In an era when musical scores for television are coming into their own, Christopher Lennertz has emerged as one of the small screen's most versatile composers with his work on "Agent Carter" and "Galavant."
A veteran creator of scores for comedy films ("Horrible Bosses," "Think Like a Man," "The Wedding Ringer"), video games (the "Mass Effect" and "Medal of Honor" franchises) and genre TV ("Supernatural," "Revolution"), this year Lennertz landed a one-two punch demonstrating an even deeper range of virtuosity with his diverse contributions to very different projects: Marvel's postwar feminist spy thriller, and the Monty Python-esque fairy tale musical-comedy, in which he worked in tandem with legendary composer Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast") and lyricist Glen Slater (Broadway's "Sister Act").
In a conversation with Spinoff Online, the composer reveals the process behind hitting just the right notes, literally, for two of television's most distinctively stylized series.
Spinoff: With the music for "Agent Carter," it seems like that may have been a particularly fun job in that you get to play with a lot of different things, including period music and themes from the first Captain America movie. Tell me what your approach to the whole project was.
Christopher Lennertz: Oh, well, the nice thing was, about two years ago, we did this Marvel One-Shot for "Agent Carter" which came out of the "Iron Man 3" DVD. And that was the first time we sort of did a story revolving around Peggy. And Louis D'Esposito, who directed that and also directed the first episode of this show and is an exec producer, came to me with that one.
We had done another One-Shot called, "Item 47," together, and he came to me with this Peggy Carter show and he said, "Look, it's in the Marvel world, so it's got to have that element. It's also in the 40s, so it needs to have that element. And you've got the fact that she's much more of a spy than a superhero, so you get to add the spy element. And then you have her relationship with Howard Stark which leads us to all kinds of technological invention elements."
So really, I get to mix of a lot of things that don't often get to go together in terms of period, music, jazz, trumpet, mixed with orchestra, mixed with electronics and brushes on a drum set and things. You don't really get to do that very often, so it's been really a treat.
What was the first thing that spoke to you musically when you first put your mind to the short that clicked, something you knew you wanted to carry over into the show?
I think more than anything it was the idea that Peggy was so strong and so clever, that we wanted to give her a sense of bravado, a sense of both confidence and strength, but also smarts. And we wanted to make sure that people walked away with the fact that she could be tough, and she could be very clever. And quite honestly, it's not vastly different to me, than – we kind of talked about this idea of "Well, what really jumped out when Sean Connery first started playing James Bond? What was it?" And that was the one thing that was so perfect about the music, that sort of developed with James Bond was that it can be muscular and it can be big.
But it's always done from a sense of being sort of in control and savvy and clever, rather than just being strong or just having a superpower or sort of being so much further along than anybody else physically. Part of it was just trying to make it that she's just smarter than everybody else. She's got such command over so many of these situations, and that was the most important thing was to give her that personality.
When it came to this period element, did you get to indulge in a lot of fun research to figure out what sort of things you wanted to do to evoke that?
Absolutely. One of the reasons it was a good fit to begin with was because I play guitar. I have a jazz background. My grandfather was a singer in that sort of Sinatra kind of style, so I very much sort of knew that already from a musical standpoint. And then once I was able to jump in, I really tried to see what was going on between '46 and 1950 and what it was that would be part of that era.
And I found out – obviously, I knew Count Basie. I knew Glenn Miller, all those things were happening at the time, but then we also figured out that it was sort of changing from big band to smaller jazz ensembles. So it wasn't always 18, 20 people. Sometimes it was only seven piece ensembles. It was moving towards bebop. It was moving towards the ‘50s jazz stuff. And so it was like the beginning of the end of Louis Armstrong and the beginning of Miles Davis and all that kind of stuff, which leads to trumpets which ends up being part of Peggy's sound, which makes a lot of sense because it's also very sneaky, and it lends itself to espionage and that kind of thing. So it actually all worked out really well.
That original score for "Captain America: The First Avenger" had a lot of music in it too, and you got to cherry-pick a little of that. Tell me what you liked about being able to do that.
Well, the only piece from the original "Captain America" that we ended up using – which was pretty cool – was the Captain America song "Star Spangled Man," which was awesome because it was written by Alan Menken who I just worked with on "Galavant." And I was able to one day, go from a session with Alan scoring "Galavant," to and then went to another session, and ended up conducting a new arrangement of "Star Spangled Man," the hero theme from Captain America, which was really, really cool. So it was nice to be able to bring that in a very sort of ‘40s, sort of radio drama feel to it which really fits that era perfectly.
How did the Alan Menken collaboration get started?
