Adam Schlesinger Was a Hit-Maker for an Alternate Reality

The coronavirus has taken the Fountains of Wayne and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songwriter from this world, but in other universes, his songs made him a superstar.

Adam Schlesinger is seen in front of faded posters for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and That Thing You Do!
Adam Schlesinger. Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Mireya Acierto/Getty Images, The CW Network, and 20th Century Studios.

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“Life doesn’t make narrative sense.” That’s what Josh Groban sang as the deadpan capper to a verse of “The End of the Movie,” one of the 157 songs Adam Schlesinger wrote or co-wrote between 2015 and last year as the executive music producer of TV’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And that’s what rings in my ears with the news that Schlesinger, at 52 years old, has died in a Poughkeepsie, New York, hospital of complications from COVID-19. It had only slowly dawned on me over the past dozen-plus years that Schlesinger’s name on a project almost guaranteed musical pleasures and accomplishments that went far beyond its surface promise.

He was a great musical artist in a way that’s often overlooked, less the model of a visionary outsider than that of the disciplined craftsperson, like an extraordinary furniture maker, in whose hands the unity of form and function becomes the poetry. He never seemed to covet stardom—someone else was always the frontman—but from behind the scenes, for instance providing the songs that made Tom Hanks’ fictional Beatlesque Wonders a real-world hit with “That Thing You Do!” in 1996 or Josie and the Pussycats their make-believe breakthrough in the 2001 movie, he gradually accumulated Grammy and Emmy and Oscar and Tony award nominations and wins that recognized his quiet labors.

(In Schlesinger’s memory, I’ve created this Spotify playlist that displays some of my favorite parts of his range.)

Of course, Schlesinger was known in his own right to a sturdy cult following as one of the leaders of power-pop band Fountains of Wayne, which he founded with fellow songwriter and lead singer Chris Collingwood in the mid-’90s after the two graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts. The band had its one chart breakthrough in 2003—years after being dropped from their 1990s major-label deal—with the tongue-in-cheek cross-generational–lust anthem (and Cars tribute), “Stacy’s Mom.” That song, which earned them two Grammy nominations, including a very late-breaking one as Best New Artist, was goofier than average for Fountains of Wayne. But their Kinks- and Beatles-inspired story songs about depressed businessmen and other rut-trapped figures did tend to come with an arched eyebrow that could make some listeners wary, myself included. Yet they could also create songs that made your breath catch in your throat, even one about a football player like Schlesinger’s “All Kinds of Time” (whose theme and title are especially poignant after his death).

What set FoW apart, always, was the level of compositional skill. They were formalists, not experimentalists, squares relative to the noise-first alt-rock aesthetics of the time—the Steely Dan of their era, outré next to a harder-edged majority, but with an outmatched awareness of the connotations of a given chord sequence and the emotional effects of a sudden shift in volume. These are easy qualities to underestimate, but, as Robert Christgau wrote in 2005, “Anybody who thinks that Fountains of Wayne are just another slick pop band better tell us who their compeers are.” Released around that same time, singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks’ comic tribute “Fountains of Wayne Hotline” showed that other musicians knew it, too, and remains one of the sweetest and funniest intramusical compliments I’ve ever heard.

But songs that mix upbeat ’60s-style pop with dryly rueful compassion for the dead ends of American life, even flawlessly made, are likely to be limited in appeal. In a 2011 interview with the Guardian, Schlesinger cited a common sentiment about both power pop in general and Fountains of Wayne in particular: “It’s hit music in some alternate reality.” As smart and catchy and not-a-gesture-wasted perfect as the songs might be, they stand outside of time and trends and all the social forces that determine the hits of any era. Not to take anything away from FoW’s greatest devotees (or those of his other band, the softer-edged trio Ivy), for whom I know that music is life-giving. But it was in film, TV, and more recently on the musical stage that I think Schlesinger was able to discover that alternate reality. Within the frame of their imaginary times and circumstances, he could create the hits that would live in their worlds.

