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‘He Was the Music’

Remembering Adam Schlesinger with the creators, songwriters, and cast of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Rachel Bloom with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend musical collaborator Adam Schlesinger, who died this week of complications from COVID-19. Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images
Rachel Bloom with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend musical collaborator Adam Schlesinger, who died this week of complications from COVID-19. Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images
Rachel Bloom with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend musical collaborator Adam Schlesinger, who died this week of complications from COVID-19. Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images

By the time it ended last year, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had gifted 157 songs to the world. A lot of the musical credit goes to Grammy- and Emmy-winning composer, songwriter, and producer Adam Schlesinger, who died on April 1 at age 52 from complications of COVID-19.

Schlesinger collaborated on all of the show’s memorable songs with co-creator and star Rachel Bloom, executive producer-songwriter Jack Dolgen, who also wrote for the show, and showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna. But by all accounts, the sound of Crazy Ex belonged in large part to Schlesinger, so Vulture reached out to his colleagues to share their memories of him as a musician, a writer, and a friend.

Rachel Bloom (co-creator, executive producer, and star)

This is the first time I’ve really grieved like this. I’m devastated. Yesterday I was mourning him as a friend. Today I’m mourning him as a creative partner. What he and Jack and I did was so special. It just puts Crazy Ex in this new light. The finale aired almost a year ago, but then we did Radio City in May and London in June and we were slobbering all over each other. I know the collaboration with Adam and Jack and Aline was communal, but the cast really got to know Adam so much better on tour. They knew him from recording, but Adam was rarely on set because he was so busy with his other duties. So we all got really close on the tours … Pete [Gardner] sent a text saying he wishes we could all go to a bar and sing Adam’s song. In every culture throughout human history, you mourn as a group. Adam, Jack, and I are all secular Jews, but I would love to sit shiva for him. I really would and I can’t. It’s really hard.

He had so many more songs to write and so much creativity and things to say. The world does know how special he was, and that’s important to all of us to make sure that the world knows. I can’t think of anyone else who had all the skills he had. I was a fan of his even before I started working with him. He wrote one of my favorite comedy songs of all time, “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore,” the Neil Patrick Harris opening song for the Tony Awards. I was just floored that Adam would want to do our show.

Schlesinger, Bloom, and Dolgen at the Creative Arts Emmys. Photo: Courtesy of Aline Brosh-McKenna

I found out Adam was in the hospital on a ventilator hours after my daughter was born, and she was in the NICU also on a ventilator. It was so on the nose. People on Twitter have been quoting the song we wrote, “The End of the Movie.” The reprise is “sometimes life is annoyingly obvious and it’s so on the nose.” This week has just felt so on the nose, bringing new life into this world and losing another. I mean, I have notes. It’s just too fucking obvious. If this was a screenplay, I’d be like, that would not happen.

This whole thing is fucking nuts and it completely shades in intense ways the whole Crazy Ex experience. Every photo, every video, I can’t watch anything that has Adam on it. What’s most important to all of us is that everyone, especially the fans of Crazy Ex, know how special Adam was and to know how he shaped the show. Because he was behind the scenes, it’s really important that people understand the way the show touched their lives is because of Adam. Now that I’m grieving, I am so incredibly grateful to do or watch or listen to silly shit that makes me laugh. And if someone who made that stuff for me died, I would want to know and be grateful to them.

Aline Brosh McKenna (co-creator and showrunner)

My husband and Adam were roommates for three or four years in the early ’90s, so I knew him from that; Adam was playing in Fountains of Wayne and we were always very proud of him. For Crazy Ex, I first reached out to him when we did the Showtime pilot. I sent him some of Rachel’s videos, and the next time he came to L.A. he met with Rachel and Jack. At that point, I knew that we might not get picked up by Showtime and I was a little worried we were wasting his time, but I was hopeful we would find another home for it. They met and they just really hit it off … He loved Rachel’s music and what she did right from the beginning, and he really got it. So when we got picked up, we were going to need someone to be part of the songwriting and producing process and he was the first person we called.

