Co-writers Keith Harrison (also orchestrator and album producer) and Laura Schein (who also plays the role of Smize) break down their original emoji musical, now available as an album from Broadway Records.
Emojiland was first born at dinner in 2014 when a glance at the Google search trends revealed “emoji” in the top slot. It happened to be the week that Apple first released emojis as a default keyboard, instead of an “international” layout people had to enable manually, so curiosity was at its peak. The basic concept (adapting the characters in the emoji alphabet as characters in a musical) and central existential theme (emoji insignificance mirroring human insignificance) were immediately apparent. The narrative, however, was a complete mystery. It could have been anything! Which emojis should be in the show? Does it take place inside or outside a phone? Are there human characters? What happens?
Over the next five and a half years, Emojiland was a moonlit passion project, written in spurts whenever time allowed. Living room readings, industry readings, self-funded concert productions, a workshop at the University of Southern California, and a self-produced production at the New York Musical Festival all served as incubators of this layered ensemble piece. With a finished structure inspired by films like Nashville and Magnolia and musicals like Into The Woods and Les Misérables, plus a score that couches plot and character-forwarding lyrics in a pop-centric musical aesthetic, Emojiland was a hard sell at first. Even now, newcomers make assumptions based on the title alone. But years of persistence and improvement (we wrote a total of nearly 50 songs for the show over the years, plus eight page-one rewrites of the story/script) can pay off. We’re grateful that the critical community and audiences have responded so positively to the piece, and that this original cast recording exists as a preservation of this beloved Off-Broadway production.
In the wake of the novel coronavirus, existential dread has saturated our collective mindset. But, “who you are’s what you do when life hands you a pile of poo.” Even when facing a “virus.” Even if we have to “start again.” We just need to remember that “love is what matters,” because at the end of the day, “it’s just so great to be alive.”
This first track transports the audience into the digital world of Emojiland, inside a cell phone filled with apps, icons, and, of course, emojis. This music, which occurs twice, was originally written for the first version of the show as the Emojiland national anthem. It’s a little wordy, but you can sing along: “Emojiland, Emojiland, Emojiland / Emojiland, Emojiland, Emojiland.”
"It’s Just So Great To Be Alive"
The opening number introduces us to the world of Emojiland, where emojis of all shapes and sizes go about their daily lives. A 1-5-8 motif, the most prevalent text tone sequence across smartphones (eg. Android’s Merope, Sirrah, Tinkerbell, and F1_New_MMS, and Apple’s Chord), is heard, providing musical DNA. Information Desk Person (Heather Makalani) informs us that there will be a software update. Discussing their update wishes, we hear from Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes (aka Smize, played by Laura) and Smiling Face With Sunglasses (aka Sunny, played by Jacob Dickey), who’ve been an enviable item since 1.0. At the royal castle we meet Princess (Lesli Margherita), the vapid, despotic ruler of Emojiland, her loyal Guardsman (Dwelvan David) and the financially greedy Man In Business Suit Levitating (Max Crumm, who always travels by hoverboard in this production). On the streets of Emojiland, we’re introduced to Construction Worker (Natalie Weiss) and Police Officer (Felicia Boswell), partners in work and life. Meanwhile, Skull (Lucas Steele), the embodiment of death, wonders if it actually is just so great to be alive. Emojiland might not be all sunshine and rainbows. But nevertheless, its citizens eagerly await whatever new emojis will arrive in the update. Musical themes from songs that appear later in the show are established as underscore and accompaniment for their respective characters: “Work Together” for PoPo and CoWo, “New Crown In Town” and “Princess Is a Bitch” for Princess, Guardsman & MIBSL, and “Cross My Bones” for Skull.
"Sad On The Inside"
Emojiland has had a variety of protagonists throughout its development, and even Smize came and went over the course of a few years, but when the idea cropped up to make our happy face “sad inside” (the original hook of this song lacked a few syllables), we knew we had found the clearest way to articulate the identity crisis we were looking to explore. In the show, Smize self-medicates by smelling the pink hibiscus emoji. On the lyric “they see the me that’s yellow but they never see the blue,” the hibiscus and all the scenery turn blue. This is straight ahead percussive pop, with some emo theatricality sprinkled on top. The major chord button (it was originally minor) was a last minute suggestion from our director, Tom Caruso, that supports the flower turning back to pink at the very end.
