This post contains plot details from “I’m In Love,” the series finale of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
It’s the final table-read for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and the energy in the room is impossible to ignore. It’s as though everyone, the cast in particular, has collectively agreed to play it cool, but they’re doing a passable job, at best. They chat casually with each other, and smile awkwardly but genuinely at the few members of the press in attendance, a first for the show. They wander slowly around the big space, some pretending the documentary crew isn’t there, others grinning and waving at the camera. They are, en masse, killing time and acting casual, waiting for the first day of their last episode to begin. Only Michael Hyatt seems totally at ease, sauntering in with an air of complete contentment. She gets to play the Dream Ghost one last time—why shouldn’t she be happy?
“That was an emotionally impactful hour, wasn’t it? That was crazy,” castmember David Hull tells me weeks later. “That felt more like the end of the show emotionally than even actually shooting it. Shooting took days and days, and we knew we’d have the concert special in a month, but that moment felt really precise. Being in that room, especially during that song, and seeing Rachel so emotional, it was hard. It was like, ‘Oh, we’re done. This is ending.’”
That’s a sentiment I hear echoed again and again by members of the cast and creative team of the series, in interviews conducted over the course of four months—at this alternately gentle and electric table-read, on set, at a rehearsal for the concert special, and by phone. Hearing the song and the final scene (more on that later) makes the show’s end seem all the more real. But the person doing the singing has quite enough on her mind, and while there are moments when emotion threatens to overwhelm, there’s just too much going on with “Eleven O’Clock” to make such a response feasible in the moment.
“And now we’re gonna sing our last song,” Bloom tells the room when she and the rest of the cast arrive at that scene, which in this early draft occurs near the end of “I’m In Love.” The finale episode, written by Bloom and Brosh McKenna, builds to an ending the pair has had planned since they first began discussing the series—“A conversation we’ve been having for six years,” Bloom calls it—and “Eleven O’Clock” is a key stepping-stone to that powerful finish.
The name “Eleven O’Clock” alone will, to a certain kind of theater nerd, conjure up images of Patti LuPone or Ethel Merman going full Mama Rose, Nathan Lane’s “Betrayed” in The Producers, and Betty Buckley belting out “Memory” as one of the cats in Cat. As Rebecca explains in “I’m In Love,” it’s a term used to describe a big, emotional turning-point of a song, one that in decades past when most Broadway productions began at 8:30 p.m., would have arrived at around 11 o’clock.
As Bloom announces the song, the energy in the room changes again. Gabrielle Ruiz, who plays Rebecca’s enemy-turned-ally Valencia, pulls her chair closer to the table and leans forward. Brosh McKenna, who to this point has been reading stage directions, visibly shifts as well, ceding the floor to her collaborator. There’s no need for her to look at her script.
“The lyrics are revised,” Bloom says, “so I have the only copy. Sorry. For those of you who’ve never been to one of these table reads”—she gestures broadly at the small section of journalists, myself included, here to observe—“the melody is still in progress, the words are still in progress. So basically, this will be coming up from the depths of my soul. But no pressure, me!”
Then she opens her mouth to sing, and like Ruiz, the whole room seems to lean forward.
That isn’t the experience Bloom is having. “The last song was kind of incidental,” she later tells me. “Yes, it’s important, but I think I was so distracted with the idea of finally doing that last scene. That was so crazy to me, that finally we’d actually do the thing that we’d pitched. I think that was kind of overshadowing, emotionally for me, the whole thing, song included.”
“So the camera pulls up, and now we’re in a black box theater round space,” she narrates, before launching into a medley that’s been in the works for some time—not the first idea she had for a big finale, but one which, once settled upon, begins to help clarify other aspects of the series’ final act. Like “I’m In Love,” we’ll need to leap around in time a bit to understand how the song gets to that point.
“She starts to turn, and we are on a turn table!” she crows, switching back and forth nimbly from Rachel Bloom, writer describing a big, big scene she wrote, and Rebecca Bunch, person creating a big, big song in her mind. When she hits that final joke—in high Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fashion, it’s an emotional song ending on an oddball punchline—first the laughter rings out, and then the applause. She beams, and some of that emotion sneaks out, but then she shuffles her papers and sits back down. It’s time to work.
“I’d had the idea for an 11 o’clock number called “Eleven O’Clock” for a while,” Bloom tells me when we catch up in late March, “and I’d known in the back of my head that I wanted some big 11 o’clock number for the final episode for a long time. Originally, it was more about self-love. It still is, but when it was more specifically asking, why don’t I love myself, Rebecca was going to sing this shit-kicker country song called “I Love Men.” Then she was going to realize all the ways that she loves the different men were actually reflections of herself, and that she loves herself.”
Ultimately, that idea was part of the story they wanted to tell, but not the thing entire.
“It’s interesting, when you know what the ending is, all of the ways that you get there. Once we realized, even early on, that “I Love Men” didn’t quite work, Aline and I were writing and we realized, ‘Oh, this seems like an 11 o’clock number.’ I wrote the first draft of it in one sitting, with Aline kind of over my shoulder, throwing things in. It was maybe our second writing session for the finale.”
That version then made its way to Jack Dolgen, one of Bloom’s two co-songwriters (along with Adam Schlesinger). The next phase, Dolgen tells me, was “refining the story, the character drive,” so that what has seemed to be a dysfunctional habit for Rebecca could be properly revealed as something else entirely.
“It was always important to the character of Rebecca that she was singing in a lot of different styles and genres,” Dolgen says. “It served multiple purposes. One, we got to write a bunch of comedy songs in all sorts of genres. But two, from the character’s perspective, she really didn’t have a sense of herself. She was trying on ways of who to be and how to be, and it made sense that she would genre-hop and costume-hop. And the way that [Bloom and Brosh McKenna] always imagined finishing up, it was really about coming to herself. You end exactly where you started, but fully changed. She starts out really lost, you know, and then ends basically in the beginning of her life as herself. And the songs are a way to personify that.”
Bloom echoes this idea, placing it in the context of a diagnosis her character received midway through the third season. “This gets to the heart of our original pitch. At the time, we didn’t know she had borderline personality disorder, but what I’m about to say is the description of borderline: She had no inner sense of self. She let external forces dictate what she should be, what she should want, what she should value, for her entire life. The last time she was truly happy was at camp, because she willed herself to go to this camp. She made it happen. After that, she just kind of did what everyone else told her to do. And so we made no exception when it came to the songs. The songs are her literally trying on different costumes because she’s emotionally stunted. The music videos—they’re all searches for identity, because she still doesn’t know who she is inside.”
That made a medley of some of those searches for identity a perfect fit for the finale, but stringing together 12 or so songs into one captivating whole without making it a nightmare for a performer would be no small feat. Enter Schlesinger.
“I was trying to think, logistically, how to do it, with all these tempos and keys,” Schlesinger tells me. “And I told Rachel, ‘I think what you should do is go in front of a microphone, and just sing it the way you would do it onstage, a capella, even if the keys aren’t right, just so we can get the rhythm of how you would actually do this. Then we’ll build a track to your vocal.’ The whole thing was built off of Rachel’s natural ebb and flow as a performer, rhythmically.”
Dolgen adds, “Adam was really smart to do it that way. That gave Rachel the ability to perform it as an actor, from an emotional place, whatever came out.”
The next step was to build a track Bloom could work from in the shoot. Then Schlesinger “had that arranged by an orchestrator, and then we had the orchestra do a full version of it. It means trying to mimic, more or less, the sound of each snippet, so they’re going from rock to Broadway. Every eight bars, they’re totally switching gears. It was a really cool session.”
The sound in place, it was time to bring it to life on its feet. Bloom and Brosh McKenna begin to connect the dots of disparate notions into a concept that feels exciting and whole: a turntable, a clock motif, and the idea of costumes-as-personas, and so on. They land a great idea, put all the pieces together, then discover that it’s much harder to execute than any of them anticipated.
“Choreographers have a few different modes of getting performances out of people.” I’m sitting with Kathryn M. Burns, the show’s Emmy-winning choreographer, in a bar set that was once the confusingly punctuated Spyders’s’, now outfitted as the club where Rebecca Bunch will reveal her true love to an audience of friends, former lovers, and the odd begrudging acquaintance. There are hearts everywhere. “Mine is to have the rehearsal process feel supportive and warm and productive. It’s playful, which I think comes across in all the dancing. And Rachel, she throws herself into every part of movement so unabashedly and so wonderfully. It’s a joy to watch.”
On another part of this soundstage, Donna Lynne Champlin is acting her ass off with Bloom’s stand-in; Bloom was up very late the night before, shooting most of the turntable segments of “Eleven O’Clock” in a process that went somewhat less than smoothly. The long days seems to have caught up with her, and she’s suddenly seriously under the weather; Brosh McKenna has sent her to get some rest before they shoot the portion of the song set in Rebecca’s kitchen.
