The Magicians' big number: Showrunners talk about tonight's musical episode

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Mar 22, 2017

In tonight's episode of The Magicians, "Lesser Evils," Eliot (Hale Appleman) gets tuned up for one-on-one battle against the king of Loria. And while we can thank Margo (Summer Bishil) for that whole declaring war thing, she is also the one who comes up with the idea for a big number to build confidence, project power – and to help El from puking from fear.

And what is that big number? Why, "One Day More" from Les Miserables, of course. As he preps for his duel, and moves his ass like Beyonce, Fen (and Brittany Curran) and Margo join in the singing -– before we see much of the Fillorian court join in.

The sequence is rowsing, fun, furthers the story and even drives character development.

To talk about the The Magicians' first foray into musical episodes, showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara joined me for a brief chat about the music of "Lesser Evils," what other songs were considered, their favorite numbers in other shows, and if we'll see more in the future.

Watch the number, read what they had to say, and if you find yourself singing along, tune in for the tune with tonight's The Magicians on Syfy at 9 p.m.

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Musical numbers are a way for a show to get playful with storytelling. So, how do you approach these while remaining true to the concept (and the series overall) without being a gimmick?

John McNamara: The important thing is that you have to pick a song that illuminates character and heightens the drama of the moment. It can't just be there because it’s a good song, or funny, or fun, or sad. It has to move the characters and their journey forward.

How far in advance did you know you wanted to do a musical ep, and were there other episodes you considered instead of this one?

JM: No other episodes were ever considered for it …

Sera Gamble: But we don't consider this to be a "musical episode." It's just a giant musical number that happens to occur inside an episode of The Magicians, because every episode of The Magicians is insane in its own way.

JM: And to answer your first question: At the last minute.

How did Les Mis come to mind as the song to sing?

JM: It was after looking at a lot of different songs that have a rousing, almost military-march feel to them. Like the "Tonight" Quintet from West Side Story, or "Don’t Rain on My Parade" from Funny Girl. I thought about a bunch of different pop songs from present and past. And finally we settled on this one because it seemed to best fit the characters' emotional dilemmas and seemed to have a quality that would allow Eliot to march into battle a little braver.

Talk about clearing this song to use in the show.

JM: The authors asked us to write a letter to them and send the script pages involving the scene, along with a brief synopsis of the show. And with the help of our music producer, Ann Kline, we cleared the song in about two and a half weeks without a problem.

What was the process for actually shooting? Was this an especially challenging episode technically?

SG: Yes.

JM: Yes. It was a multi-part process. The first part of the process was to pre-record each actor on separate tracks, not knowing if they could sing. As it turns out, they can. They have beautiful voices. And those are their actual singing voices in the episode. The second element was the actual staging of the scenes across three locations. That took coordination between our director Rebecca Johnson, co-writer Elle Lipson, choreographer Paul Becker, DP Elie Smolkin, and, of course, rehearsing the cast, storyboarding the action, and so on.

Were the actors up for it? Any butterflies from them about performing, and were they naturals?

JM: They were naturals.

SG: They were a little nervous.

JM: Both are true. But nobody demurred. Nobody said no. Everybody kind of leaned in. Probably the least nervous was Hale because he had done it before. I don't think anyone else had.

SG: The truth about being a TV actor is you don't know what you're going to be asked to do on any given episode. If you're lucky, you get a script a couple days before shooting and have to run with what you're given. We're a show that does weird things all the time, so this is maybe not the weirdest thing we've asked the actors to do.

What are your favorite musical eps, and why?

SG: That Buffy episode is pretty damn great.

JM: Yeah that was the best. Chicago Hope was pretty great as well.

SG: My favorite use of a song in a TV show was the series finale Six Feet Under. But no one was singing it, so I don't think that counts.

JM: "Under Pressure" in Smash. They did a great job with that. The whole cast sang it.

SG: The pilot of Glee was pretty perfect. I watched that a lot.

Can fans now expect a musical episode each season?

SG: We're pretty committed to going to the weirdest possible places that the story will let us go. And we're a writers room with some outspoken musical fans. So it certainly wouldn't be too surprising. So far every musical number has been more ambitious than the last.