‘Cruel Summer’ Composers Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman on Creating the ’90s-Set Thriller’s ‘Avant-Garde’ Score

·5-min read

Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman do not have as much on-camera time as they did during their time as the focal points of Prince’s group, the Revolution. But, in the 35 years since the disbanding of the Revolution, Melvoin and Coleman have stealthily worked three-quarters of their way to an EGOT.

They snagged their Academy Award with “Purple Rain” and multiple Grammys in the mid-‘80s with Prince. Their work on “Nurse Jackie” garnered them the Emmy for outstanding original main title theme music in 2010. This year, with their multi-dimensional score for Freeform’s teen psychological thriller, “Cruel Summer,” they could be headed to the Emmy podium once again.

More from Variety

“Cruel Summer” follows the lives of two main characters, Kate (Olivia Holt) and Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia,) on the same days over the course of three consecutive summers in 1993, 1994 and 1995. Kate, beautiful and popular on the outside but troubled and isolated on the inside, is groomed by her assistant principal who eventually locks her in his basement. When she finally gets out, she is the polar opposite of who she was prior. Jeanette starts as a dorky nerd and morphs into who she thinks Kate used to be, taking over her best friends and boyfriend. Once Kate escapes her basement prison, the now reviled Jeanette withdraws into an angry version of herself.

The show switches rapidly back and forth from year to year and character to character. Numerous cues soundtrack these dramatic changes, which, tonally, vary greatly — from childish and carefree to sinister and damaged. Melvoin and Coleman nail the different feels and personalities, deftly avoiding jarring the viewers’ experience in the process.

“The tallest order for us was how to bridge three different years with three different styles that were distinct from one another and make it seamless,” says Melvoin from her and Coleman’s workspace at Henson Studios in Hollywood. “When we approached it, we made sure not to borrow any themes from an era and use it for another era. For instance, if there was a sound that reflected the story of the main character in the basement, or being with the teacher on their own, those sounds weren’t used in any other place. We had to employ a lot of discipline.”

Both Melvoin and Coleman credit the show’s producers — Jessica Biel, Bill and Michelle Purple and showrunner Tia Napolitano — for their concise and cohesive notes, which made the direction for the score straightforward for the composers.

“They were really specific,” says Coleman. “What was helpful was they shot the show really specifically. The way the actors were dressed and played their characters was so different in 1993, 1994 and 1995. Jeanette, for example, in 1993 is such a dorky, innocent girl. It was easy to score that with ‘90s synth and guitar sounds, compared to 1995 when she’s hated and going through terrible stuff and it’s really dark with darker sounds.”

The narrow sound palettes for each character and each time period helped in getting the cues completed in the seven days Melvoin and Coleman had to score for each episode of the hour-long drama. Each week, they read the scripts and discussed at length what the best tempos and keys would be, drawing from a specific and relatively limited range. This way, they already had the themes for each character determined prior to the composing sessions. Working to locked picture, they then plugged in guitars and keyboards and performed to the scene.

“The actors are young and don’t need big, heavy scores around them,” says Coleman. “You try to catch their looks and things like that. We watch the timecode go by, and say, ‘At 19:30, cut to the E, play dark.’ We get a good skeleton that way and then we do overdubs.”

The needle drops on “Cruel Summer” also inform the score, to a certain degree, and vice versa. Says Melvoin, “We knew what the needle drops were going to be, but we were also able to pitch when we were going to be playing a certain era and the type of music we were not going to do. We didn’t want to go to the pop-alternative world and mimic, for instance, Offspring or something like that. We went towards the more avant-garde of the alternative scene. When the music supervisor, Kevin Edelman, would hear our stuff, there would be a general understanding of where our influences were for the score, so they were choosing things that didn’t sound too typical.”

Their work on “Cruel Summer” wrapped a mere two weeks prior to the finale — which airs June 15 on Freeform at 7 p.m. PT — and Melvoin and Coleman are already on their next project. Scoring work for the duo is steady, but Melvoin says in the 30-plus years they’ve been working as composers, “It’s gotten harder.”

“There are so many ‘composers’ because there is so much content now that the art of composition has gone down a rung. You press buttons and there are sample libraries, musical instruments that can play a full score with one note,” Melvoin adds. “Kids are getting hired to do this stuff who have absolutely no relationship to real narrative or storytelling or what it means to make a great visual picture. The competition is fierce.”

Melvoin and Coleman are also casually working toward the last element of an EGOT — a Tony award. The duo says they are talking to singer-songwriter Jill Sobule about writing something “like a musical,” but Melvoin says, “We haven’t gotten to sit down and actually do it.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting