and earlier. Without a doubt, we will use both Italian rock and punk, and American songs. I’m gathering music now, and it certainly will be a range of songs, artists, and sounds from the biggest to the most obscure. Of course, we will use [the music of] John Adams, as Luca does in all of his films, but there will also be a diversity of music to create a fantastic soundtrack. Will keep you posted on this one!

Looking to the future, what other projects can we look forward to from you and Reel Music SuperVision?

In addition to Maisel — I’m still working on season three, and the air date will soon be announced — and Luca [Guadagnino]’s show, I’m also music supervising an indie film, Palm Springs, and a kids TV series for Netflix. Younger will begin season seven early next year. I will be starting John Patrick Shanley’s film, Wild Mountain Thyme, which begins shooting in Ireland in September with my sister, Leslie producing, and I just signed on to do Marry Me for Universal, starring J Lo as a performer. Kat Coiro, who I’ve worked with before, is directing, and I’m excited to be working with her again. I guess those are the projects to look out for — for now!

Interviewer | Ruby Gartenberg
Research, Copy, Editing, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg

Extending gratitude to Robin Urdang.