What he did exactly was a learning process for me. All of the songs were brainstormed first coming out of the writers’ room, because the scripts always took precedence in terms of the songs having to fit the story. Then there would be a brainstorming session, and it would depend on who was available or who had the idea on who would run with it. They’re all very generous collaborators and I, as the showrunner, was the tiebreaker. Even though I was the non-musical person, he was always very kind about the way I expressed myself and he was always very accepting of my opinions, and could translate them into actual music lingo.

I remember once he said to me, “It doesn’t make any sense that we’ve been able to do this.” He was really bowled over by the amount of songs that we were doing. He said, “The only person who thought this was possible was you, and that’s because you’re not a musician or a songwriter.” Because if I had been, I would have known what it really meant to write two or three songs every week. It was relentless.

He was so passionate and cared so much about the work, and to be fluent in so many genres was pretty incredible. “What’ll It Be” felt like we had been doing a jigsaw puzzle and there was a big piece missing and then Adam showed up with the demo, and you can hear that that’s pretty much the song. He always sang that live, so I think about it as an Adam song.

For “Getting Bi” we were so exhausted. And we needed a song to go there. We wanted to be really sensitive about that subject. I had a long conversation with Nick Adams at GLAAD about bisexual representation and he shared some of the stereotypical thinking around that. [Then] I had a conversation with Adam on the phone. It was like 15 minutes, and then this song appeared in my inbox, and I played it for the writers’ room, and it was such a bop. And that song has meant so much to so many people. It’s really one of the great live songs that everybody loves.

I would always try to get him to soak up the glory more. Like when we would shoot the music videos, I would tell him to come to set. He didn’t really want to do that. He was a very humble guy in that way and really cared about the music and making a great song. His kids were in New York, and he wanted to go home and be with his family as much as he could . He was an interesting combination of being very shy and very social. He had a ton of friends. He had a ton of work families ’cause he had been in two bands and worked on Broadway, so he knew a lot of people. But he was soft-spoken and really loved his daughters.

He was extremely thoughtful. After they won the Emmy, you can request a certificate for someone who contributed to the Emmy. And he got me a certificate but he didn’t tell me I was getting it. So I got this piece of mail from the Academy, and it was a certificate with my name on it. And I sent him a text, and I asked, “What is this amazing certificate you gave me?” And he said, “They sent me a form to order some certificates. So you got one. Sorry I did not include my actual Emmy.” And then he put a little trophy emoji. That was really, really, really thoughtful. He was always very grateful for the opportunity. He loved the show. As hard of work it was, he really loved it.

Jack Dolgen (music composer, songwriter, and executive producer)

After we made the pilot, Aline asked me if I knew who Adam Schlesinger was. “Yes! I know who that is!” She asked me if I thought he would be a good addition to the show. I think she was being nice to me, she knew the answer to that, but she also knew that she would be replacing me with him as music producer. I told her “If you do that, it’s going to go from being a good show to a great show.” So he came in to meet with Rachel and me and Aline, and he was just way too casual about everything. He was just like, “Yeah, sounds cool.” He has a very casual personality, but make no mistake, he knew how talented he was and he really trusted his creative barometer. He didn’t have to be cocky. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone or prove anything. He just did what he did. And it really worked out for everyone. I was able to stay on as a songwriter on the show and become a writer on the writing staff, which is really what I wanted. Aline and Rachel gave me that chance and that changed my career. I owe that to Adam being so much better of a music producer than I am.

The thing that Adam and I talked about a lot over the years was that you can be a fantastic songwriter and meet another fantastic songwriter and you put them in a room and they might not gel or make anything together. We had a very lucky situation, in part because of Adam’s confidence and his lack of pompousness when it came to creativity. Rachel and I had been writing songs for a while, and he had such a humble entry point. He had every reason to be like, “Step aside, here comes the big dog.” Right away when we started working together, it just worked creatively. We had fun. We made each other laugh. We would challenge each other’s ideas to get better. We all respected each other’s opinion. And we fought sometimes. When you have four people in a collaboration, if you include Aline, everyone has a good reason to trust their instincts. So if those instincts conflict, sometimes you can dig your heels and get a little stubborn about it. But we developed a lot of trust.

