If you’ve ever watched a Joshua Safran show, you know he has a way of drawing you in, immersing you in the vivid world he builds. For his previous series like Gossip Girl, Smash, and Quantico, showrunner Safran took inspiration from his own life to construct these detailed worlds so audiences felt like they were actually experiencing them. “The personal makes something specific. It all comes from a personal place,” Safran says.
He taps into this mindset for his latest show, Soundtrack, premiering December 18 on Netflix with a cast that includes Jenna Dewan, Megan Ferguson, Christina Milian, and Broadway favorites like Campbell Scott (A Christmas Carol), Robbie Fairchild (An American in Paris), and Kyle Riabko (Hair). The show follows a group of people navigating life in Los Angeles, their stories intertwining through love and music—sort of like an episodic, musical Love Actually. The twist? Each character lip-syncs to their own soundtrack of songs, fully choreographed and staged as interspersed musical numbers. “I wanted to look at the ways musicals had been done in the past as a way to look at new ways of doing musicals in the present. I’m a huge Dennis Potter fan and I was really looking at [Potter’s famous lip-sync series], Pennies from Heaven.”
Potter’s 1978 musical drama Pennies from Heaven wasn’t the only personal favorite Safran drew upon for Soundtrack. Growing up on Upper East Side (which yes, shaped his Gossip Girl world), he spent his childhood listening to Broadway cast albums on vinyl and absorbing the showmanship of TV musical specials from artists like Cher and Lynda Carter.
“What I loved about them—and actually they probably were in my head when it came to making Soundtrack—was that these production numbers would actually be their own thing,” says Safran. “There’d be a new concept for each musical sequence. It wasn’t like they just came out and sang a concert.”
These 1970s TV specials link directly to more recent narrative TV shows like Fame, Glee, and of course, Smash. In fact, Safran cites his work on Season 2 of Smash as a learning experience that informed his work on Soundtrack. He also drew on his theatre roots when it came to forming the Soundtrack writers’ room, approaching each episode like its own Broadway musical.
“I really structured the episode arcs based on the music, like a true musical, as opposed to writing the story and then saying, ‘A song should fit here and what should it be?’ We had a really unique process in the writers’ room because I wanted it to be written like a real musical in which, if you could eliminate a song, then you shouldn't have a song.”
With the music serving as a compass for each episode, Safran created playlists for each character, establishing their aesthetic and backstory. When Soundtrack’s writers’ room was ready to gather, Safran’s playlists for each episode contained over 100 songs each; he had to pared that down to 12 songs per episode to present to the writers.
“We [the writers] would all listen to the songs and talk about what we felt they were telling us story-wise,” Safran explains. “And then five or six of them would go up on the board and we’d structure the episode from there.”
For Smash fans, Soundtrack may sound similar to the 2012 NBC musical dramedy, but unlike Smash, the Soundtrack actors lip-sync to the original artist instead of their own vocals.
“The characters are using songs they know to express themselves, like we all sing along and think about songs in our heads,” Safran says. “When you do that, you're hearing that artist, not your own voice.”
Safran understands that music is personal—a marking time of our subconscious selves. He also understands that music offers an escape from reality, a dip into optimistic fantasies that feel familiar.
“The show really is hopeful. I pitched it when I felt like shows on air were really dark and everything sort of raised your stress level. I really wanted to write something hopeful that made you feel good and that if it made you cry, it wasn't tears of sadness or pain, but tears of hope and joy.”
Like a true theatre kid, he hopes that Soundtrack inspires viewers to feel united. “It sounds really cheesy, but I just really believe that we are all connected. We are all here together and we have a lot to learn from one another. And I really wanted to make a show that about that.”