How Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Is Leading the Way for Feminist, Game-Changing Television
Series regular Donna Lynne Champlin talks about this unique new CW musical television show.
"I don't usually see my type for on-camera stuff as a series regular," says Drama Desk Award winner Donna Lynne Champlin. A Broadway veteran (Sweeney Todd, Billy Elliot), her screen experience has been somewhat limited due to the shallow pool of roles available to her. "Normally my type is the janitor, the secretary, the cop, or the nurse," Champlin notes. So it came as a huge shock when she saw her "type" on a character breakdown for a new television series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, not as a sassy cameo, but as one of the leading roles. Champlin auditioned and got the part.
Airing Monday night on the CW (right before the wildly popular Jane the Virgin), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the creation of YouTube sensation Rachel Bloom and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada). It follows successful attorney Rebecca Bunch (Bloom), who walks away from a partnership at her prestigious Manhattan firm to follow her summer camp boyfriend, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), to West Covina, California. The cast features theater favorites like Santino Fontana (who portrays "safety" boyfriend Greg) and Tovah Feldshuh (Rebecca's mom). Champlin plays Rebecca's coworker and new best friend (some might say, "enabler") Paula.
The show has been noted for its use of musical numbers (composed by Adam Schlesinger) to help forward the plot in a manner very similar to a Broadway show. Song titles include "Settle for Me," "I'm a Good Person," and "I Love My Daughter (But Not in a Creepy Way)." Hilarious and toe-tapping as this is, is Rebecca's love for musical theater somehow a conduit for her madness? Is she completely insane, or just going through a quarter-life crisis? What kind of person would walk away from a six-figure paycheck in New York to work at a dysfunctional firm in suburban Los Angeles?
Champlin answers those questions and discusses the show's innovative use of musical theater conventions, as well as its stealthy feminist appeal.
The first episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend opens with Rebecca performing in a summer camp production of South Pacific before she has to say goodbye to Josh, who calls her "too dramatic." Do you think Rebecca's childhood exposure to musical theater helped foster certain unrealistic relationship expectations?
I do. That's not to say that all musical theater people are nuts, but it does give one a poetic heart. That's the baseline question we're asking with the show: When it comes to love and happiness, how far are you willing to go? We can say that Rebecca moved across country for a guy, but I actually think it's because she was unhappy in New York. I absolutely think that if you're unhappy, even if you're making a bajillion dollars, the brave choice is to walk away and try something different, which is what Rebecca does.
So she's not crazy?
I think she's a romantic, and there's a difference.
What about Paula? She seems a little too involved in Rebecca's life.
I think she has a lot of regret. She looks at Rebecca and sees a soul sister and surrogate daughter. Her main goal is for Rebecca to not regret her choices, like she does. Paula is in an unhappy marriage. She's got kids. She can't fully commit to her own life, because she's still stuck regretting. She lives vicariously through Rebecca. It's so much worse to live in regret in your forties than it is to take a chance in your late twenties.
How is the show different than, say, Glee in its use of music to tell the story?
One of the most amazing things about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that every song is an original. There are no covers. I think Glee had to deal with forcing covers into their plotlines. That can be difficult to pull off. As an actor, I never feel that the song I'm doing is shoehorned in, because the music department is hoping that it will go to number one on iTunes. Like a genuine musical, the songs pertain to the moment and move the story forward.
Click below to watch Paula give some truly terrible musical advice:
People have argued that the title of this show is demeaning to women. How would you respond?
What Rachel usually says, which I agree with, is that if the title were "My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" or "The Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," it would take on a different meaning. Aline, Rachel, and the entire writing staff are super-feminist. They're investigating that term ("Crazy Ex-Girlfriend") and flipping it around. It's a pejorative term, so we're going to take hold of it and rip it apart. Where does it come from? Why do people say that? It's continually being put under a microscope and viewers are asked to look at it and dissect it.
Do the musical numbers play a role in that commentary?
Absolutely. In the second episode, Rachel does a scene without a bra and without makeup. She does that "Sexy Getting Ready" number and shows her stomach. For women on TV, unless it's perfectly toned, you don't see that. You don't see normal stomachs. If we're talking female empowerment, those moments of her saying, "I'm a beautiful sexy woman and I don't have tight abs, but here America: look" — that's the real deal.
Click below to see Rachel Bloom sing "The Sexy Getting Ready Song":