Adam Schlesinger: An Appreciation

Don Klees pays tribute to the late songwriter’s brilliance, from power pop to musicals.

“Two traits served songwriter Adam Schlesinger well across a wide range of musical endeavours: the ability to write virtually any style of pop song and a sharp sense of humor”

What made the celebrity death-march of 2016 so stunning is that it seemed to come from nowhere. David Bowie dying just two days after the January 8th release of one of the most dynamic albums set a tone that carried through to the December 27th death of Carrie Fisher. From the Starman to Star Wars, neither “Heroes” nor heroine was spared. Though Covid-19 makes 2020 feel like a different animal, as reports of artists diagnosed with the virus proliferate, the potential for this year to be as deadly as four years ago is undeniable. The April 1st death of songwriter Adam Schlesinger brings this point sharply into focus.

From 1996 to 2011 Schlesinger recorded five-albums with the band Fountains of Wayne, which he founded in 1995 with friend and fellow songwriter Chris Collingwood. Those records – especially 1999’s Utopia Parkway and Welcome Interstate Managers from 2003 – brought him a passionate following but represent just a fraction of his work. In addition to composing for theatre and film, he wrote music featured in television programmes ranging from Sesame Street to Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital. Fountains of Wayne received a Grammy nomination for the relentlessly catchy 2003 hit single Stacy’s Mom, and Schlesinger was also nominated for an Oscar, two Tony Awards and multiple Emmy Awards.

It seems fitting that the Oscar nomination came for the title song to 1996’s That Thing You Do, Tom Hanks’ comedy about a fictional 1960s pop band, while one of the Emmy wins was for a song performed by Neil Patrick Harris at the 2011 Tony Awards, It’s Not Just For Gays Anymore. These songs embodied two traits that served Schlesinger well across a wide range of musical endeavours – the ability to write virtually any style of pop song and a sharp sense of humor. They found their fullest – and arguably most successful expression – in his work for the TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Across four seasons and dozens of songs, Schlesinger’s work meshed perfectly with creator Rachel Bloom’s mindset. Let’s Generalize About Men, the Sinatra parody It Was a Shit Show and the Emmy-winning Anti-Depressants Are So Not a Big Deal are just a few of the highlights. This body of work impresses not just for a combination of song-craft and righteous truth worthy of any stage musical but also because they were made for a weekly television series where production schedules don’t allow for the lengthier development process common to theatre.

Schlesinger was familiar with that more methodical process himself, having worked on the score for a pair of musicals. The stage adaptation of John Waters’ Cry-Baby, for which Schlesinger co-wrote the music and lyrics, started life at the famed La Jolla Playhouse before moving to Broadway. While the show closed after just a couple months, it received four Tony Award nominations, including one for the score. More recently, he collaborated with actress-comedian Sarah Silverman on a musical adaptation of her memoir The Bedwetter, which was scheduled to open off-Broadway next month but will almost certainly be delayed due to the disease that took the songwriter’s life.

That show will probably go on once life returns to something resembling normal, but Schlesinger’s death also puts an unfortunate piece of punctuation on Fountains of Wayne. By the time the band made their final album, Sky Full of Holes, Collingwood and Schlesinger’s working relationship had become strained. In a 2016 interview, neither man ruled out a reunion but also made it clear that recording Sky Full of Holes was an unpleasant experience they couldn’t envision wanting to repeat.

Which is fine, because they did more than enough to justify their reputation across their five albums, plus the terrific odds-and-sods collection Out Of State Plates. Early on, their record label biography included the following statement of purpose:

“Fountains of Wayne can do in two-and-a-half minutes what it takes some bands at least 3:10 to accomplish: drive a big, insidious chorus into your head that will ruin your entire weekend.”

Even if Fountains of Wayne didn’t consistently reach quite the same heights as their inspirations such as the Kinks or The Cars, their devotion to quality songwriting made the effort satisfying. For this and so much other work, Adam Schlesinger’s memory will remain a blessing for many years to come.

 Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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