Soundtrack creator Joshua Safran explains how his latest TV musical found its groove.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
December 13, 2019 at 10:30 AM EST
Parrish Lewis/Netflix. Inset: Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic
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After running the second season of SmashJoshua Safran knows a thing or two about TV musicals — but he’s putting an interesting twist on his latest one, Netflix’s Soundtrack.

In Soundtrack, which drops its entire first season on Dec. 18, the musical numbers are lip-syncing extravaganzas. The main characters hear a pre-existing song by an artist in their head and when they sing/dance, it’s the artist’s voice, not their own, that issues forth. Each episode pairs up two characters to follow their journeys before ultimately bringing them together for a “mash-up” number of two songs.

Safran always conceived the series as a version of these lip-syncing fantasy sequences. “This really was predicated on this idea that we all have of our soundtracks and when we think about music, when we hear a song in our head, we hear the artist,” he explains to EW. “You hear Beyoncé, you hear Stevie Nicks. You do not hear yourself singing it. That was where the concept came from.”

The idea first came from Pennies from Heaven, a 1970s BBC Dennis Potter mini-series that uses the same lip-syncing concept with Depression-era tunes. Safran pitched the show and its looping timeline as Pennies from Heaven meets Magnolia, always keeping in mind that musical element while also digging deep into the story structure. “I always knew I wanted every episode to feature on two different characters, and it was their soundtrack for that episode,” he says. “It really just was these small character stories that have a beginning, middle, and end to them. I was interested in diving deep into the characters.”

The series, which stars Callie Hernandez (La La Land), Paul James (Greek), Madeleine Stowe (Revenge) and Jenna Dewan (Step Up) among others, started its creative life as a pilot named Mixtape at Fox. Safran says even then not everyone was sold on the lip-sync idea. “They finally said, ‘We’ll let you do it, but we reserve the right after seeing the pilot, if we like the pilot, but the lip-syncing doesn’t work, then we’ll re-do it with covers,'” he recalls.

Ultimately, Fox liked the lip-syncing, but passed, feeling it was too edgy for the network. Safran, who also served as a writer and executive producer on Gossip Girl, reframed the new series as a 10-episode streaming project called Soundtrack. But the music was always at its heart.

The characters and their stories arose out of the songs he associated with them, not the other way around. “I found the songs first,” he stresses. “Before there was even a plot, there were songs in the pilot. Brandon Flowers’ ‘Between Me and You’ – the character of Sam (James) came out of that song, as opposed to me looking for a song about what it’s like to be a single dad who can’t get home to their kids.”

Safran cultivated lengthy playlists, guiding him through the writing process. “There was a Sam playlist and a Nellie (Hernandez) playlist and that informed the show. The songs tell a story,” he elaborates. “If you can take a song out of the story and it can still be told, I said to myself, ‘Well I should cut it.’ So there’s only ever music, when if it wasn’t there, you would miss something in the story. I had a playlist for all the characters, hundreds of songs on a playlist. In listening to the playlists, I would hear the songs that spoke to me that felt like the character and then I would bring them to the writers’ room and then we would build the story around the songs.”

Soundtrack hits Netflix Dec. 18. Watch the trailer above.

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