"Princess Is a Bitch"
Here we learn that Princess, Emojiland’s supreme ruler, owns and enjoys being a bitch. In the production, Lesli Margherita brought the house down with her powerful comedic prowess and fierce pole dancing, ending the song by jump-landing into a split. Princess is a character that has existed in some form in every version of Emojiland. One of the OG emojis, she originally sang a song called “Naughty, Naughty” that still exists online, which shares the same chord progression as “Princess Is a Bitch” in the chorus, inspired by Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” Fun fact: This is Keith’s Nana’s favorite song in the show to sing.
"The Progress Bar"
The emojis gather at The Progress Bar to celebrate and ring in update 5.0. As they sing and toast their libations, the digitally displayed progress bar illuminated above them counts up to 100 percent. We drew inspiration here from New Year’s Eve, the hope and promise of it, but also the drama of crossing such a clear temporal threshold that can’t be uncrossed. This main part of this song was written for the NYMF production, to capture that energy of hope and promise, but the music that begins under Princess’s monologue and the vocals that follow were taken from an old act-one closer. That augmented piano melody has stuck one way or another throughout the development process, and on this album re-appears throughout the score whenever the collective future of Emojiland is tenuous (see “Stand For,” “Thank Me Now,” “Entr’acte,” “Virus,” and “Start Again”).
"Zeros & Ones"
This song introduces us to Nerd Face (George Abud), the newly-installed, wide-eyed, thickly bespectacled, circumlocutionary emoji who marvels at the mathematical miracle of existence. The first emoji to come into Nerd Face’s orbit, Smize is caught off guard by Nerd Face’s ability to immediately recognize that “a perpetually happy outward disposition might not always accurately reflect the gamut of internal emotions one experiences in life.” Electricity fills the air, as Smize becomes swept up in Nerd Face’s boundless optimism. When we started writing Emojiland in 2014, Nerd Face emoji didn’t even exist yet. Our “hero” was first installed in Emojiland for the 2016 workshop at USC as a comic foil to a more antagonistic version of Sunny, and was an instant crowd favorite. This song, on the other hand, was originally written for a teenaged human character who was presenting a paper in school on emojis within a very different approach to the show (obviously). When Nerd Face became a larger character, and this meet-cute moment came to light, re-writing this song to fit the moment unlocked Nerd Face in a big way. Fun fact: The zeros and ones in verse two are the accurate binary code for the Unicode hibiscus emoji.
"Cross My Bones"
Left alone after being bullied by Sunny, with whom Smize reluctantly leaves, Nerd Face winds up face to face with Skull, an emoji who has a very strong vested interest in Nerd Face’s deep knowledge of the code. Naturally embodying “death,” Skull longs for deletion, and wonders if Nerd Face might be able to help achieve that goal. The slow, haunting, almost-lullaby feel of this song mirrors the hypnotizing seduction that Skull employs to persuade Nerd Face. Skull is one of the few characters who’s been in every version of Emojiland over the years, and this was one of the first songs written for the piece, originally involving Skull persuading two other emojis, Ogre and Imp, to join Skull’s quest to destroy Emojiland. The lyrics were eventually adjusted to make it about self-deletion instead of global annihilation. The Picardy third in the vocal harmonies at the end of this creepy, circular progression has been in there since the beginning.
"New Crown In Town"
Prince (Josh Lamon) is the second main character introduced by the update, and enters the castle with a flourish. Instantly making Emojiland a whole lot bolder and brighter, Prince is thrilled to be the “new crown in town.” Immediately combative, Princess has no interest in sharing the throne. Their bickering is interrupted by Man In Business Suit Levitating, who unites them in fear of the possible installation of more powerful crowned emojis (“like King… or Queen”). The only way to prevent such a development, MIBSL says, is to “build a firewall” to stop all future updates and keep out all new emojis. Taking aesthetic inspiration from Prince the artist, and then building musical material off of the royal intervals of the perfect 4th and perfect 5th (which are also the intervals that make up the 1-5-8 DNA from the opening number), this song is deceptively difficult to sing and play. Josh, Lesli and the Emojiland band tear it up, though! We can’t not have fun listening to this track.
