Download: Geoff Zanelli On Scoring for the Intimacy of the Obamas, the Fords, and the Roosevelts for 'The First Lady'
Music can shape the arc of any story, and we are used to hearing a swelling, grand score whenever we watch a biopic or film about a famous political figure. The score can carry tremendous weight in our emotional reaction to the retelling of any historical event. For Showtime’s The First Lady composer Geoff Zanelli wanted to track the emotional wattage of these women who found themselves standing next to the most powerful man in the world. His music is refined, subtle, but, ultimately, respectful.
With three very distinct storylines, there is the temptation to score these as three entirely different pieces. I believe that would’ve made The First Lady uneven musically, and Zanelli explained that there needed to be some uniformity to prove why these women are connected in this series.
“That was the first big question that needed answered. Before I started writing anything, the show was largely edited how it is seen now. It was never one character per episode. I thought there had to be a reason that Susanne Bier decided to jump in time and draw connections between this shared experience of almost 100 years. That said something about the music, and I knew there was an element that I had to keep coming back to. I told Susanne that there was a river that we kept coming back to. The stories are specific, but it is about the shared experience. About half of the score is about that experience together.”
Zanelli felt the pressure in scoring one of the biggest moments early on in the show. When Barack Obama is elected President, we see the historic moment that he, Michelle Obama, and their daughters move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Zanelli wanted to focus on intimacy, but he acknowledged that “Obamas to the White House” needed to feel like a huge moment.
“Writing music for actual living people (or people who did live) is burdensome. You have to be respectful and thoughtful, and the Obamas are so present in our minds. There is a pressure to get that right, especially because of how meaningful that moment was to the whole country. That was a moment of the score to go big since it was so momentous, and that is probably the biggest moment musically. Even when Laura Bush is giving Michelle the tour, which is right after the moment you’re talking about, is so beautiful because it isn’t a moment of politics. They are very friendly towards one another even though there are tensions there that are outside the realm of their connection. It’s a moment to show that human relationships transcend politics, and that’s important since it’s not divisive.”
There is an emotional path seen through the music of Eleanor Roosevelt’s romantic relationships. In “Your Dearest Lucy,” we can hear the heartbreak when she finds out about her husband’s infidelity. There are pieces in that track that sound like crying or a response to a difficult question. We hold Eleanor’s intellectual ferocity on a pedestal, but The First Lady shows us how invested she was in her loving relationships.
“I did not want to write historical music, because my task was to bring Eleanor into the present. So much of their time was pioneering. Not just women’s rights, but the stuff with Hickok foreshadows Marriage Equality. Imagine what her life would’ve been like if she could’ve lived with Hickok how she would’ve wanted to? Even with someone like Eleanor, she has to make those decisions. Does she stay in this marriage which is broken, and the way she navigates her life is inspiring. I don’t think that is lost or trapped in history. I couldn’t approach this in a historical sense, because I’m not an expert on the music of the 1930’s. How this story relates to now is what I needed to focus on.”
In the Betty Ford chapter, Zanelli didn’t want to create a melodramatic score to give her story a hokey arc. He looks at Betty’s circumstances and position in order to fully realize her journey. There is a disorienting elegance that he gives “Pills,” and there are unpredictable, heavy piano cues that harken to the darkness of substance abuse. The following track, “Betty in the Mirror,” is reflective and poignant as Betty recalls her days a dancer.
“Before I even touched Betty Ford’s section, Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance is full of grace and dignity. Her range as a performer is phenomenal. That was I liked about her story. Obviously, she has regrets about things choices she made when she was younger that affected her chances of becoming a dancer. That was her dream that never came to be. Part of it is the circumstances of the 60s and poor medical advice. What I think what people respond to is that she has this redemption arc. What makes it a compelling part of the show is that we are used to seeing drug addicts and alcoholics as frail husks while she was a mostly functioning alcoholic living and operating in the White House. She’s not a useless husband who can’t go to work anymore. That’s an aspect that gets overlooked so often. That “Pills” cue is when she cannot function. When she is outside of those moments, she is a loving wife and she can almost keep up. “Day Drinking” is a little more subdued and we aren’t quite at rock bottom yet.”
If The First Lady is renewed for a second season, the sophomore go-around could have an entire different feeling. When I asked Zanelli who he would be curious to write music for, he gave two very different answers.
“It’s hard to ignore Jackie Kennedy, because there is so much going on there. With her husband, with her, the beloved presidency cut short. It’s incredibly rich material, for sure. Because we are still living through this present, there is a lot of mystery in Melania Trump’s role. It would be so hard to do that, but there is a reason she kept to herself. I imagine. How would we get the truth out of there, but it’s impossible to not wonder what the East Wing of the White House would be like at the time. Those are very explosive ideas for different reasons.”
The First Lady is streaming on Showtime.