The Magicians bosses break down that musical episode
Warning: This post contains spoilers from Wednesday’s episode of The Magicians. Read at your own risk!
After teasing us with musical numbers here and there in the first two seasons, The Magicians finally went there with Wednesday’s episode, “All That Josh,” which featured not one, not two, but four song-and-dance routines.
In the episode, the latest part of the quest for seven keys transports Quentin (Jason Ralph), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and Kady (Jade Tailor) to a pocket world where they find Josh (Trevor Einhorn) — who has been noticeably absent for the past few episodes — having the time of his life in a land where the party never stops (literally). It turns out a demon has trapped him in this world, where there are dire consequences if you stop having a good time or kill the good vibes.
So the trio not only have to find the next key, but they must also convince Josh, who’s rightfully upset that none of them noticed he disappeared, to return home with them. That’s when Quentin realizes the only way for them to escape is to work together, because they clearly forgot the quest was supposed to be a team effort and Josh is a member of the team. Using the newly acquired key, which links all their minds together — including Penny (Arjun Gupta), Julia (Stella Maeve), Eliot (Hale Appleman), and Margo (Summer Bishil), all of whom are on the outside — the characters unite for a cross-world rendition of “Under Pressure,” which frees them from the pocket world.
In addition to the David Bowie and Freddie Mercury number, we had three other performances: Tailor performed a cheeky striptease to “All I Need Is the Boy,” a rarely heard version of the song “All I Need Is the Girl” from Gypsy with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and Einhorn sang Clooney’s “Wham Bam” as he made his grand entrance, as well as the disco tune “Car Wash.”
With four musical numbers, this was definitely one of the Syfy drama’s most ambitious episodes. EW hopped on the phone with executive producers John McNamara and Sera Gamble to discuss how they wrote it, how they chose the songs, and what’s next on the series. Read on below!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In approaching the episode with so many musical numbers, where do you start — with the songs or the story?
JOHN MCNAMARA: God, I wish it was that linear. [Laughs]
SERA GAMBLE: John, I remember you talking about the David Bowie song, like, the previous season. Am I remembering this right, that you kind of had this image in your head of everybody singing that song long before we got to this episode?
MCNAMARA: Yeah, I think the music was first. Initially, I think it was a much looser, even lighter, less menacing plot. At first, the design was almost going to be like a singing contest where there are high stakes to be lost. That didn’t really hold water, it just didn’t seem to work. [We realized] it had to sit in the serialized narrative of the show, it had to be about the quest, it had to be about something and someone you really cared about, and it had to also serve several ongoing threads that had nothing to do with this musical pocket universe. That just took a lot of trial and error. This was one of those episodes — you have one every season — where the normal episode will take anywhere from three days to two weeks to break the story, get all the beats on the board, and my recollection is this took six weeks. It stopped the [writers’] room. It literally stopped all forward momentum. Fortunately, we’d been on schedule with our other scripts and we kind of planned out. This was the knot to untangle at the end of the second third of the season. All hands were on deck. I give a lot of credit (or blame, depending) to my two co-writers Jay Gard and Alex Raiman. This was their debut professional script.
For me, one of the breakthroughs — which fortunately happened while I was out of the room, so it wasn’t my idea, but I immediately approved it — was the idea that it was a universe where there were dangerous consequences if you didn’t behave exactly the way the leader, Todd/the demon, wanted you to behave. That was a really important breakthrough, I think, for all the writers because it gave it a lot of bottom. It wasn’t just going to be like jazz hands.
When I got to this episode, I was surprised that it became about the group uniting. How did you land on taking it in that specific direction, where it’s about Josh feeling left out?
MCNAMARA: Part of it was just an accident. We realized we hadn’t had Josh in a bunch of episodes. He sort of got bumped out of a block of episodes through no fault of his own, just that we have a lot of characters and a lot of plot, and that in a way felt fortuitous, that you could then make the show about what happened to Josh.
GAMBLE: Whether or not the episode we’re working on happens to have half a dozen musical numbers in it, we are always playing within the structure of a classic fairy-tale quest this season. Quentin especially is very, very cognizant of how these epic quests work and how each step of the quest challenges the quester in a different way. From the beginning in this case, the quest has been a group effort, and when Eliot is given the quest in the first episode, he’s both encouraged and warned by the fact that everybody is part of one whole, and that means that these different keys, as you try to get them, will challenge you in different ways. If they’re a team and they forgot Josh, that’s a problem for the quest. So that was really one of the first things that we could sink our teeth into. Unlike John, I really don’t have a brain for musical theater. There are a lot of hilariously ardent musical theater fans in The Magicians writers’ room, as you can tell, starting with John, and I am not one of them. I am sort of the grumpy person in the corner who’s drinking coffee and saying, “Explain to me how this would work if no one was singing.”
