Songwriters Marjorie Duffield, Helen Park, and Christopher Curtis used their musical theater insights to create intuitive, emotional songs for Netflix‘s Over the Moon.
The film, written by the late Audrey Wells, is a love letter to her husband and daughter. The animated feature follows the deeply personal journey of a young Chinese girl who deals with life after her mother passes away.
Duffield, Park and Curtis collaborated on the films genre-defying soundtrack, which features a soaring centerpiece, Rocket to the Moon, that catapults young Fei Fei in her rocket to meet the mythical goddess Chang’e on the moon.
Over the Moon also marks the first time these talented musical theater alums have written together as a team. Curtis is an Outer Critics Circle nominee for his Broadway hit Chaplin; Duffield, a lyricist, is the recipient of the Dramatist Guild’s Jonathan Larson Memorial Musical Theater Fellowship, and Park penned the off-Broadway hit musical KPOP, which is currently transferring to Broadway.
The trio spoke with Awards Focus about maintaining the film’s message of moving on, composing songs within different genres, and working alongside Audrey Wells and animation veteran director Glen Keane.
Awards Focus: What is the value of having a musical theater background when writing songs for an animated feature such as Over The Moon?
Marjorie Duffield: I think this is what musical theater trains you to do, which is to recognize the dramatic moment, and how a dramatic moment builds to the point where characters must sing. We have a common understanding of that magic moment when a character must move into song, because you have to feel it sitting in the audience, the story has to feel it, the singer has to feel it. You have to feel it together live, so you know when it’s true and when it’s not.
Christopher Curtis: Animation is almost like writing a musical, and it’s in the structure of the book of the musical. The structure has to be in place first and the script is the same. That was an initial gift to all of us from Audrey (Wells). The script that she wrote sang like a musical.
When I worked on Chaplin with Thomas Meehan, he would always know when something would sing. Audrey’s script sang, and those songs that are in this movie now burst off the page from her script. So we were very blessed to have this foundation to build these songs.
Helen Park: I would add that adding musical theater type songs to animation, the reason why it’s so much more effective than putting in pop songs, is that there is a built in journey in the musical theater song. The emotions that people feel are ever evolving, it’s not just static, and I think that really helps in the storytelling.
AF: Can you talk a bit about what it was like collaborating, how you bonded and what learning curves you had to overcome?
Curtis: Marjie (Duffield) and I were in China at the Artist and Residence Program for Pearl Studios. They were talking about different projects and about a wonderful script for Over The Moon. They showed us an image of this little girl looking out a window at the moon, and Marjie and I both reached over and we were like, ‘Oh my god, that really speaks to us!’
So we started playing around with ideas and then they would meet with other songwriters too. They had seen Helen’s fantastic Off Broadway musical KPOP, and liked that we had two different sensibilities.
Park: It’s always kind of daunting to come into a team that’s already there, but it was actually beyond expectations. Everyone was so open to each other’s ideas and we really bonded. I feel like the biggest gift that I got from these two is their openness and their ability to listen and create.
AF: Was there a division of labor, so to speak, for writing these songs?
Curtis: One person would sometimes take the lead on a song and start sketching stuff out. Then we would all get together and start molding and finishing it. We never went alone, and that was the nice thing. It’s a very intense process and we were all in the trenches together.
Park: Generally it would be Marjie taking a lead on lyrics. Musically, it was a lot of Chris or me leading, but it always ended up all three of us editing it and putting things together.
Duffield: We had some tight deadlines. Each song had a different genesis and pattern. The strength was that we’re all storytellers, and it just occurred to me that we really trust each other’s storytelling capacity and instincts. So even if someone had taken the lead, the other person might make suggestions, and then the other person might agree. There’s something really interesting about a trio because you can always go in a circle.
AF: What considerations went into planning the songs? Were you able to collaborate with Audrey on the songs and how they integrated into the overall film?
Duffield: I think Audrey always wanted to do a musical. She was so excited about songs in her script and we were able to collaborate with her in a lot of ways. For Ultraluminary, she had this character and Chris initially had some rock song ideas. Helen had some other ideas, and we kept trying to unlock the character until Audrey said this one thing that always stuck with me, that Chang’e is like a weather change.
