‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’: The Anatomy of a Mythic Hit Song, ‘One Less Angel’
Art and Experience: How do you craft a mythical hit single from 1959? That was the challenge for songwriters Thomas Mizer and Curtis Moore (“For The Love Of Tiffany”), who were tapped by “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and executive producer Dan Palladino to compose five original songs for Season 3’s newest character, pop star Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain). This was a marked departure from the usual jukebox playlists used as the musical backdrop for the misadventures of Rachel Brosnahan’s stand-up comic, Midge.
The first song the duo tackled was “One Less Angel,” a joyous crowd pleaser for Baldwin to perform with his backup singers, The Silver Belles. “It put us in a situation just like writers would’ve written songs at that time,” said lyricist Mizer. “Amy was very specific about wanting Shy Baldwin to have his own identity, to be recognizable as one person [based on a composite of Sam Cooke and Johnny Mathis]. It helped that we already knew the Broadway singer that dubbed for Leroy, and they created a wonderful synergy together.”
But all they knew when they began with a five-song pitch to the Palladinos was that the first song was set to be performed at a concert setting of some kind, which meant that it couldn’t be story-based. “Tom put a list of 15 to 20 song titles together and I went away and thought about the hooks,” said music composer Moore. “But then Tom had this greater inspiration when he immersed himself in researching songs from the period [1959/1960].”
“There’s this dichotomy in a lot of the songs that have a meeting at the dance but also a mythic quality of cupid and angels,” added Mizer. “So I knew I wanted to do that lyrically. But I also wanted to tell a story. This is our introduction to Shy — it’s glittery, it’s starry — and I wanted it to be meet cute, in a way. One night I was standing outside The Ahmanson [in L.A.], and there were these Doo-wop singers out on the plaza, singing songs from the era. And it was a beautifully starry night and ‘One Less Angel’ came into my head. And I immediately sent Curtis an email.”
Then it was a back and forth of listening, recording, tightening, and singing out loud to themselves. But it’s important to note that, in keeping with the pushed, forward-thinking atmosphere of the series, the two songwriters were approaching their craft from a slightly modern perspective. Thus, chord progressions often reflected the tone of today’s musical theater songwriting craft, rather than merely trying to emulate the style of the early ’60s.
The weirdest thing they did was give it a Sondheim-like twist at the end, where a new chorus was introduced. The result was overly complicated. “It’s still in the same rhyme scheme, but it’s no longer ‘One Less Angel.’ It’s about being up in heaven,” said Mizer. “We played it and it was terrible. We had to bring the hook back. We were still able to do some of that development on a musical level, and the lyric changes in the last verse where he sings, ‘I’m in heaven,’ so it actually works better to save the one change for his happiest moment, and it just pops in your ear.”
The biggest surprise for the songwriters came during the shooting of the song, when 800 extras dressed in military uniforms contemporaneously began singing in unison. “Amy and Dan and the crew just turned the camera on those guys and recorded them doing it,” Moore said. “And that became part of the fun of that moment. I don’t think it was originally planned but they mixed in the live audio from those guys.”
By contrast, Mizer and Moore also composed a torch song for the closeted Shy, “No One Has to Know,” only they didn’t realize that he was gay until much later. “We had no idea what was happening in that first episode, let alone what was Shy’s character arc, but we did know that we might need some turn and Tom was so dead on to [pursue that],” continued Moore.
“We thought about where Shy’s gonna go if we were writing it,” Mizer added. “I thought about romance and forbidden love, and said we should write a song for someone who’s gay and can’t be in love. It was a fortuitous choice, of course, and when we did learn what was going on in the season, we were able to shape the song more. We were so proud because of the weight of the emotional arc. We thought of it as the 11 o’clock number in a musical. This is Shy bearing his heart on stage, but it also feels like a pop song that could actually be a romantic hit.”