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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Composer Jeff Richmond on Why Kimmy Is a Trumpet and Liz Lemon Is a Clarinet

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Jeff Richmond and spouse Tina Fey are one of Hollywood’s most dynamic duos. Richmond, an accomplished composer, has teamed up with Fey to score music on Saturday Night Live, Baby Mama, 30 Rock (for which he won three Emmys), and, most recently, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. He’s also doing the music for NBC’s upcoming Maya Rudolph–Martin Short variety show, while he and Fey recently announced that they’ll be slightly delaying the third season of Kimmy Schmidt so they can complete the musical version of Mean Girls. Herein, he talks to Vulture about which instrument best represents Kimmy Schmidt (and Liz Lemon), and why it’s so hard to score an emotional scene that’s entirely set on a roller coaster.

I’m interested in how you approach scoring Kimmy Schmidt, compared to how you scored 30 Rock. They’re both comedies, they’re both set in New York, but Kimmy obviously has some darker elements. How do you incorporate that into the score?
It’s funny. Kimmy has darker elements, but because we’re seeing Kimmy through her eyes and her point of view and the way she sees the world, everything is on a bright and hopeful bent, even stuff that’s in the bunker. I always thought, “Oh, it’s a Midwestern thing. All the music should sound like it could be playing in a gazebo in a park.” It’s very light and fun and hopeful and sweet.

30 Rock was more like trying to throw New York’s style and attitude, no matter what period it was, into this show-business world. There was a lot of showbiz flair and slick jazz. But we adapted that to different kinds of characters in 30 Rock. With Kenneth, it felt fine to score him with something a little hokey and country, and then Tracy was what Tracy was. Liz Lemon was always scored with a clarinet, because I always said the smartest girls in grade school and middle school all played clarinet. I think it’s the most human-sounding of all instruments, I don’t know why. The difference is just tonal.

Do the Kimmy Schmidt characters have those kinds of instrument associations in the score?
For a big chunk of the time, whenever I could, I scored Kimmy with a trumpet. She’s kind of brash and strong, but out there, in front of everything. She made me think of “charge!” like a bugle. No matter what, a trumpet cuts through everything. So there’s a lot of the score where there’ll be music going along, and you’ll hear a trumpet that’s trying to find a melody in a tune. It’s like, “Well, it’s a trumpet and it kind of fits in and it sounds right, but it’s not quite right and it’s trying to find its way.” That’s Kimmy.

I don’t mind scoring Titus a little down-home because I think that it feels right on his character. Even though he’s New York in his soul, he’s still this kid from Mississippi. Jacqueline’s stuff usually has more of a slickness, more of a 30 Rock sound to it. It has a little bit of a sexy, New York, music-you-would-hear-on-a-Pan-Am-commercial-in-the-’60s kind of sound.

Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane, and Jane Krakowski all have musical-theater backgrounds, but Ellie Kemper does not. How did she feel about singing this season?
She was actually really gung-ho about it, and when she got out there and did it, she sounded great. I didn’t know that she was going to be able to pull off her big [animated] Disney song, but I thought, “Well, she probably can. She seems like she should be a singer.” So we brought her into the little studio and she nailed it. She sounded just like a voice in a Disney movie.

The ninth episode has a very extended Now That Sounds Like Music! gag, where you do these great pastiches of songs like “Walking on Sunshine,” “Sister Christian,” “All By Myself,” and “I Believe I Can Fly.” Did you have to pay for the rights to all of those?
The writers were making the pitch of, “Well, can’t we just not have to worry about getting them licensed, and then we’ll do that rule where it’s like three notes off, so it’s okay?” But I know from doing these things at Saturday Night Live that the three-note rule thing, where it’s just off enough, is always a legal mess. I made the pitch that we should be clearing those songs and getting permission to use them, and actually getting permission from the original publishers and the artists to bend their lyrics and melodies a little bit. So, yeah, we did go out and clear them.

Was Netflix like “What?! We’re going to pay for the rights to all these expensive songs, and then you’re going to re-record them?”
Yeah, it was crazy to be like, “We’re going to alter them. We’re going to pay top dollar and buy it in perpetuity, and then we’re also going to make it a little bit not the original thing.” I don’t know what the metaphor for that is.

