Composing for a jukebox musical proved to be an interesting challenge for Jessica Weiss and Mychael Danna. Between the modernised story and the weaving in and out of tracks such as Nico & Vinz’s ‘Am I Wrong’ and Jennifer Lopez’s ‘Let’s Get Loud’, the entire project of Camila Cabello-starrer Cinderella was an exciting venture and career landmark for Weiss.
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Despite being the umpteenth remake of the classic leave-a-shoe-behind fairytale, it was the most-watched streaming movie over the Labour Day weekend in the United States, as well as the most-watched movie musical in 2021 so far, according to the analytics company Screen Engine.
Over a call from Los Angeles, the composer says the first step was how to approach the score, explaining they spent a lot of time experimenting with the palette to figure out if it was going to be fully orchestral or if they should implement some folk instruments. However, they finally concluded that this hybrid folk-orchestral supported the story best. “We spent a lot of time listening to songs. The film is filled with these great contemporary pop songs so we wanted to make sure that our score worked in hand with them,” recalls Weiss.
Collaborating with Cannon
Mychael Danna, whom she co-scored with, “This was my first studio feature film and this was also the first time Michael and I co-scored together from start to finish, even though we collaborated on a few other projects in different ways,” she points out. Deanna and Weiss met director Kay Cannon together and the trio worked out where the score would be placed and how.
Given Cannon also wrote the screenplay, Weiss and Danna found the experience immersive. Cannon, who had produced major projects such as 30 Rock and the Pitch Perfect films, knew the vision for Cinderella . “It’s the goal to work with anyone passionate about the story they are telling, but the fact that this retelling of Cinderella came from Kay shows in the attention to detail, showing a progressive version of the story. It was an honour to work with her as a writer and director because she has such depth and range — plus, she’s one of the funniest women out there,” says Weiss fondly.
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Though she was thrilled to work with Cannon, Weiss gushes over actor Billy Porter’s character Fab G. “He was such a beautiful surprise; his charm blows off the screen and he is hilarious,” she says with a chuckle, “and I remember when we watched the film for the first time, we were all cheering for him. It’s hard to top the 1997 Brandy and Whitney Houston version with those incredible actors, but Billy made the character his own with his fabulous self. Plus, his music number ‘Fab G’ is just undeniably incredible and you don’t want it to end. I remember when the music team was discussing how long this soundtrack should be and the consensus was ‘the longer, the better’ because it was so fun.”
Speaking of remakes, there have been a fair number of Cinderella remakes and many audiences often wondered why. So what was the allure with the 2021 project? For Weiss, it was a no-brainer to come on board, adding her theatre background was a big motivation. “There are so many levels of composing for a musical that sets the medium apart from other productions,” she elaborates, “and the idea of sinking your teeth into the story to find out what those songs provide. So your partner-in-crime is the musical numbers, to make them and the score you create speak to each other. That requires its own language.”
The film’s reception has been divided but audiences have been thrilled by the track ‘Perfect’ originally sung by Ed Sheeran. Weiss admits this was one of the film’s more exciting feature songs.
Restraint and persistence
Balancing visuals with the score was a central pillar to Weiss and Deanna’s strategy as composers and this involved a lot of conversation with Cannon. She elaborates, “and this hybrid folk-orchestral meant we had to think about how to give the depth and range to the characters while staying true to the story. We wanted to make sure the score had a grounding element amid these colourful and bright visuals — even though there are moments when it’s very lush, romantic and orchestral, this folksy element of using guitars and harp will ground Ella’s character because these organic instruments are true to her character.”
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Contemporary composers often lean into the idea that sometimes no music is the best music. Weiss — whose other projects include the animated film The Addams Family , action film Jolt and documentary Still Working 9 to 5 — agrees, “A lot of composers I talk about work with, we all joke and laugh about how ‘the more silence, the better’, because when it comes to moments where music is playing, it makes the music more meaningful. If you have music running through a film — and this is more difficult with a jukebox musical like Cinderella — then you don’t get the full impact of the music. So Mychael and I worked a lot in this space; we watched the film over and over and thought about what functions the music would serve if placed in a specific scene. I learned from Mychael that the more you sit with the picture, the more this information about where music is needed reveals itself.”
Cinderella is streaming on Prime Video.