You had “Under Pressure” in the back of you head for a while, but how did you pick the other three songs for the episode?
MCNAMARA: We knew the opening number would have to reintroduce Josh in a big way. It would have to be a big, inexplicably well-choreographed number that tells you why he’s so happy to be here, how integrated he is into this universe. The dance tells you something nonverbally about the world and the character: He is the center of this whole little universe. He’s the lead singer, he’s the lead dancer, and Todd is kind of his enabler, and we later learn why. That to me felt like we needed something big and upbeat and party-ish. We listened to a lot of songs, I can’t remember the titles of all of them. Some of them were insanely expensive and popular, and the song “Wham Bam” I thought was really catchy and a lot of fun. I thought it was like a really good introduction. It then gave Alice, Quentin, and Kady something to stare incomprehensibly at.
Another [type of musical number] that I’m very fond of is cabaret, where most of the musical numbers take place on a stage, so that you’re seeing a character perform for an audience that isn’t the audience in the theater, it’s the audience of the Kit Kat Klub, and character and milieu are revealed through a little more of a sideways way in. On the surface, it’s not as revealing of character, but if you do it right, it’s very revealing of character. So that informed the decision to have Kady sing her song. All I knew about that song early on was I wanted it to be a Sondheim song, because I love his work and I think it’s really intelligent and it always has layers to it, and I knew that it had to be a torch song because I had an instinct early on that we do a kind of classic Mata Hari move wherein she would do something outrageous to distract all of these creatures, and mollify and entertain them while our heroes were off doing something nefarious upstairs with Josh. I thought the [“All I Need Is the Boy”] lyrics were just as good if not better than “All I Need Is the Girl,” which has pretty good lyrics. I thought that’s the perfect torch song and definitely for our really hardcore musical theater aficionados, who may number in single digits, it’s kind of a treat to hear what is kind of, for 99% of the world, a brand new Stephen Sondheim lyric and, in my opinion, does not disappoint when you want cleverness, emotion, and a not-sentimental emotion and depth from Sondheim.
Then I came to discover with Sera, Jay, and Alex was now we have to explain why it is Kady would choose to sing this song and do a striptease. Then we thought, well, her mom, who we met in season 1 and was a bit of free spirit, might have had a year where she decided to be a stripper and maybe she did this burlesque number and Kady remembers it and recreates the dress. Without necessarily intending to, suddenly the song and the number and the moment and even the suspense it creates all illuminates Kady’s character to a greater degree.
“Car Wash” was just that we wanted something fun for Josh to use to distract, but also to slowly reveal to him how empty and repetitive this life has become and how false it is. I thought disco was a pretty good route to get to the death of the soul. If you’re just doing disco for months and months and months, you’re going to see the emptiness of it. As I said, “Under Pressure” was always in the back of my head before there was anything like a story as something that all eight characters could sing as we intercut between their various worlds and their various problems. None of us started out knowing how or why. That was just always on the board as the big number. In a weird way, the only one that we planned ahead of time was “Under Pressure.” Everything else was kind of trial and error, and selected to either illuminate character or move the story forward.
Can you tease what’s coming up in episode 10?
GAMBLE: I think it’s an understatement ot say there’s a lot coming up with the faeries, and I’m just very excited for people to see Candice Cayne’s work coming up in forthcoming episodes. I feel like we’ve had her all season and you’ve seen a glimpse of what she can do, but you’ll really get to see what she can do as an actress in episodes coming up soon.
At the end of the episode, the demon reveals that he did this as a favor to someone who was convinced the gang would be able to free Josh. Will we find out who was behind this little adventure?
MCNAMARA: Yes, you’ll find out who it was, who designed the quest, and who the demon did the favor for.
Is it someone we’ve met before?
GAMBLE: It’s someone you’ve been hearing about. I’ll leave it at that, but it’s someone highly consequential for the season.
The Magicians airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Syfy.
Based on Lev Grossman’s book trilogy, this fantasy Syfy series follows the adventures of students at Brakebills University, a graduate school specializing in magic.