music here music there

Behind the Music of John Mulaney’s Netflix Kids’ Special The Sack Lunch Bunch

Music music everywhere. Photo: Netflix

In the same year that they delivered a pitch-perfect Sondheim-esque fake musical in Co-op, nearly the same group of people has reunited to bring you a not-quite satire that it is just as ridiculously specific. John Mulaney’s Netflix kids’ special The Sack Lunch Bunch pairs up Mulaney, who doesn’t have kids and isn’t interested in having them, with a bunch of cute kids to pay homage to the great kids’ TV of yore, and make a lot of very New York–specific showbiz jokes in the process. The result is both winking and loving, appropriate for both kids and adults who laugh at Fran Leibowitz jokes. The highlights of the special come with a series of musical performances, performed by the very-talented Sack Lunch kids as well as a set of very famous guest stars. Eli Bolin, who wrote songs for Co-op, worked with Mulaney and his writing partner Marika Sawyer, who wrote the lyrics together, as well as orchestrator Mike Pettry on the songs for Sack Lunch Bunch. Vulture spoke with Bolin over the phone about how the group put together the Sack Lunch songs for this special.

“The idea was really exciting for me because it overlapped with the same kind of stuff that I watched as a kid,” Bolin, who has a background writing music for more traditional kids TV, told Vulture. Mulaney talked to him about the idea, referencing some of the highlights from that genre, including old-school Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Really Rosie. “The great thing about Really Rosie in particular,” Bolin pointed out, “is that it’s for kids, but it’s a little twisted because it’s from Maurice Sendak, and the music is by Carole King, so it rocks.” The goal for Sack Lunch Bunch was to make something that kids can appreciate — there are more than a few jokes that might fly over their heads, but still, kids get it — that would still keep adults engaged.

In writing the songs, Mulaney and Sawyer would come up with lyrics, often based around the meter or rhyme scheme of other songs, and then send them to Bolin, who would “write stuff that was inspired by the feel of songs they were writing to, and sometimes had nothing to do with the feel of the songs they were writing to.” In a few cases, the premise of the song meant it had to take the form of a very specific genre. André De Shields, a recent Tony-winner for Hadestown, performs a song about algebra (and losing his eye) that sounds like a New Orleans jazz piece that would fit right into that musical. “When I started writing it, I hadn’t seen Hadestown yet, so I listened to a couple of André’s songs from that,” Bolin said, “Then I purposefully didn’t listen to anymore Hadestown, because I didn’t want to be copying specific songs from it. I wanted to get a sense of the flavor of that show was before writing a song, without spending too much time with the music from it.” Bolin did eventually see the show in full, which he “really loved,” when he met De Shields backstage to go over his Sack Lunch song.

The only other song that Bolin wrote for a specific guest was David Byrne’s song, which the former Talking Heads frontman (and current Broadway star) performs with a little girl who’s trying to convince adults to pay attention to her at a party. “Most of the song is written in an early Talking Heads vein in a general sense,” Bolin said, adding that he decided he was well-versed in Byrne’s early period with the band, which this song references specifically, to not go back and listen to their music until he and Pettry were figuring out this song’s orchestration. The most intimidating part of the process came when Bolin had to play his demo version of the song, for Byrne himself, sitting around a table at Mulaney’s apartment. “We just sat there silently as David listened to it,” Bolin said. “Afterward, luckily he nodded and said, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ Then, he said to me on more than one occasion [as we recorded the song], which was odd and I guess flattering, ‘I’m imitating you imitating me,’ because on the demo, I’m doing a David Byrne impression cartoonishly.”

Surprisingly, two other songs that feature well-known guest stars, Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal, weren’t written with them specifically in mind. Jake Gyllenhaal shows up at the end of the episode as a cartoonish version of himself, playing a character named Mr. Music and singing a calypso melody with the refrain “Music here / Music there / Music music everywhere.” “We got very close to filming and it was still up in the air, and all the possibilities [to play Mr. Music] were so different,” Bolin said. “Jake did such a great job, he was so funny.” That song’s style, according to Bolin, came naturally out of Mulaney’s lyrics. “It read as very light and silly and very bubbly and bouncy, and calypso seemed to suggest itself,” he said. “It was the right kind of party atmosphere, especially for the big song at the end.”

In another distinctive guest appearance, Annaleigh Ashford (who happened to have starred with Gyllenhaal in Sunday in the Park With George) plays a white lady just sobbing on the street in New York. Her duet with a dapper kid named Alex J has a swinging, Burt Bacharach feel that’s appropriate to its fantasia Manhattan setting, that happens to be filled with Au Bon Pain. “John started talking about the idea for a song, and I was sitting at the piano, and I started playing a Laura Nyro–style vamp and I started improvising a melody out of some fragments of words we were throwing around,” Bolin said. “John really responded to that specific melody [the one that defines the part of the verse that goes “It was two … years ago” and “Christmastime … foot of snow”], and so I fleshed it out the melody and progression.” Bolin’s especially proud of the music for that song, as well as its warm feelings, which take it a step away from just being a joke sketch. “There’s a real sweetness to it,” he said. “I like how it ends in this quiet, gentle place where the kid is talking about how he imagines how they would be friends.”

That song, as well as three others in the special — one about buttered noodles, another about grandma’s new boyfriend, and a third questioning whether flowers exist at night — required a lot of vocal talent from the kids in the Sack Lunch Bunch. “I had some alternate melodies prepared in case the songs were too rangy. I do tend to write pretty rangy material,” Bolin admitted, “and luckily, the kids were able to nail them.” The hardest part of that process, he added, was just figuring out what keys to place the songs in, but they never had to use alternate melodies. For “Do Flowers Exist at Night?” the show paired up two particularly talented kids with an injection of a soprano run from Shereen Pimentel, who happens to be playing Maria in the upcoming Broadway version of West Side Story (originally, they asked Lizzo to guest on the song, “and there was interest there, and then all of the sudden, there was radio silence”).

There was one other song that Bolin wrote with Sawyer and Mulaney that didn’t make it into the special, primarily because the intended guest performer, Stevie Nicks, turned them down. “I don’t want to give too much away in case we somehow circle back to it with Stevie Nicks,” Bolin said, “but it was about a girl singing about the music that her mom loves, and one of the things her mom loves is Stevie Nicks, and Stevie Nicks would show up to sing part of the song.” To Bolin, it was a “heartbreaker” not to be able to use that song, because it “had a real sweetness to it” — though ironically, Nicks turned them down because it wasn’t funny enough, according to Mulaney. “We thought of it as a heartwarming song with some chuckles in it, so the fact that she didn’t think it was funny, whatever that meant to her, wasn’t really a problem to me personally,” Bolin said. “Well, we have it in our pocket, in case we need to revisit it, if we do another one of these.”

Behind the Music of John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch