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Composing one iconic TV show theme song is difficult enough. Try making seven, each representing a different sitcom era and performed in an entirely different style. Oh, and they should all still feel unified … somehow. This was the task confronting songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez when tackling Disney+’s debut Marvel Cinematic Universe series WandaVision, a trippy exploration of grief that stylistically skips through TV history from the black-and-white 1950s I Love Lucy-era through early 2000s fourth-wall-breaking Modern Family-age. The duo, along with series director Matt Shakman, discuss pulling off the score and reveal some of their favorite themes of all time.
Robert and Kristen, you’ve been writing songs for major theatrical films. How did you get involved with the series, and what excited you about it?
ROBERT LOPEZ I knew Matt from college long ago, where we had done a production of The Tempest that Matt directed and starred in. I wrote the music for the songs, but the whole thing was done in the Yale swimming pool; it was the most echoey thing you’ve ever heard.
KRISTEN ANDERSON-LOPEZ Matt called out of the blue and said, “Do you want to be involved in this Marvel project?” We were just fascinated and thought we had to do it. For me, it was the perfect job because I can sing absolutely any TV theme song or commercial jingle from my childhood.
MATT SHAKMAN They sat in that wonderful weird Venn diagram of people who understood big pop culture but also had a deep love for classic television. We needed something that would be perfectly authentic because Wanda had created a television show based on the DNA of all the things she grew up loving to watch, which were basically the same things Bobby, Kristen and I grew up loving to watch.
What were those early conversations like?
SHAKMAN The songs needed to evoke a time and a place, but they also needed to do some narrative heavy lifting. Our first episode did what those classic ’50s theme songs do, which is to set the scene and tell you that a robot and a witch moved to suburban New Jersey. Later on, it became much more about setting the mood and reinforcing the romance and the love and the family, because we were trying to create this show that really was about hearth and home. But the main question was, “How would this not feel disjointed and too many songs?” And we solved that by putting one theme (“wand-dah viz-zion … “) in every song. We wanted one thing to tie them together.
LOPEZ When Matt took us through the story, there were so many ingredients. There’s the bright happy sitcom, plus the underlying sense of dread that everything’s not right and beneath that, this underlying grief and sadness — not just for this story and character but for all of American culture that just felt like it was in a deep crisis.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ Without being able to tell the future, somehow they knew we were going to be in our own Westview situations during quarantine; enclosed in our own bubbles, dealing with emotions and our families. It was kind of amazing the way this project was for that moment.
It must have been tricky to have multiple theme songs covering multiple eras while avoiding sounding like parody.
SHAKMAN And then to connect the musical theme of Wanda in each one in a way that’s recognizable, whether it’s the Modern Family/The Office-inspired one or the Bewitched-inspired one — it’s a work of genius. Then for Kathryn Hahn to sing “Agatha All Along” and for it to rise above Cardi B and Justin Bieber on the iTunes chart …
ANDERSON-LOPEZ Kathryn Hahn was like, “What is happening!?” While with the ’80s one, “Making It Up as We Go Along,” that became the theme song of our pandemic. Like, “OK, we can’t get toilet paper, so we’re (sings) making it up as we go along! The kids can’t go to school, so we’re making it up as we go along!” And as a performer, it was so interesting to realize how we make sound with our voices has changed over the decades. Like, the way you sang in the ’40s is so open, and then you’re screaming in the 2000s.
Which was the toughest song to crack?
LOPEZ The ’90s one [“Let’s Keep It Going”]. We went a bit too dark and lost our way a little bit lyrically. It took a few at-bats.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ This is in part due to us spending the ’90s listening to Sondheim musicals while everybody else was actually listening to ’90s music.
LOPEZ Luckily the one show I had watched was Malcolm in the Middle, so I had that musical landmark.
SHAKMAN I got a bottle of champagne from Linwood Boomer, the creator of Malcolm and the Middle, who reached out to say, “Thank you for honoring my show and capturing the spirit of it.”
Matt, what was some of the input you gave the team along the way?
SHAKMAN It was a wonderful dialogue. Originally with “Agatha All Along,” we were talking about calling it “That’s So Agatha.” Then we came up with “Agatha All Along,” which is a better way of coming to that reveal for Agatha as this presence who’s been there from the beginning, working her own agenda. Then Kristen was like, “OK, so what has she been doing all along?” And that led to spontaneous things where all of a sudden on set you have Kathryn doing magic and controlling Evan Peters. So it was a joy of finding it organically.
Which lyrics for each of you were a favorite or standout?
LOPEZ We had written a line at the end of the Brady Bunch-style one [“We Got Something Cooking”] — “One plus one is three,” which made you think, “They’re going to have a baby.” But really it ends up being more as it’s going to be twins. Then the note came back: “Can you change that ending? Because it’s not three and we don’t want to be confusing.” So Kristen came up with, “One plus one is family.”
ANDERSON-LOPEZ Years of the worst TV just live in me! My favorite was one of Bobby’s because I had written a lyric, “You grew up with a vision of what life can be,” and Bobby was like, “let’s get both their names in there,” and did, “You wander the world with a vision of what life could be.”
Was a style of music considered but not ultimately used?
ANDERSON-LOPEZ With “Agatha All Along,” we were going to do a “That Girl” idea. And I was like, “I don’t think it’s dark enough.” I woke up one morning and thought, we need to lean into the goth and Addams Family and The Munsters because Agatha has some grit to her.
Given your deep dive into this subject, which TV show has your favorite theme song of all time?
SHAKMAN The Greatest American Hero.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ I really love The Facts of Life. Punky Brewster was great. Silver Spoons. And Cheers, of course.
LOPEZ And Friends.
There’s been a trend of moving away from having full opening credit sequences with an accompanying theme song. Now it’s often just a short refrain and a title card. How do you feel about that?
ANDERSON-LOPEZ I’m sad about it as a songwriter. I think that a lot of great songwriters had a chance to build careers based on getting their songs in front of shows and also supplement with some experimental things in their own art with the income from writing one of these songs. I think it’s a wonderful way to pull people into the world: You’ve been out in the real world, you’ve been on your phone, come enter here, this is the lobby of the building you’re about to live in for a little while … (begins humming the theme song to Game of Thrones).
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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