Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Rachel Bloom (Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW)

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is breaking new musical ground, one wise reprise at a time

Rachel Bloom (Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW)

Stephen Sondheim is a genius. Any conversation about the greatest works of musical theater would have to include one or more pieces of his extraordinary work, several of which are as rich and intricate as anything created for American stages and screens. Start peeling back the layers on Sweeney Todd, for example, and you’ll find meditations on grief, the nature of love, good versus evil, and the ways in which violence corrupts—that’s a very partial list, but you get the idea. Sweeney Todd is a masterwork of American musical theater. Yet it never did something like “Face Your Fears (Reprise).”

The songs of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, typically written by Bloom, Jack Dolgen, and Adam Schlesinger, have been great since the beginning. They’ve never been just jokes, even when they are jokes. But three seasons in, the way those songs are revisited has changed. Perhaps “changed” isn’t the right word—“evolved” might be better.

A reprise is no longer just a reprise. A reprise is now, with apologies to Don Draper, a time machine. They’re songs that send us back through the personal history of Rebecca Bunch (Bloom), encouraging us to consider personal growth (or lack thereof), the evolution of relationships, and the significance of her own memories. Sweeney Todd brings “Ah, Miss” back after a long, bloody act, and it hits hard. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend brought back “Face Your Fears” after almost 40 episodes, after well over two years, and that’s another story. It does what a reprise is supposed to do, connecting one moment to another through music, but the moment to which it sends us back is one from years ago. The path that connects those two moments is a long one, and in forging those connections, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is pushing a familiar button and getting a result that’s far from ordinary.

That’s not to say that the reprises of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend were ever ordinary. Reprises have been a fundamental part of the show’s DNA from the first episode onward, when a second occurrence of the opening number signaled a major shift in the fortunes of the protagonist.

It’s so simple. After an episode of Rebecca Bunch singing alone, Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin) opened her mouth, and a solo became a duet. That’s not an unfamiliar approach—the reprise of “Send In The Clowns” in A Little Night Music takes a lonely, beautiful ballad and makes it a romantic song for two, while Rent’s “I’ll Cover You” does the reverse. But because the songs, at least initially, spring solely from Rebecca’s inner life, the presence of another singer is even more significant. It signals that Rebecca suddenly has someone else in her world, another party to her obsessions, a teammate, a singing raccoon sidekick.

It’s perhaps the best example of the show’s early reprises, but there’s no shortage. With some regularity, songs would reappear to connect one scene or story to another, or to signal moments of harmony (pun not intended) between two characters. It’s good stuff, but it’s not until the show’s second season that Bloom, Dolgen, and Schlesinger began to push their reprises in a different direction. The second appearance of “I Could If I Wanted To” used a song of angry indifference to make it plain that indifference had vanished; the seemingly endless renditions of “Period Sex” got progressively funnier, each one compounding the weirdness of the previous version. But the season’s best reprise, and the biggest shift in what those songs could do, came in the second-season finale, “Can Josh Take A Leap Of Faith?

In “Rebecca’s Reprise,” Rebecca Bunch revisited four songs in one, and each added new resonance to the story and her experience. The first is “You Stupid Bitch,” perhaps the best song in the show’s history, and a gem that hadn’t resurfaced since it first aired. Sung not by a woman in the throes of “self-indulgent self-loathing,” but by a woman who believes she’s on the precipice of a new and happier life, its inclusion makes that moment somehow sweeter and more suspenseful. It brings to mind everything that’s happened to Rebecca since she first sang that song, for better and for worse. On the one hand, she’s no longer calling herself a stupid bitch, a development many, many episodes in the making. On the other, that’s not a song that calls anything good to mind, and is specifically linked to one of many instances of Rebecca sabotaging her own happiness, one bad choice at a time.

Those are the connections this song makes in the first 30 seconds. To put it plainly, that’s some next-level shit. But the song doesn’t stop there, then calling in “I’m The Villain In My Own Story”—in which Rebecca confronted the fact that her actions caused someone else pain, here used to signal that she often views life as a story she’s experiencing and shaping—and then “I Love My Daughter (But Not In A Creepy Way).” Bloom has said that the song “was Rebecca asking Darryl, ‘What are you talking about, this bond between fathers and daughters? I don’t understand what that is.’” In this context, it emphasizes that Rebecca views her upcoming wedding as a cure-all, something that will fix all the bad things in her life, including a relationship that probably can’t or shouldn’t be fixed.

It ends with one line from a song earlier in the season, one that underlined the life-changing fix that both Josh and Rebecca think their love story will be. It’s a song of joyful delusion, here sung sweetly and sincerely, but it’s a song of delusion nonetheless. Four songs, layers upon layers of meaning, wrapped up in a simple medley and brought to life by a great performance. There’s no equivalent in Sweeney Todd. There’s no equivalent in musical theater, anywhere.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend isn’t the first musical on television. There have been others. Some were good, some great, and some were total duds. But it’s the first that’s used serial storytelling to its advantage, counting on the increasing complexity of its characters, relationships, and themes to make each reprise count just a little more. A reprise is still just a reprise, but now each of those callbacks come loaded with three seasons’ worth of history.

That brings us back to the reprise of “Face Your Fears,” a song from the third episode of the series that did not reappear until the 42nd. That prolonged absence, particularly from a show that’s brought back songs like “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” and “Period Sex” with some frequency, makes its appearance that much more striking. There’s only one scene with which it’s linked, and that’s the original.

That’s a song one friend sings to another, in hopes that some encouragement (albeit comically ill-advised encouragement) will help her to confront some major social anxiety. It’s a song, and a moment, that’s important to Rebecca, and we know that because in a moment of fear, once again standing on a precipice, she revisits it. It reaches back years, linking the fears of the Rebecca we knew then to the one we know now. It underlines the importance of Rebecca’s friendship with Paula, demonstrating that in times of crisis, it’s Paula’s words she revisits. And it calls forward everything that’s happened between episodes three and 42, at a moment in which Rebecca Bunch has a chance to genuinely grow and change her life for the better. The Rebecca of episode three was incapable of that kind of self-awareness and insight. This Rebecca knows herself, but the fear remains.

And there’s one last layer, because with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, there’s always one last layer. “Face Your Fears” brings the early days of Rebecca and Paula’s friendship back to the surface, emphasizing the longevity, intensity, and evolution of their relationship. We’re given proof, in ballad form, of how much that friendship means to Rebecca, which makes it all the more upsetting when it’s that friendship she chooses to damage one episode later.

Some of the brilliance of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s reprises is purely circumstantial. Lives, both fictional and actual, change as time passes, and our attachment to stories and characters deepens as we think about and reinvestigate those stories and characters. Simple longevity has enriched those reprises, and that’s a beautiful thing. But Bloom and Brosh McKenna, along with Dolgen and Schlesinger, have found a way to use those circumstances in a powerful way. It’s a circumstance that no single evening of musical theater could replicate, because we don’t spend years with characters who populate Sweeney Todd. We’ve spent years with Rebecca Nora Bunch, and Paula Proctor, and Darryl Whitefeather, and Josh Chan, and the rest of that crazy gang.

It means Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has thrown down the gauntlet for reprises. Until another brilliant, under-seen musical comedy about mental illness and self-awareness that deconstructs the romantic comedy while also examining the ways we explore gender and sexuality in pop culture comes along, we shall probably not see its like again.

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!