Well, it got started about a year ago, little even more than that, and Alan and I have the same agent, and our agent, Richard, is well aware that I'm a big fan of Alan's, fan of a movie musicals. And they found out they were going to make the pilot for "Galavant." And the music executive at NBC, who's also a very dear friend of mine – we've done a lot of work together both in TV and movies she is probably the only other person in Hollywood at the time that knew that I was a big fan of musicals and really loved that kind of thing.
And so when it came clear that Alan wasn't going to be able to do all of the scoring and songwriting for the show, just because of time and his other commitments with Broadway shows and things like that, she said, 'Well, we really need to get somebody in LA. Because Alan's in New York, we need to get somebody in LA who can work with Alan and might have the right sensibilities." And oddly enough, she brought up my name and said to our mutual agent, "Well, that's exactly what I was thinking of too." So we ended up getting together. I ended up meeting with Alan, and we hit it off really well. And we sort of took it from there. I can't thank him enough, and I certainly can't stress enough how much I've learned from him and how much I really enjoy working on his music as much as my own. So it's really been great.
Can you give me a sense of where you realized, "Oh, he's the master"?
It was decades ago. It was when I first heard "Little Mermaid." It was the first time I probably really put that all together. I guess it would have been right around as I was going into music school. I guess early ‘80s, late ‘90s when "Little Mermaid" came out, and they had that blast of ten years of just one hit after another, one Oscar after another. And at that point, I was very much playing a lot of rock music in bands, and I was certainly a songwriter. And every time I saw one of those films – I love animation, and I love musicals, so I would see those movies and just be amazed that one song after another was so great and so catchy and so clever. And it's hard to do!
The interesting thing about that kind of thing is that sounds easy, but it only sounds easy because he makes it sound easy. It's very, very difficult. And there's nobody – there's very few people who have ever lived and certainly very few who are working today who can write song after song after song and have them all be so well crafted and so catchy. And it's a very small list. And it's a list that literally has on it, people like John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Alan ... Henry Mancini could do it. It's not a big list.
It's very difficult to do over and over again. And he just does it with – at least it looks like with ease. I'm sure he stresses over it, but it's just amazing and almost superhuman the way he can just write so many amazing songs that people can relate. That's the thing, everybody knows them. Everybody can hum them and sing them, and I just think that's in a league that very few people can play in.
What was the fun reveal when you got to work side by side with him?
First of all, it was really interesting to me how important the story is to Alan, in terms of the songs that he writes and how much he really wants to tell a story or tell part of a story with every song. He wants to make it move forward, to the point where he'll go through a script – with Dan [Fogelman], the creator of "Galavant," he would sit. And he would say, "Well, OK, this particular two pages or this particular paragraph, we can do this with a song. We don't need written dialogue, spoken dialogue. Let me do this part." And it's a part that once you do it that way, you can't tell the story without it. It won't make sense.
So I think that's the amazing thing is his ability to not only write these great songs, but have them be so, so functional in terms of carrying whatever our characters are doing, to the next part of the story. And that's been something great for me to watch, and I hope I really picked up all of that.
What was the most enjoyable part and the most challenging part of the gig for you?
Well, the most enjoyable part, certainly, was getting to finally be in that world with the best and be able to learn from them. They don't make a lot of musicals, and they certainly don't make shows like "Galavant" very often. It's just such a unique, interesting, different kind of show, and they don't make them. So for me to be able to actually live in that world for a while, especially coming from my career where I've really never done that professionally yet, and I'm really very much known for younger comedies or video games or action and horror on television, to be able to be allowed to play in that sandbox was certainly the best part.
But then the challenge was the fact that I hadn't done it professionally, and I tried to be really – I was pretty honest with Alan, that, "Hey, you know what? I'm really well-trained orchestra-wise, I love this world, but I've never done Broadway. I don't know it." And I said, "I want to learn from you. Just let me know what I'm doing right. And I'm more than happy to let you lead and just be part of the team." And it's been a while since I had a project where I was doing that. And to be honest with you, it was really great and it was really refreshing to be able to sort of continue learning in such an intense way about a part of the business that I was really, really interested in. And that kind of an opportunity, while being challenging, was also something that was really gratifying.
What's the next challenge you want to set for yourself, another style or genre?
Well, I think, I definitely have been doing a lot of comedies, as far as movies go, and I'd love to do a couple of sort of intense or dark movies. Whether that be action or whether it's just dramatic, I feel like I would like to flex those muscles a little bit. And then I really would like to direct my own musical. I think that's something I'm very much already started with. And my idea's to sort of write it from the ground up, my way, and really use a lot of what I've been doing over the past six months with "Galavant," but do my own thing, and I'd like to do that too over the next year or so.
"Marvel's Agent Carter's" season finale airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.