“Eleven O’Clock” isn’t a particularly dance-heavy number—most of what a casual observer would consider choreography consists of low-impact versions of what we’ve seen in numbers throughout the seasons—but Burns nevertheless played a huge role in bringing the song to the screen.
“It was a lot of logistical planning with Rachel and Aline. Aline said, ‘I’m going to lean on you a lot for this—the mechanics of the turntable, communicating the speed, where the wardrobe might come from, where she looks and when, how she maneuvers things.’ It’s the kind of thing where the choreography and the movement only work if the camera’s in the right place. So it’s about constantly adjusting each setup. They wanted the introduction of every one of the 12 dresses to feel a little different. It had to be really specific.
“I’ve been shadowing Aline to learn more about the directing process and scene work, things like that. She really wants me to start directing. I think she asked me more questions than she otherwise would have.”
Anyone familiar with Brosh McKenna’s practices as a boss and collaborator—from the nature of her relationship with Bloom to her open and egalitarian method of running a writer’s room—will be unsurprised that the showrunner, who also directs the finale, took this opportunity to pull another young creative into the conversation. But Burns’ involvement is by no means a purely selfless act. Brosh McKenna’s turntable idea, while ultimately beautifully shot and thematically rich, was a bit of a logistical nightmare.
Here’s a bit of how Bloom describes the scene in the table read:
Rebecca turns and sees a dress on a hanger, and it’s the season one theme song blue dress. it’s coming towards her. She walks in place and brings the dress closer to her. She passes the dress, wipe frame, and she’s now in the dress.
There are dresses coming out fast on hangers, and she’s wearing the “You Stupid Bitch” dress! With a heart backpack! Wearing a cactus hat! She can’t keep up, so she’s just slinging them over her shoulders like there’s a sale at Walmart!
Darryl’s sperm costume, what?!
Before the team builds itself a turntable, the concept is simplified somewhat, but it goes through yet another reduction when filming, centered exclusively on an under-the-weather Bloom, commences.
“We got all excited about 11 o’clock numbers,” Brosh McKenna tells me between takes, sprawled on Rebecca Bunch’s bed and flipping through an enormous green binder. “We watched a whole bunch of those. And the medley aspect was very exciting. Then we came up with the costumes as part of that, and then I had this idea of putting her on a turntable, and Rachel connected that to the idea of a clock.
“In an earlier version, she put on a lot of costumes, but that was such a production nightmare. We would have been here for four flipping days. We had to simplify. Well, I’ll tell you what, none of us had shot on a turntable. Whoops. We shot it yesterday, we had a plan, but as soon as you start turning it, every objects’ relationship to the camera is completely different. And it keeps changing.”
“So it took us a little while,” she chuckles dryly, a rare moment that betrays something that might almost resemble weariness. “We had a very fiddly day yesterday.”
Bloom returns from the nap room, cues up the track Schlesinger created for her, and nails a take. It’s her second song of the day. The first was the actual last song of the series, in a manner of speaking. It’s a late addition, and she shares it with someone else.
In the table read, as in the final episode, it’s Paula to whom Rebecca finally explains her tendency to process her life through songs she makes up in her head. It’s a big moment, simple and quiet, but as Champlin and Bloom work through it, the meaning of it runs like a ripple through the cast and creative team. Skylar Astin grins and looks down, seemingly flummoxed. Scott Michael Foster smiles too, almost proudly. But the look on Gabrielle Ruiz’s face is one of unguarded, incredulous delight.
“When Paula says, ‘Wait a minute, where’d you go?’ and we realize Rebecca’s never told anyone—that just knocked my socks off,” she tells me during a rehearsal for the show’s post-finale live concert special. It’s March, a month after the “I’m In Love shoot wrapped, and yet she’s still somewhat overcome by the thought. “I knew that Aline and Rachel were smart, but they blew me away with that moment. That moment, when Paula just calls her out on it, is the beginning of this change, this huge change in her life. I just thought that was incredible. Incredible.”
The Paula-Rebecca relationship has been central to the show since the very beginning, and is easily the most consistent love story of the many Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has told. (Better luck next time, George and Nathaniel.) As it happens in the table read, their final chapter is deeply affecting, but not long afterward, when the episode’s timeline and structure shift to make Rebecca’s discoveries hit home harder, it’s elevated yet again. When I arrive on set on the second-to-last-day of production, Champlin and Bloom stand on that turntable together, and Paula’s eyes are open.