My attention was piqued when I noticed Schlesinger’s work in the 2007 Hugh Grant–Drew Barrymore rom-com Music and Lyrics.* While it’s middling dramatically, it was the rare movie that convincingly depicts the creative process as the mundane, back-and-forth, bang-head-on-desk process that it usually is—along with the miracle that it can still produce something as seemingly effortless and inevitable as Schlesinger’s climactic ballad “Way Back Into Love.” When I saw his name in the credits, it brought me back to “That Thing You Do!” and made me think Schlesinger had found his ideal métier.

He created memorably comic but also soulful songs for a Stephen Colbert Christmas special that won him a Grammy. He contributed to Sesame Street and wrote (with his frequent collaborator, comedian and lyricist David Javerbaum) an opening Tony Awards number about theater for Neil Patrick Harris in 2011 called “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore” that I’m pretty convinced is the most uproarious, unforgettable original song ever written for any awards show, and maybe any televised variety show of any kind. (He and Javerbaum had previously adapted John Waters’ Cry-Baby for Broadway, to mixed success.)

And then there is the four-year run of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, where he came in as the veteran to help newcomer Rachel Bloom (and her songwriting partner Jack Dolgen) fulfill the audacious—even, going by TV history, outrageous—ambition of presenting a weekly musical hourlong comedy-drama on network television: genre pastiches, comical songs, and occasional soul-destroying confessionals in full song-and-dance production numbers that often amounted to whole music videos within the show. Schlesinger’s touch was obvious in the perfect attention to detail across style after style—particularly in making the songs at once familiar and novel, never reducing them to pure imitation, but highlighting the musical references while making the songs memorable in their own right. The three songwriters collaborated so closely that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish their contributions, but Bloom’s co-showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna remarks on the commentary to the show’s Season 1 soundtrack how often Schlesinger showed up at the office with a song that was clearly “in the key of ‘done.’ ” No further revision needed. Or even possible.

On Wednesday night on Twitter, she posted an example, his demo of “What’ll It Be?” The song was conceived as a “Piano Man” parody but revised by Schlesinger to be less on-the-nose, and thus much funnier. Fountains of Wayne fans should appreciate “Ping Pong Girl,” a pop-punk song about the perfect girlfriend, except the twist is that it’s sung by Bloom’s character’s love interest only in her own imagination—so it’s actually about what she thinks she needs to pretend to be like for him to be attracted to her. That kind of double-fake is typical of the series’ best songs, and without Schlesinger’s hand, more of them would have fallen flat. Likewise the spin on ABBA/girl-group harmonies on “First Penis I Saw,” or the amazing Huey Lewis–sings-about-sexuality number “Gettin’ Bi”—but also, less obviously in Schlesinger’s wheelhouse, the Fred-and-Ginger duet “Settle for Me,” and the aforementioned postmodern-stage-musical meditation, sung by Josh Groban on the show but by Schlesinger himself on the soundtrack album, “The End of the Movie.” Among many others.

The drawback to that commitment for Schlesinger was that it was kind of musical sweatshop for the three songwriters, leaving little time for much else for four years. And yet we know he had other things on the go—like a collaboration on a musical with comedian Sarah Silverman that was due to open off-Broadway in May (but has obviously been postponed), and work with Bloom on a musical adaptation of The Nanny. No doubt he had more in store that hasn’t been made public, and now may never be.

“The End of the Movie” was on to that too: “You want things to be wrapped up neatly/ The way that stories do/ You’re looking for answers/ But answers aren’t looking for you.” We’ll no doubt be reminded of that truth far too many more times in the days to come. If there is one thing that Adam Schlesinger could not abide, it was an unresolved chord progression, unless he damn well chose to leave it unresolved. Leaving his last chord hanging, suspended in the still and eerie air of this crisis, is an affront. But those of us who admired him—even, for some, without knowing his name until now—will have to listen, as closely as he would have, for the honor in that breach.

Correction, April 2, 2020: This piece originally misidentified the 2007 movie Music and Lyrics as Words and Music.