Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and the Rise of the TV Musical

If there’s one thing network TV could use more of, it’s characters who suddenly burst into song.

The CW
It’s a common lament that, on TV in general and on network TV in particular, there is nothing new under the sun in the queue: Pretty much everything, it seems, is hackneyed and derivative, almost every new show presented to us is merely some version of what has come before. How to Get Away With Murder is Scandal Redux; Quantico is 24 Redux; every new sitcom is, in its way, a remake of every other sitcom. It’s Turtle, basically, all the way down.
So it’s a wonderful and rare thing to be presented with a show—a network show!—that is truly original. Allow me to spend a few moments singing the praises of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
First, sure, a caveat: In its story and its characters, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would seem to be yet another victim of the endless churn of reboots. It treads a well-worn path, and not just in its tired repetition of “crazy” as a gendered epithet. (The show’s creators have insisted that “crazy” is a universal burn—that we’ve all, whether man or woman, girl or boy, had our minds addled by love.)
Anyhow, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is about a woman, Rebecca Bunch—a successful, single lawyer, as convention pretty much dictates—who has perhaps, the show suggests, leaned in just a tad too far. She’s unhappy; she’s overworked; she’s lonely. In an early scene in the show’s pilot, we see Rebecca being offered a promotion to junior partner—“I’ve never seen anyone work that hard,” her boss explains, marveling—and then (inspired by a butter ad whose slogan is “When Was the Last Time You Were Truly Happy?”) abruptly declining it. And then, even more abruptly, she quits.
Rebecca does all that because she’s just run into the show’s semi-eponymous ex-boyfriend, Josh, who dumped her after summer camp 10 years ago, and whose loss she has continued, somewhat inexplicably, to mourn. (Josh is cute; beyond that, though, from the evidence at hand, he’s pretty much a dullard.) The run-in has informed her that Josh lives in New York, too (yay!), but also that he’s soon leaving (boo) to return to his hometown of West Covina, California (“two hours from the beach, four in traffic!”). He’s looking, he explains, for a simpler, slower, easier way of life.
So when Josh gives Rebecca the old “if you’re ever out in there, get in touch” line, Rebecca—who has degrees from Harvard and Yale, but who’s never been great at human signal-reading—decides that this is fate’s way of telling her that she, too, should move to West Covina. So … she does.
So, yes. This is story line, certainly, that is as unoriginal as it is absurd. Woman moving, in search of a better life! It’s the stuff of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gilbert, an age-old plot inflected today by the happiness industrial complex and its bland belief that satisfaction can be, for a woman of sufficient means, a mere plane ride away.
But here’s the thing about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the thing that saves the show from cliche and from itself: It’s a musical! A full-blown, Broadway-esque musical! The show takes the tropes of musical comedy—catchy tunes, clever lyrics, splashy dance numbers, jazz hands both literal and figurative—and translates them, cleverly and delightfully, to the small screen. The show isn’t all musical, to be clear; the numbers here are interspersed with more traditional sitcomic fare. But a musical it is, overall. Characters on the show have a wonderful propensity to burst out in musical numbers, without warning and without shame. If you’ve ever wondered what a Broadway musical would look like, ported over to TV … Crazy Ex-Girlfriend offers an answer. And things look pretty awesome.
Take “West Covina,” the song Rebecca sings when she first moves to California, a song that is heavily influenced by Annie’s “NYC” but that is much, much more sarcastic. (Think 30 Rock’s “Flee to the Cleve,” the show’s musical ode to Cleveland.) The song begins like any hopeful gal-new-to-town song would:
See the sparkle off the concrete ground
Hear the whoosh of a bustling town
What a feeling of love in my gut
(I’m falling faster than the middle school's music program was cut!)
People dine at Chez Applebee’s
And everyone seems to smile at me…
And then, as Rebecca sings, “It’s all new, but I have no fear,” a bus drives by. The lawyer advertising his services on its exterior sings the word on his sign: “¡Accidentes!”
Later, as Rebecca warbles, in a vaguely Disney princess-y way, that “It’s my destiny, that much is clearrrr!” the camera cuts to her sitting before the stage at a strip club. The announcer booms, “Please welcome Destiny!”
The song goes on like this, layering on the irony and the sarcasm and the, yes, messaging. It is followed up, later on, by another number: “The Sexy Getting Ready Song.” Rebecca, preparing for a date with a bartender she’s met in West Covina (a friend of Josh’s), spends the song—a quintessential slow jam—tweezing and waxing and, courtesy of her backup singers and dancers, being rolled into a pair of Spanx. (At one point a rapper appears, surveying a bathroom full of apparent torture devices. “I’ve got to apologize to some bitches," he says, adding solemnly: “I’m forever changed by what I’ve just seen.”)
The song ends with a note that “body rolls are real hot.”
If this reminds you a tad of Amy Schumer’s “Milk Milk Lemonade,” there’s good reason. The song and its performance are meant to highlight the double standards of the “getting ready” process. (At one point, the camera cuts to Rebecca’s date engaging in his own getting-ready ritual: snoozing on the couch, remote balanced on his belly.) It’s meant to be a sly piece of criticism, made even sly-er by the fact that it’s delivered in the form of a musical number. As the show’s star and co-writer, Rachel Bloom, told The New York Times, the songs here are meant to tease out all the paradoxes that women, in a world of Lean In and rom-coms, are meant to navigate. “You’re supposed to have it all,” she said, “but also you should give everything up for love. But also know what’s your zodiac sign. But also you should be substantive.”
In that sense, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a televised cousin of Broadway shows like Hamilton and The Book of Mormon—shows that owe their cultural power not just to great performances and clever songs, but to the critical sensibility they bring to the musical as a form. The show may owe itself taxonomically to series like Glee and Smash, which have suggested that musicals can indeed have a life on the small screen. But the musical numbers in those cases are written into the narratives of their respective shows.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is something newer and bolder: It’s A Musical, the kind in which characters burst into song and dance without warning, in which extras spontaneously transform into backup dancers, in which characters treat sets not as locations for action, but as props. (A number set in a mall culminates with Rebecca perched, sassily, in the hollow of an enormous, Auntie Anne-style pretzel.) And it’s Musical Criticism, too. This is a story not just with a heart—that traditional requirement of the musical form—but with a brain, as well. It’s music with a message. But also with, fortunately, jazz hands.