“The biggest change was bringing Paula inside [Rebecca’s imagined “Eleven O’Clock” space], so she could help us understand how the songs work,” Brosh McKenna explains. “Because she really hasn’t ever told anybody, except for Dr. Phil and the Dream Ghost. We were careful through the series not to have her really explain to anyone, even these men she’s very intimate with, because she’s rejecting her creativity. She’s saying to Paula, ‘I don’t know what this is. What is it?’
“The main crypto-narrative of show, for me, is an older woman saying to a younger woman, ‘Here, here’s your pen, be a writer.’ And in that moment, you understand why Paula is in the series. She wants to be this very conventional thing that Rebecca didn’t want to be. That’s what she loves. We didn’t want to make the point that nobody wants to be a lawyer. Paula wants to be a lawyer. It’s her dream, which is the diametric opposite of Rebecca’s. She knows what it feels like to have that dream become real. And so she’s the one who says, ‘I see in you that you are where I was, so here’s your pen.’ She needed Paula.”
The change was, for Champlin, unexpected. “The 11 o’clock number is traditionally the leading lady or leading man’s number. So when they told me that I was going to be in it, I was incredibly surprised and flattered. I asked Rachel, ‘Is the point of this bookend to go back to where we started, and suggest we’ve come full circle? Or is the point of this bookend, musically, to show growth? Does that mean we do this bookend differently than what we did before?’ So we recorded it very similarly to what we did in the pilot, then we also did it very loose, and ultimately in the end, we did it a capella.”
Ultimately, both Champlin and Bloom have to dub some of the vocals—“You can hear the footsteps of our camera guy,” Champlin tells me—but it’s still a “more authentic sound” than their first, show-shaping “West Covina” reprise in the pilot. It’s a choice that, to Champlin, rings true: “People pretend to be a lot of things in the pilot, and this is about people finally being who they are. That’s a huge arc, to move from a place of wearing a mask, to finally taking it off.”
“Rebecca needed help figuring it out,” Bloom echoes. “It was about finally externalizing what she knew, and having someone else say, ‘This is beautiful.’
The unheard song
“That was a big debate we had. ‘Should we have Rebecca play a song at the very end of the episode? What does her song sound like?’ Because there’s a world in which she starts playing, and it’s the opening chords of ‘West Covina.’ Very full circle.”
Rachel Bloom is no longer shooting for 16 hours a day, but her head and heart seem to be full of Rebecca Bunch all the same. I’ve spent two months asking everyone I can what comes out of Rebecca’s mouth when she says, “This is a song I wrote.” The last person I ask is perhaps the best equipped to answer.
“The problem with that,” she continues, “is that ‘West Covina’ is a song rooted in delusion. It’s a girl who’s stepping into a new experience for the wrong reasons, and is trying on a pretty blue dress and telling herself a lie. All these costumes, they’re all a square peg in a round hole. That’s where the comedy is. Rebecca doesn’t become Rachel Bloom. She doesn’t go on to write parody songs. That’s not her journey.”
Brosh McKenna agrees: “You don’t see the sheet music, and there’s no title on it. It’s not about the song. It’s about her.”
“Eleven O’Clock,” ultimately, is a song about not knowing who you are or what you want. Bloom describes it as, “I’ve wasted all my time on trying on these different costumes and no costume has ever really fit, what a waste.” But as ever, the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that. If nothing else, all that time spent gave us 157 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songs. It gave us “Period Sex,” Ruth Gator Ginsburg, and a truly staggering amount of innuendo on network television. It gave us the Bloom-Brosh McKenna partnership, which almost certainly has a second phase. And it gave us a whole lifetime of music we can imagine on our own.
“I don’t know what Rebecca’s music sounds like,” Bloom says. “It doesn’t sound like ‘West Covina.’ The songs from our show are comedy songs that are rooted in the gap between what she wants to be and who she really is. She spends a year going from someone who knows nothing about music, nothing about songwriting to, ‘I want to become like a singer-songwriter.’ What is that year?
“The cool thing about the way Aline shot the last shot is, it’s mid-motion. It cuts off just before the beginning. It’s weirdly a little bit like the end of A Star Is Born, in that it’s the moment she’s born. It’s about the journey of a writer, but the writing is indicative of the real theme, which is ‘tell your own story.’ You know, bring your insides on the outside. This whole show was a prequel to someone becoming herself.”
There is no last song in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Rebecca Bunch opens her mouth, and we cut to black. That song exists somewhere: Maybe in Rachel Bloom’s mind, maybe in Aline Brosh McKenna’s, maybe in yours, maybe in mine. The show is over, but somewhere, out loud, she’s singing a song she wrote.