Los Angeles Times
[Warning: This article contains spoilers for Season 3, Episode 3, of “Only Murders in the Building,” “Grab Your Hankies.”]
In Tuesday’s episode of “Only Murders in the Building,” Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) tries to resurrect a failed theatrical production by attempting the near-impossible: re-imagining a stage play as a hit musical. Never mind that the source material is a murder mystery in which the prime suspects are infants, or that the initial show shuttered when its leading man died opening night.
The plan to put on “Death Rattle Dazzle!” may be as absurd as the original play’s premise, but the episode offers spellbinding evidence that it just might work. After all, the ending of the aptly titled “Grab Your Hankies” — featuring powerful performances by Meryl Streep and Ashley Park — is liable to make you cry.
The stirring sequence sees Oliver gathered with his actors and producers in his living room. “In our experience, those presentations can be real make-or-break moments,” said musical theater veteran Benj Pasek, who co-wrote the in-show musical’s songs with Justin Paul and others. “The fate of your show rests upon whether people with resources want to invest time and money into your dream, and if you don’t pull it off, then years of work might all be for naught. The stakes are incredibly high; it really does feel like you’re singing for your supper.”
At the last minute, Oliver changes his mind about which song to present at the meeting. “I do have something for you, and I think it might hold the heart of the show,” he prefaces with sincerity. “Let me set the scene: It’s late at the Pickwick lighthouse. The triplets cry out in the night, their mother has died, but they’re not alone. For their nanny is there, looking after them.”
Streep’s sheepish journeywoman, Loretta Durkin, then performs “Look for the Light,” which starts off as a comforting lullaby and grows into a vow of steadfast guardianship. “I will wait at the shore for you/ I will weather each storm/ Standing by ’til safe you return from the night,” she sings. “My love is a lighthouse/ So darling, my darling, look for the light.”
Co-written by Sara Bareilles, the piano-driven ballad balances a declaration of love with an underpinning of melancholy, reminiscent of “Sonya Alone,” from “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” or “She Used to Be Mine,” from Bareilles’ own “Waitress” And if the opening chords sound familiar to “Only Murders” viewers, it’s because they allude to Siddhartha Khosla’s Emmy-nominated score.
In the episode, written by Noah Levine and Jake Schnesel, Oliver completes the song in a matter of days; Bareilles, Pasek and Paul required several weeks. And though Bareilles was assigned the song before the script was finished, she understood the task.
“The show brilliantly toggles between the heightened and the grounded,” she said. “So I knew we were trying to create something that was framed in an absurd way but still carried some real heart. That’s one of my preferred ways to work, to be the balloon string that ties people back down into the emotional center.”
The lyrics don’t explicitly mention the murder plot but instead reference the play’s lighthouse setting as “the longing and the ache of motherhood, which is a really beautiful thing,” said Bareilles. “That metaphor can live in the absurd place [of the series and its musical] but it can also be a standalone song.”
The composition is relatively restrained because, “writing for Meryl Streep, you know she’s gonna bring a nuanced emotional depth,” added Paul. And that she did, despite the fact that Streep quickly blocked and rehearsed the number with the episode’s director Adam Shankman the day before filming.
Though the Oscar winner has previously sung onscreen in a variety of genres and intensities — “Into the Woods,” “Ricki and the Flash,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Death Becomes Her,” the “Mamma Mia!” movies, the list goes on — Shankman wanted this performance to shine for its simplicity.
“We talked about stillness, intimacy and specificity, and the way she moved, she almost treated it like poetry,” he said. “Doing very little is not everybody’s instinct on a show that’s as funny and screwball as this one, so it felt special.”
Streep begins the number seated behind a trio of cribs, and eventually stands tall with her legs planted, as if she herself were fixed against the elements. Shankman shot quickly — two takes of each angle, since the sequence splices the performance with scenes of dialogue. “Everybody was gobsmacked,” he recalled. “She was singing live every time, and she was as emotive as you see her in every single take.”
“Look for the Light” reaches new heights when the orchestration swells, the key changes and Park’s character Kimber becomes so overcome by Loretta’s rendition that she can’t help but join her in a powerful harmony. (That overwhelming urge to sing does happen in actual presentations. Pasek and Paul pointed to Hugh Jackman’s viral impulse during the “Greatest Showman” showcase, and Shankman shared that the “Hairspray” dance ensemble unexpectedly joined Queen Latifah when she sang “I Know Where I’ve Been” for studio executives.)
By the end of the sequence, the entire room of producers, actors, agents and assistants is visibly moved, tears forming in their eyes. That’s because Streep and Park, done with their coverage and dismissed for the day, stayed on set for two additional hours while cameras captured the group’s reaction to Loretta and Kimber’s performance.
“Everybody’s reactions were so genuine because they stood behind the cameras and sang every take live, with full expression and emotion,” said Shankman. “I know it’s a TV show and it’s all fiction, but that moment did not feel like fiction. It was a magical experience that I’ll never forget.”
It’s difficult to pull off such an emotionally satisfying arc within the brevity of a song written for the screen, especially when the beats are interspersed with multiple cliffhangers, a new romance and a very funny breastfeeding joke. Yet “Look for the Light” — which was released as a single on all streaming platforms on Wednesday — manages to be a showstopper in itself, selling the viewer on the lifelong aspiring actress Loretta, the potential of “Death Rattle Dazzle!” and the emotional depth of the season’s once-absurd setup.
And it arguably doubles as a tribute to the power of musical theater. “It’s a beautiful portrayal of that lightning-in-a-bottle moment,” Paul said, “when it’s the right singer with the right song in the right room at the right moment.”
‘ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING’
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
How to watch: Hulu