It would be unreasonable to ask for what we had; I think God would be like, “Hey man, settle down over there.” We got to do it for years and I got a brother out of it, too. We got to do live shows. We went to Radio City Music Hall. I don’t think people who care about Crazy Ex understand how much of that was really because of Adam. That doesn’t take anything from Rachel or me, but what Adam did in a musical sense, producing every track, fleshing out every raw idea — I got lazy because he was so good at putting songs together that I started going like, “Fuck it. I’m going to put the guitar down. I’ll just write some lyrics. He’ll come up with a way better chordal structure and, and harmonic, structure than I can.” I’m worse at songwriting now because Adam was so good!

Dolgen and Schlesinger collaborating. Photo: Courtesy of Aline Brosh-McKenna

My favorite way of writing in that group was that the three of us would get together and brainstorm, ideally in person, but if not on the phone. Adam was just a superstar at turning a brainstorm into a fully completed song. It seemed easy the way he did it. It’s very unusual what he was able to do. He made everyone’s life easier, but he was sometimes a pain in the ass, too. He would really dig in his heels and we’d go at it. I don’t care how many articles are written about him or top 20 lists, no one will ever understand his ability because he worked at such a high level across so many different mediums. One person might be an expert at one of those. But he was just effortless about all of it.

My favorite Adam solo efforts for us were “What It’ll Be” and “Gettin’ Bi.” If “Gettin’ Bi” was 20 percent less jokey, it would be a Fountains of Wayne song. It has the phrasings of the songs he wrote for them. He loved doing internal rhymes. Actually, Adam was the rhyme gestapo. Adam did not like any near rhymes. He would never let Rachel and I get away with a near rhyme. It drove us crazy.

As a friend, he was too sweet for how smart and talented and stubborn he was as a creative person. When I started dating my wife, he was excited about it and he couldn’t wait to meet her, and they really hit it off. He was a very soft person. He was also very jokey, witty, and cynical. He and I definitely connected on that level. I’m not around that many band dudes from New York anymore, so Adam was a guy I could talk to and connect with on that level … When we toured, I was in the band. I played bass and he played keys or guitar or whatever. We would trade around a bit. I hadn’t been on tour in a long time and we were on planes, which was a luxury for me. It was like band camp. I wouldn’t have taken me seriously as a musician but he did. He just really liked the community of it and he was generous in that way. I only have one Adam in my life, but I think Adam had a lot of Jacks in his life. He had a ton of people who he worked with and became close with through the years in different arenas. He was a really social dude.

One of the things that’s been hard is that when someone like Adam Schlesinger dies, you expect to be at a bar packed with 150 people that night telling stories and listening to his music. We’ve been doing it in the ways that we can, but that part is tough. But I will say this: Adam makes it easy to mourn him, because he gives you so much to laugh about and so much to remember. And I just keep thinking about what he’d be saying if he were here. He’d walk into my house and go, “Gosh, I guess I shouldn’t have gone to that Chinese wet market, huh?” That’s Adam. And that helps.

Pete Gardner (Darryl Whitefeather)

Adam was a made man; he was legitimate. When I met him, he’d already won some Emmys, he’d been nominated for an Oscar. I was very new to the singing world, and the very first song that I had to sing was “I Love My Daughter (But Not in a Creepy Way).” We would do our songs at the table reads and mine came after Santino Fontana had sung “Settle for Me” the week before, and it was like sitting next to Frank Sinatra. So I got through that, and when we recorded it, I barely knew Adam so I was very nervous about it. And then, little by little, I started to loosen up more and more and Adam told me that’s exactly what he wanted. And it gave me license to do the whole rest of the show. I never would’ve had the courage to do it without that. Because of the way Adam supported me, and the way Adam believed in me, and never looked at me sideways, I always felt like the only way to do it is all out, full out, and then that gave me the confidence to keep doing it each time I did it.

The show’s over, but we always knew we’d do those songs somewhere else again, or Rachel would have a party or there would be a charity event and we’d do them. But now it won’t be the same thing. It just won’t. I don’t even know that that will even happen again, because he was the music. “Getting Bi” was his song, and as I got more and more comfortable doing it, he saw what an audience favorite it was. The audience liked to play with me. I would say, “Getting” and the audience would scream “Bi!” And he could see that we were having so much fun doing that. So he said, “At the very end, when you’re spinning around and you’re jumping, every time you jump, the band will stop and then when you jump again, the band will start up again.” And it was so cool! He was such a collaborator. He wanted to play.