This is the final character-establishing song before our multiple storylines begin to converge. Construction Worker and Police Officer enjoy a quiet morning at home, with bacon, eggs, and hot coffee. Their relationship seems to work in all ways, and the chemistry is palpable. Inspired by old school and '90s r&b, and shameless in its use of vocational punnery, this song was written for the NYMF production for a character duo of OG emojis that had been waiting for the story to support a signature duet since the first draft. Worth noting: PoPo and CoWo have been cast as two women from the very beginning; and the amazing vocal work after the bridge was set based on Natalie and Felicia’s killer ad libs.
After being called upon by MIBSL to build the firewall, Construction Worker opposes the royal command, believing that it’s inherently “un-emoji” to block out the updates. Princess orders Police Officer to enforce the construction project, aware of the personal conflict at hand. Torn between love and duty, Police Officer, “sworn to protect and serve,” ultimately decides to enforce the law. Offering a touch of country flavor to the score, this song’s structure is also unique within the show. While most of the songs follow modern pop structure (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, hook, etc.), "Stand For" follows the older sonata form commonly used by classical and early Broadway composers. This lends the song a kind of sober sturdiness that supports CoWo’s noble argument. Natalie’s sick vocal runs make it all the more anthemic.
"Thank Me Now"
This is the closing number of Act 1, where Skull now possesses a test tube containing the virus created by Nerd Face. Innocently believing that the virus would be used for self-deletion, Nerd Face soon realizes the error in trusting Skull. While Skull takes a pre-emptive bow for deploying the virus, Police Officer forces Construction Worker to build the firewall, while the other emojis contemplate the future of their respective existences. On the button of the song, the wall is completed and Skull releases the virus into the air. This song previously occurred at the end of the show for several iterations, as Skull’s diabolical proclamation to all of Emojiland, until we realized how much better Act 2 would be if Skull released the virus at intermission. That development premiered at NYMF, when the additional character voices in the bridge were added as well. Fun fact: In the live production, Lucas sang the very final note as a high F-sharp.
A little “Thank Me Now” instrumental gets us back into the world. Fun fact from Laura: The dancing happening backstage to this was always a fun way to ramp up into Act 2.
Act 2 begins with the emojis who made the royal guest list gathering at the castle to celebrate the construction of the firewall. The augmented motif appears as underscore, as the “woah oh oh oh”s from the opening number are re-worked in the story context of the Firewall Ball. It’s a full-on rave, with dancing and dubstep, as they blindly sing, “the wall went up so we’re getting down.” Sunny, always the life of the party, raps for everyone. Backstory: We’ve written a few raps for Sunny over the years, including a whole song called “Face Like Mine.” But this rap in particular was added into the show late in the NYMF rehearsal process. At the festival opening night party, it was written in a corner of the room, while the rest of the attendees were dancing all around. At that point it existed as part of a song called “Do I Turn U On,” which was replaced for the Off-Broadway production with “Firewall Ball.” Fun fact: Max Crumm’s ad libs during the final chorus were a last minute in-the-studio addition that then made it into the live show.
"Pile Of Poo"
Ending up alone in the restroom after learning that Sunny has been cheating with Kissy Face, Smize expresses a deep sense of self-loathing and hopelessness. But Pile of Poo (Ann Harada) steps out of a stall, offering some much-needed wisdom and perspective. Originally written as the send-em-home-toe-tapping finale tag to the show, Pile of Poo has been in and out of the lineup since its inception, to the point where an entirely different song—a beautiful r&b ballad with the same title—appeared in the 2017 industry reading. In the end, though, the original song was reinstated, and Ann Harada’s funky patter cameo was born. Fun fact: Her “pooty-pooty-pooty-poo” exclamation at the end of the song was improvised.
