‘Only Murders in the Building’ Brought in a Quartet to Write ‘Pickwick Triplets’

From “This Is Me” to “Dear Evan Hansen” and from “Smash” to “Hairspray,” the songwriting teams of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are responsible for some of the catchiest songs of stage and screen.

But even their fans weren’t prepared for the two duos to collaborate and bring us one of the biggest earworms for the 2023-2024 TV season: Steve Martin’s tour-de-force “Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It?” on Season 3 of “Only Murders in the Building.”

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For its third season, Hulu’s comedy series about podcasters Charles-Haden Savage, Oliver Putnam, and Mabel Mora (played by Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez) who keep finding corpses in their apartment building expanded to Broadway after someone murdered the star of “Death Rattle” on opening night. Still, the show must go on — and for various plot reasons, Oliver decides to transform the thriller into a musical titled (of course) “Death Rattle Dazzle” as the trio simultaneously investigates the murder.

Enter stage left: Pasek and Paul. The pair — fans of the series since Season 1 — were charged with writing the score for “Death Rattle Dazzle.” Not only did it need to be written in the voice of Oliver, but each song needed to comment on the larger “Only Murders in the Building” plot. Though the audience would only see four numbers from the musical on stage, Pasek and Paul were present in the writers’ room to develop the musical’s full scope.

“There was even a [show] Bible of what ‘Death Rattle Dazzle’ was,” said Pasek. “We were in the room contributing and trying to figure out how it would all structurally and dramaturgically work. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

With a fleshed-out musical, Pasek and Paul called in the Broadway troops to collaborate on writing three of the four standalone songs. Tony-nominated and Grammy-winning songwriter Sara Bareilles joined the pair for “Look for the Light,” Tony-winning and Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael R. Jackson co-wrote “For the Sake of a Child,” and Shaiman and Wittman partnered up for “Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It?” the patter song performed by Charles’ character.

Over the course of the season, viewers watched Charles attempt to nail the song’s pace and tongue-twisters. With each snippet, the lyrical earworm with a memorable melody became a fan favorite. And the quartet of songwriters knew that a strong patter song required each syllable to be singable so all of the jokes land.

Pasek added, “You have to know how the words will align with each other and that it can be sung at a rate that it trips the tongue intellectually, but doesn’t actually trip the tongue so you’re able to hear it with clarity.”

While both duos have polished their partnerships over the years, they had limited experience collaborating with other songwriting pairs. There may have been a few nerves ahead of time, but they found a kinship in relating to the broader, more abstract challenges regarding the craft as well as the more detailed technical knowledge, like which words provide limited options for rhymes.

“We all sat down and said, ‘Let’s think of every rhyme where one word has to do with babies and one word has to do with murder,'” said Paul. “Like ‘neonatal’ and ‘fatal,’ or ‘brat’ and ‘splat.’”

“I loved ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘triptych,’” said Shaiman. “Never knew we’d ever get ‘triptych’ into a lyric, or ‘diaper full of criminal intent.’”

“We got to really just be as silly as we wanted, because it made sense from the context that Oliver Putnam wrote it,” Pasek added. “We thought about it from his theatrical point of view. What would he care about? He probably cares a lot about true rhyme, the craft of it all, and getting the respect of his peers.”

Once their rhyming list was complete, they began puzzle-piecing together the stanzas. Shaiman likened the experience to playing word games at a party, with each offering ideas and then building rhymes off of that. They’d begin with a simple line like, “Who committed this crime?” and someone else would say, “Who of the crew could commit this crime?” to add in an internal rhyme (a technique where words rhyme within a single line). In just two days, the quartet cranked out the song by playing what Wittman describes as “a bizarre musical game of pickleball.”

“It was almost Olympian,” said Pasek. “It’s really, really, really challenging to sing a song full of alliteration, full of twists, plosives, all of these things that are really hard to execute. They created an underdog arc for Charles-Haden Savage, but also Steve Martin. Like, can he remember it? Can he do it in one breath?”

Shaiman and Wittman knew Martin had the chops to do it, thanks to an impromptu performance Martin gave of “Rock Island” from “The Music Man” at one of Short’s Hollywood Christmas parties 30 years ago with Shaiman on the keys. So when it came time for Martin to finally film his full performance of “Pickwick Triplets,” Wittman stayed to watch.

“It was quite amazing,” said Wittman. “[The cast] all stayed. It was on that huge, big stage of [United Palace] up in Washington Heights. It was quite something to watch.”

“Not only is it a great performance, but you’ve been waiting for that performance all season long,” added Pasek. “It’s such a gift for us as songwriters to write a song that is worthy of that moment.”

One of the best parts of the experience for Pasek and Paul was returning to their traditional musical theater roots. The duo, known for a more contemporary pop sound in their recent musicals, was excited to fully embrace their Broadway side.

“This is how musical theater extra we are,” began Paul, excitedly. “We wrote the line, ‘I will find the perpetrator who did murder to their mater.’ When Hulu put up the closed captions, they turned ‘mater’ into ‘maker,’ which I get, but it’s not a perfect rhyme. The four of us were in a group text and asked, ‘Do we need to contact Hulu?’ Everyone else was like, ‘We’re sorry that happened, but we promise you, no one else will notice.’ But that’s what makes us nerds.”

If it’s that nerdiness that leads to such captivating musical theater songs, please, you four, don’t ever change.

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