Among available bluebirds of happiness these days, none has alighted with the exquisite timing of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The TV show debuted in March 2017 — just months into the term of the current presidential administration — and it’s probably fair to say that after three seasons of gathering up fans and awards, Mrs. Maisel’s delicious brand of escapism has for many become key to emotional survival.
Highly polished production values deliver us to stylized versions of New York, Paris, and Miami Beach of the late ’50s to early ’60s. The pastrami sandwiches, baby strollers the size of Cadillacs, and pastel peignoirs are convincing visuals prompts.
Nothing really moors us to a sense of time and place, though, the way the show’s music does. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is unusual in its use of music — the sheer amount of it, the canny choices both from the era and beyond. Sinatra, Streisand, the Mamas and the Papas, jazz, and classical crop up at critical moments.
In its sophisticated pairings, music marries the moment, but time after time it also does the harder work of reaching deep into its characters.
When Susie, the ceaselessly cursing, school-of-hard-knocks and emotionally unavailable showbiz agent, finds herself alone with a grand piano, not only does it turn out she knows how to play. She also takes on nothing less than Beethoven, the last movement of the Pathétique Sonata. It’s funny for seeming incongruous, but it’s also a window into some long-buried aspiration of her own.
These kinds of quick virtuosic twists are special TV achievements, as the industry has acknowledged. Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an Emmy 2020 favorite, recently receiving 20 nominations, including two for music.
The show’s message glides in on a slim premise: an aspiring New York comedienne, Miriam “Midge” Maisel, makes her way in stand-up as she shakes free from the expected norms of a 1950s housewife.
What that means in sound is the peal of liberation and cry of optimism. It’s the swagger of Sinatra. Blossom Dearie appears often, her girlish but night-clubby voice the perfect aural echo of Maisel, the adventurous ingénue. Jimmie Lunceford, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Nina Simone, and others of the era fill out varieties of cool. All this might be expected for any period piece worth its salt. But The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel digs a few layers deeper.
You would hate to learn one day that the matching of music to the moment happened by way of some big-data lyric algorithmic sorting system. But that wouldn’t account for a few breathtaking instances in which the soundtrack merges with the story and the result completely changes what you’ve always assumed is the emotional intent of the song you’re hearing.
The mood of “Happy Days Are Here Again” might seem pretty clear. As a flashback scene of sweet family memories plays out, the song is relaxed at the start. But this is Barbra Streisand’s version, and somehow at her slower tempo the piece gathers urgency as it goes. Near the end of the song’s three minutes, Streisand’s voice grows desperate and the orchestrations strident, and you realize that the message has become ironic.
In Mrs. Maisel, when Streisand reaches her last note, pockmarked with decay and pain, Midge finds herself alone in the empty apartment she once occupied in a more settled time in her life. You realize that both singer and actress have been looking in from the outside at someone else’s happiness.
For the knowing historian, there are a couple of bonuses here. The first is recalling that Streisand was something of a cultural marker, a Jewish girl who managed to keep her identity and even use it as she broke into the mainstream (as Midge does).
The other layer of meaning crystallizes when you recall that Streisand introduced this slower, poignant version of the tune on The Garry Moore Show in 1962 as part of a skit about a millionaire who lost her fortune in the crash of 1929.
Sly cultural references multiply with binge-watching. The “Playful Pizzicato” movement from Britten’s Simple Symphony recurs as lighthearted shorthand for the era. It approaches Leroy Anderson in its fizz — and then we get real Leroy Anderson in a scene where Rose, Midge’s mother, swoons over Liberace appearing on TV performing “The Typewriter.”
A Haydn string quartet adds surprising tension to one domestic scene. Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” (from On the Town) induces the tears as Rose says goodbye to Paris.
Emotionally, the musical lobs are as powerful as they are well-aimed. When Midge tells her parents her cheating husband has left her, her father, Abe, goes into his study, and we hear the sounds of him breaking things — and then the Mount Everest of anguish: the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. It comes in a torrid burst before Abe slams down the lid on the keyboard. The piece was in the air at the time. It was the sound of overwrought romance in The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe (1955).
Abe, beyond his relationship to Midge, is a stand-in for a particular idea of cultural literacy of a certain era. He is a man of science. He moves among books piled up in his study, dismisses presidential candidate John F. Kennedy as a pretty boy, and is repulsed by the suggestion that his family might become a two-TV household.
He is heard at the keyboard one evening in Schubert’s Moments Musicaux No. 3. That he chose one of Schubert’s easier works, the province of the ardent amateur, speaks of aspiration, to the mid-20th-century ideal of being a well-rounded person.
But Mrs. Maisel doesn’t make the case that cultural literacy is something of the past. On the contrary, stitching together so much music from so many genres acknowledges the fact that a likely large slice of the show’s viewership is made of today’s cultural omnivores who consume everything from every era. Driving home the point is closing title music chosen from the 1970s to ’90s whose lyrics grow out of the plot.
One of the most stirring tunes in the show’s three seasons — the series has been renewed for a fourth — comes in an early episode that makes use of Blossom Dearie’s delicate version of “Dance Only With Me.”
At that particular point in the story, the music is meant to convey loss and nostalgia. But this small piece says something more. A lazy waltz, it has a floating feeling. The harmonic changes unfold gently, like a slowly turning kaleidoscope. It has an emotional quality that, upon hearing now, we realize has slipped away from daily life in our own era. It is the sound of being absolutely carefree.