Given how often it has spoofed various film genres and conventions, it makes perfect sense that the hit USA Network mystery-comedy series Psych would take on musicals. And the cast and crew — including writer-director Steve Franks, who spoke to me about the project — accomplish this in a terrifically entertaining way with the special two-hour episode Psych The Musical.
A stand-alone special (Season 8 of Psych will start up Jan. 8), Psych: The Musical retains the fun of the regular series, incorporating humor and mystery, and adding in enjoyable music.
Explaining the genesis of the idea for Psych The Musical, Psych creator Steve Franks — who wrote and directed the episode, and co-wrote the songs with composer Adam Cohen — explains, “I wrote the theme song to the show and I played in a band for years, and our shows were always a bit theatrical in terms of there was a lot more talking than regular rock ‘n’ roll shows. We would do character bits or funny little songs. It was always my sort of wish to be able to take that to a bigger arena. Knowing that we had a cast that could sing so well, and that Dulé had been on Broadway, and all the talent we had there, it was inevitable that we would sort of put that together and do some sort of musical episode.
“The other thing that was operating was at the end of every season I was always asking if we could do a Psych movie in the hopes that we could do something that would be a theatrical release and give me the opportunity to push off on the big things on my bucket list. It was one of those things that we never got off the ground, but I figured out when I was working out the logistics of doing a musical that the only way that we could really afford to do it is if we actually did a two-hour. Save the money and time of doing two episodes simultaneously. And I also get to click off my box a little bit that, ‘Hey, we just did a movie.’ I didn’t realize at the time that I was now having to — instead of writing an hour’s worth of songs, now I had to write two hours worth of songs. But I couldn’t have had more fun during the process.”
The plot of Psych The Musical surrounds a playwright, “Z,” who escapes from a psychiatric institution, where he has been held for seven years following his presumed murder of a critic. Fearing Z will strike again after he gets word that his play is being restaged, Shawn (James Roday), Gus (Dulé Hill) and the rest of the gang try to find him.
(The theme of the play is Jack the Ripper, and Franks says that the second hour of Psych The Musical was originally going to take place in London, but it “just became too big.” However, a London setting inspired Franks for the Season 8 premiere episode, which will follow Shawn and Gus across the pond.)
The investigation of Z proceeds, as the title of the special indicates, largely through song and dance numbers. The tunes are fun lyrically and musically, and tend to take jabs at various tropes of musical theater and film, including Disney musicals — one of the main, recurring themes of the episode especially seems to be a riff on Belle’s theme from Beauty and the Beast, and even in the opening sequence Shawn is introduced much as a Disney heroine would be, sweeping up his shop before going out and engaging with the townspeople through song.
Franks says that the Disney reference was intentional.
“In my sort of knowledge of film — and I went to film school and everything — musicals were always my weak point. … [In Psych The Musical] I was always aiming toward one thing that I had deep knowledge of, and that was the Disney animated musicals, especially the revival period from The Little Mermaid right up through The Lion King. And I had worked at Disneyland doing what they call ‘parade guest control’ during all those parades — The Lion King and Aladdin and during that period. So that opening number exists somewhere between the Prince Ali song [from Aladdin] and Belle’s opening song [from Beauty and the Beast]. I was always going toward that vibe. In fact, the guy who did — when they put the whole orchestration thing of it — he told me that, ‘Hey we got in some Beauty and the Beast there in terms of style.’ That’s what I was going for with my sort of dark, twisted little introduction song.”
Several of the musical numbers are performed at the behest of Yang, with Ally Sheedy reprising her guest role as the incarcerated killer who aids Shawn in his investigation (and even gets in a little singing of her own).
Franks says of a climactic singing scene between Yang and another returning character: “That might have been my favorite thing ever to shoot in the entire run of the show.”
Though Shawn and Gus do most of the performing (with Gus in particular teasing us with bits of his “Jamaican Inspector” number before we are treated to it in its entirety at the end), the entire Psych cast gets in some singing at various points — with the exception of Henry (Corbin Bernsen), who tells Shawn (and us) at the beginning about him singing, “That’s not gonna happen.”
“The funny thing is,” Franks laughs about the Bernsen line, “I asked Corbin early on in the process — and this was my mistake — I asked him if he could sing, and he said he could talk-sing. Which I took as, ‘Okay, I can’t sing.’ And then when the script came out, Corbin was sad because he didn’t get to sing, and I was like, ‘Well, I thought you were saying no!’ It was sort of my misinterpretation. But I think I got a really fun joke out of it.”
And another hilarious moment — Gus’ show-stopping “Jamaican Inspector” — was not even originally going to be filmed, Franks explains.
“I put together the thing and it was just going to be in dialogue. And then he would start singing the thing. As I was writing the script I kept adding more to it, and so finally I thought there’s pieces of this song that actually could all go together. … I thought, ‘Okay, we’ll record it and we’ll put it over the credits and you’ll hear it. It was never supposed to be filmed, and it was never put on the schedule. And we went in to record the songs, and Dulé. It just went through the roof. And I knew then that at some point in the schedule — I wasn’t going to put it on the schedule — that I was going to shoot it, guerrilla-style or however it was going to fit in.
“It just so happened that whole sequence, I was shooting James getting hung by the rope in the big fight scene at the end, and I had to put James up on this crane and lift him up and down. And as I was watching the rehearsal, I was like, ‘This is it! This is how we’re going to do it, we’ll do it all in one shot and we’ll put Dulé up and we’ll just swing him around the stage.’ I went over and I said, ‘Are you comfortable doing this?’ And he said, ‘Are you kidding?'”
You can tell that Franks and composer Adam Cohen had a lot of fun with the 14 songs and reprises in this special. The tunes serve not only as knowing parodies of the genre, but as entertaining numbers in their own right, while also serving to advance an effectively fun and engaging mystery.
“I’ve listened to [the songs] once just for the technical aspect,” says Franks, “and then I’ve been listening to them for pleasure ever since. … There are a couple songs that I sadly had to cut out at the outline stage and things I never even showed to Adam. I’m saving those for when the inevitable big Broadway production happens.”
Psych The Musical premieres Dec. 15 at 9pm ET/PT on USA Network.
Psych The Musical: © 2012 USA Network Media, LLC. Credit: Alan Zenuk