We had an after-party after the first season at my house. We sang karaoke in my backyard and it was crazy. And I remember Adam coming up to me, “Let’s sing something.” And so we started going through the list, and I loved Joe Jackson from the ’80s. And he was like, “I love Joe Jackson!” So he and I sang “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” in my backyard, and that’s when our friendship began. We were quite a bit older than everybody else — everybody was in their 30s and we were both in our 50s. He was kind of a no-nonsense kind of guy, like he didn’t have a lot of time to goof around or whatever, but when you got that guy to hang out with you and talk with you or laugh or whatever, it was like gold. It really felt special.

Steven M. Gold (composer and music producer)

I met him in ’93 when I had a little jingle house where we did commercials and things like that. A mutual friend introduced us and we’ve been working together ever since. I worked with him mostly on the film and TV stuff when he needs a producing partner. Some of them were one-offs, some of them were series, for like eight or nine years we used to do the cartoons on Saturday Night Live. We did Dana Carvey Show, Chappelle’s Show, Howard Stern, Crank Yankers, lots of theme songs. We did a lot of novelty songs for the opening of awards shows or a song in the middle of another show. Adam was like the king of writing comedy songs.  In every genre of music.

On Crazy Ex, Adam didn’t just get song “assignments,” he would pore over every script and knew exactly what the characters were going through in that episode. Occasionally the other two would have one idea for a song, and Adam would beat it with a better concept for a song. And sometimes Adam might present an idea, and then they would beat it with the better or funnier song for that slot. It was completely collaborative and crazy fun. I wasn’t the songwriter — I’ll help with some arrangements, orchestration, things like that — but I heard them in their writing sessions, and it was just three of the funniest people I’ve ever seen.

As amazing as he was as a songwriter and multi-instrument musician — he played the guitar, the piano, bass, drums, percussion — it was really his sense of comedy and his command of the English language that shines through in his TV work, and Fountains of Wayne as well. Because he was such a smart guy and a great linguist and an amazing conversationalist, he was so fun to hang out with … We had several little vacations together with other friends during the Christmas, New Year period. My friend Anthony used to tell me that Adam’s the greatest guy to go on vacation with because he kind of forces you to explore the new island, the best beaches, a restaurant. He was like the “cruise director” on all of our trips, boundless energy for finding out new hidden gems of cool stuff.

Gabrielle Ruiz (Valencia Perez)

I grew up loving the film That Thing You Do! [for which Schlesinger wrote the titular track]. When I met him, I was very starstruck. I was only a guest star in season one, so it was incredible that I was sticking around and that I got another song, “Women Gotta Stick Together.” It was rewritten and prerecorded with all the women in Adam’s recording studio in Los Angeles. And so it was the first time I got to have a slower, “let’s figure it out” process with a song. I was so excited to do that and I also was very scared to tell him that I don’t play the guitar, because Valencia plays the guitar in that song. I was scared because I didn’t want them to cut the song or be an issue for another rewrite. We were shooting it the next day, and I confided in him. And he was like, “Oh, don’t worry, this is Hollywood, just fake it.” I remember laughing and thinking, this man is so talented and he just told me that I’m going to be fine without being able to play an instrument, and then he grabbed his guitar and he’s like, “But it’s just four chords. Here. Just watch me do it.” And he’s strumming his guitar, and he goes through all the four or five chords that they are, and he just gives me his guitar and he’s like, “Go for it. Just fake it.” He sent me an email telling me it looks so good when he saw the final cut. I was able to do that song with him playing the guitar on the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend live tour.

He was definitely a bucket list person to work with. He was a magician in the music industry, he could make any earworm successful. Any song. But he had this really fun and cool energy in the recording studio. The pressure was never there. For as successful of a man as he was, he just always made you feel you were going to be just fine. It was an amazing chapter in my life, and I’m just devastated.

‘He Was the Music’