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Interview: How the Simpsons Season Premiere Became a Musical

Writer Elisabeth Kiernan Averick and songwriter Jack Dolgen discuss the new episode.

Marge Simpson, stage manager? Makes sense, doesn't it?

In this weekend's season premiere of The Simpsons, we get a glimpse into Marge's high school life as she decides to restage Springfield High's musical Y2K: The Millennium Bug. Of course, Marge realizes that putting it all together isn't nearly as easy as she remembered, especially when dealing with big personalities like Helen Lovejoy, Dr. Hibbert, Smithers, and a school chum who made it famous named Sasha (voiced by Sara Chase).

Titled Star of the Backstage, this musical episode hails from Simpsons producer (and former Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writer) Elisabeth Kiernan Averick, who penned the songs with frequent collaborator Jack Dolgen. Here's what they said about it.

(image provided by Fox)

Elisabeth, this episode reminded me of the Disney Plus show Encore, down to Kristen Bell's presence, who hosts that show but plays Marge's singing voice here.
Elisabeth Kiernan Averick: Yup, it was definitely inspired by that. I would have wanted her voice anyway, and then it was a happy coincidence that she also hosts the show. Me and some other writers had started watching Encore, and I'd already said that I'd love to do a musical episode of The Simpsons. Then it just felt like the perfect thing for Marge to have done that no one really knew about. We haven't heard her talk about this time in high school. We could kind of do and say whatever we wanted, but her being a stage manager fits so well with the character. It's just the perfect thing.

Tell me about your creative process, since you also worked together on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Elisabeth: Even as this was coming together in the early, early stages, I said to Jack, "You'll do this. There's no one else I would have wanted to write these songs."

Jack Dolgen: The amount of creative freedom they gave me was incredible, and I felt very, grateful for that. But Elisabeth really knows musicals and the basic map of where songs go and what the general perspective for the song moments are.

Elisabeth: Coming off Crazy Ex, it's like, "Yup, this is where the song goes." While writing it, I had some ideas about the kind of vibe I could take to Jack that matched with the story, but then he also would say, "Wait, what about this?" For Barney's song, I thought it was going to be more like "Mr. Cellophane," but then Jack said, "What about Queen?" and did that. Otherwise, Jack just wrote and came to us and it was perfect. There weren't a lot of notes in that sense.

I was going to say, there's a much greater fluency about the structure of a musical in this episode than in some of the musical episodes from the early years.

Jack: Well, that was one of the unique things about this: This is the first fully musical episode of The Simpsons, and so we got to approach doing songs for The Simpsons in a different way.

Elisabeth: Some older writers will still say "This isn't the first time we've done a full musical," and I'm like, "It is, though." Just in terms of the structure of it. We're not just slotting in funny songs.

Jack: It's arced as a musical and has that…Even the score in the episode is pulling from the musical theme of the songs, the way a musical does.

(image provided by Fox)

Jack, this is your first project without your regular writing partner, Adam Schlesinger.
Jack: That part was super difficult. There's just no question that we would have done this together – either one of us would have gotten called, and then called the other. So it was really hard. It was pretty soon after Adam passing and I kind of sat down and when I started working on the music part of it, I was just like, "I'm gonna have to channel him to keep him here in the process with me." And that's how I did it. I just kept him in my mind, and in that way, if something was not good enough or should have been better, I would still have that voice in the room.

How did you settle on the musical within the episode being a Rent sendup titled Y2K: The Millennium Bug?
Elisabeth: What felt so dramatic at that time for a teenage kid? It was what I thought was so silly and dramatic, and it was also what we could do as a Rent sendup with the same intensity. Rent was obviously dramatic for a reason and was about a very serious topic, but we had a bit of fun with this very silly idea. I wanted to make it true to what was happening at that time. A bad composer came in and said "Rent's really popular, let me do my own version that speaks to the people," and it was this.

This obviously retcons the show's timeline – the early Simpsons episodes had Marge and Homer in high school in the 1970s and here they are in high school circa the late 1990s/early 2000s. What do you say to people who give you trouble about it?
Elisabeth: They never age, so we have to keep rolling with it. It hasn't happened before that a show has run this long, and if we can't keep to a moving timeline, we're just really going to be stuck. And for me to come on the show, I'm younger than some of the writers, and I get to tell this story that really relates to my time in high school, which is so much fun for me. There are also parents my age who have kids who are watching the show and then they can connect over that. So I think it just helps to have that rolling timeline.

(image provided by Fox)
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