All stories collide in this epic, tragic number. Working in the desert, Construction Worker is the first emoji to exhibit symptoms of the virus, suddenly starting to freeze. As Information Desk Person announces that a virus has infected the phone and may cause deletion, pandemonium ensues as more and more emojis begin freezing and crashing. One by one, the emojis each become either infected or affected by the “pandemic.” This song, which draws inspiration from Queen, Muse, and more, originally appeared in the USC workshop, and underwent several rewrites before reaching its final form. Weird trivia: Right after we wrote the song and started rehearsals at USC, a nasty stomach virus hit the campus, infecting many of the students. And now, the song has taken on a whole new meaning, in light of COVID-19. Laura recalls performing the song on March 11, 2020, singing “Virus” onstage and coming offstage to hear that one by one, every major institution was shutting down to protect people from the virus, including Broadway. Little did we know that that would end up being Emojiland’s closing performanceOoff-Broadway, as theatres shut down the very next day.
"A Thousand More Words"
Construction Worker crashes in Police Officer’s arms, and they share a heartbreaking goodbye, in which Construction Worker gives Police Officer the encryption key to the firewall. Construction Worker disappears in a flash of light, and Police Officer is left alone and in shock. Felicia Boswell laments with such power and grace, her voice soaring with sorrow. Fun fact: This was the very first song ever written for Emojiland, composed on Keith’s childhood piano in New Jersey. It was originally intended to be sung by the character Older Woman after Older Man gets deleted in a natural disaster. The show has changed immensely since then, but this song remains almost exactly as it was first written, with only a few slight lyric changes to support PoPo and CoWo’s story.
Smize and Nerd Face finally reunite, and Nerd Face confesses to creating the virus. As Smize suddenly begins to freeze and crash, Nerd Face bemoans the fact there there is no antidote to the virus, and that “however strong my prescription may be, only hindsight is 20-20.” Smize talks sense into Nerd Face, encouraging the defeated emoji to be the hero and save the day. Moments before Smize is deleted, they kiss. Fun fact: This is the only song that has appeared in every single version of the show, as it includes the central existential manifesto: “But I can think, therefore I am, I’m part of the universe, not just the RAM, and if I can love, then isn’t it true, the love that I give’s from the universe too… deciding what matters is deciding what matters.” It was first sung by Girl emoji to Skull as a reaction to "Thank Me Now." In the USC iteration, it was actually sung by Skull, who was immune to the virus and left alone in Emojiland after the mass deletion. Despite this variety of contexts, only the second verse has been rewritten since the first draft.
Ending up at the phone’s System Settings panel, Skull and Nerd Face battle. Nerd Face fights for a second chance at life by pressing the factory reset button, while Skull argues that nothing matters and, besides, there’s no way to escape one’s code, even after a factory reset — they’d all still have the same inherent problems. Luckily, Nerd Face convinces Skull that since “love is what matters” (love, by definition, being the emotional opinion that something or someone holds significance), then “love is what matters” (wherein love itself holds significance). In the final moments, both Nerd Face and Skull contract the virus and must work together to push the reset button while freezing and crashing. Fun fact: A week before we went into tech off-Broadway, director Tom turned to us in the rehearsal room and said, “I think this last scene between Nerd Face and Skull should be a song.” Previously, at NYMF, this entire scene was dialogue. So, in 48 hours, over Christmas Eve, only one week before the album was recorded, “Start Again” was written. George Abud and Lucas Steele basically learned it overnight. Insane! Also, in the written score, the end of this track is called the “re-overture,” as it’s an exact copy of the overture from the top of the show. Right up until…
"It’s Just So Great To Be Alive (Reprise)"
The phone starts back up after the factory reset. Morning in Emojiland. Memories wiped, all of the emojis greet each other for the first time. Will they face the same fate this time around, or will things be different? We see quickly how the various relationships re-develop. Sunny and Kissy wind up together from the get-go; Princess accepts existence with Prince installed as the status quo; PoPo and CoWo rekindle their love with ease; Smize and Nerd Face connect; even MIBSL and Pile of Poo have a moment. Bookending the show with this song, we can, perhaps, hear the idea ring truer than it did the first time, given the events of the show. And as these writers’ notes get written during lockdown from an actual real-world viral pandemic, the truth herein is clearer than ever. It really is just so great to be alive. Gratitude first. The rest will follow.