Park: We tried different things for that particular song. She’s so powerful, has this demanding nature, and it had to be a song that demands people to dance. It’s not like a fun little dance song, it’s scary. There’s some choice that’s made in the melody to be a little more monotonous and not be beautiful, except for the bridge part where her vulnerability shows. That goes a little more melodically, and a little more curved.
In terms of genre, we really thought about each character, what they sound like and what their emotion is in that moment. It just turned out that the music varies. For example, Gobi’s song Wonderful, he’s such a different character than the others and has this humility, that his sound would be most represented through using a ukulele, which in my opinion is the most humble instrument.
AF: Was that the same line of thinking for Fei Fei’s character?
Park: Fei Fei has this pure quality to her. She goes from this little town in China to the moon and it really had to capture that journey from the most intimate place to the most grand thing ever. I think that really required more of a traditional musical theater song.
Duffield: I feel like Mooncakes doesn’t get the air time it deserves because its a wonderful sequence, and we knew so much had to happen. To me, that’s kind of the most musical theater moment, this extended musical sequence where time passes and someone grows. I just think it’s so wonderful and breaks my heart every time.
AF: It’s a beautifully conceived song. Were you able to add material to the script for the purposes of writing the song?
Duffield: That (Mooncakes) was a real adaptation moment because Audrey has things in the scene. We literally had to lift out her material and put the song in that captured her intention, spirit, and plot points. It’s our version of what she wrote but it was a big chunk of removing her script there. She loved it, and she was a great supporter of the songs in that spirit, but it definitely was a replacement.
Curtis: She heard most of the songs before she passed away and had seen the first screening, which was very special.
AF: Rocket to the Moon is a centerpiece to the film. What considerations went into conceptualizing the song, and showcasing a pivotal moment in Fei Fei’s journey?
Curtis: Glen had said that by the time she takes off in the rocket, I want to go with her as an audience member and I want to earn it. I look at Rocket to the Moon almost like a mini opera because it starts out in this place of grief that’s heartbreaking as she sings to her mom.
Then, there’s this place in grief where you have to embrace it fully to break through it. This voice of intuition breaks through and a light goes off, and slowly a train starts building and gets faster and faster. She gets more excited in her belief and that build up to the end when she finally takes off and sings, ‘Fly away,’ and we have been invested in her emotional journey and breakthrough. So it was really Glen who said here are the goalposts, and make it work.
AF: Did you know what would be happening visually on the screen to compliment the song as you were writing?
Duffield: That’s one of the joys of working with Chris and Helen, because both of them have very visual music. It was kind of an interesting turn for all of us to write for an animated feature for the first time because you have to create some sort of visual. Glen trusted us with a lot, and after a conversation, he had to see what we were seeing and then he could draw what we were seeing.
Curtis: There’s a phrase ‘listen to the music’. In animation, it’s listen to the images because the original image of that little girl looking out the window at the moon, in that image are words of music. You just have to capture them.
Park: Glen actually loved it when we were demoing songs, that we kind of acted it out ourselves. When we just sang it, he couldn’t really see what we were going for, but when I went out of my comfort zone and was forced to act it out, he would be like, ‘Oh yeah, I get it now’.
Curtis: Helen was so great at selling the songs because I’d be at the piano and singing, and she would help bring them to life so Glen could see it visually. It was a fun process.
AF: Love Someone New has beautiful, and very personal, lyrics. How did you achieve the message for that song?
Duffield: That actually was the first thing Chris and I wrote. It was a line right out of Audrey’s script that was reaching into my brain and heart. He (Chris) had started playing around with some melodies, which was interesting because we sort of knew that everything was going to lead us there. Because that’s where Audrey’s script led us.
I think on some level, that was the heartbeat of Audrey’s script because she knew she was ill and she knew that she was writing this as a love letter to her husband and daughter. Her soul is all over the script but there was really something beating there. It was the initial piece we created, and then, ultimately, it became the true north for the story.
Park: What I love about that song is that it’s a faith based melody. She sings that same melody in Rocket to the Moon when she’s looking up to the heavens. When she sings it to someone else, it’s like sharing that pain of grief with someone who’s also going through grief, and it’s like opening up to each other. It’s very powerful.
“Rocket to the Moon” performed by Cathy Ang. Written by Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield & Helen Park. (Courtesy of Netflix)