At the same time, we wanted those tunes to sound as close as they possibly could to get real enjoyment out of them. I think we took just enough license for the audience to enjoy it.

The fifth episode is also a heavily musical episode, with a lot of parodies of musical theater.
I consider myself a musical-theater person, so I was very, very happy when the writers started talking about doing that. I tried to give them overall ideas for the kinds of songs that are used in musicals: “You need a ‘I want, I need’ song, a song about a city, a love ballad, and a torch song, and a song of inspiration.”

I don’t know that they followed those rules completely when they wrote the words, but they sent a bunch of lyrics, and then I started to shape the tunes around what I felt they wanted to be. For example, the Helen Keller song, I thought, “Well, this would be fun if it just feels like your traditional, torchy love song.”

Some of those songs also pop back up in the score later on — I remember hearing “Just Go On” used instrumentally in a different episode.
As I was scoring the rest of the episode, I remember telling people, “I think I’m just going to use these three or four tunes from that episode, and make them thematically important enough to thread the season together.” I’m glad you picked up on that. It makes me very excited.

The “Sondheim song” from Pinocchio was a tortuous, odd love song, so I scored Kimmy and Dong with it a lot, and it would occasionally come back for love-related stuff with Jacqueline. Titus and Mikey’s story uses the Helen Keller music in a few different episodes; there’s a scene later in the season where Titus is just playing the piano and it’s the Helen Keller song. Tituss [Burgess] is a very good piano player, so it’s great: You can throw a piece of music in front of him, and he’ll just play it. Then, in the last episode, the “Just Go On” song threads through that story with Kimmy and her mother.

What was the most challenging piece of music for you to write this season?
One of the trickiest things was the full score that’s going on with Kimmy and her mom during the roller-coaster ride, where they’re both just pouring their soul out. There’s this very hopeful, happy, tentative music, and it’s scoring their emotions, but also scoring the ups and downs of the roller coaster ride. It was so hard to score and mix because, and I don’t know if everybody’s aware of this, but a roller coaster is very noisy.

Yeah, it’s incredibly loud.
And on top of that, people are screaming. Then, you’re doing the mix for the episode and they want to add more screams. So I wrote it with some really high flutes and strings and some really low stuff, so you could hear the whole thing. It was a very technically challenging stretch of score, but because it was the last episode of the season and because it was so emotionally important, I wanted to be sure that we got it right. It was a lot of work on everybody’s part to pull it off, but I think it came off really well. 

I know you and Tina are now taking some time off to work on the Mean Girls musical.
We just got back to work and had a two-week writing retreat, and we feel really good. Things are coming along really nicely, and we’ve made a lot of progress in the last couple of weeks. We’re spending time this summer to really try to finish off the writing portion of the Mean Girls process, at least to where it should be at this stage in its development. Where it goes from there is always, “Who knows?” But we’re feeling really good about having a major chunk of the writing done this summer.

Do you have any set deadline for the musical to be done, or are you just working at your own pace?
We’re kind of working at our own pace, but we’re working faster than we were a year ago, because now it feels like we need to really get it moving in high gear. I wish I had some definite date, like, “Next June, it’s going to be here or there,” but I don’t.

Normally, you and Tina are working together in a collaborative process as things get made, but Mean Girls already comes with all these catchphrases and known quantities. Has it been a challenge to write around that, or do you enjoy working with those limitations?
No, it’s been pretty fun. We’re really deciding what wants to be a song, or what needs to be a song, and what that song should be. It’s a real interesting process, because there are things that most people would go, “Oh, there should be a big ‘fetch’ number.” Now, listen, I’m not saying there isn’t one … but what I’m saying is, there isn’t one, because it would be taking up an awful lot of room. But who knows? That might change.

When people think of a musical of something that’s been around for a while, something they love, [they] will start going, “Oh, there should be this song and there should be this song and there should be this song.” It’s funny, because it’s not that easy. Things don’t just drop in that simply in the musical theater structure. No wonder they take years to write.

UKS Composer on Why Kimmy Is a Trumpet