The most appreciative audience for “Dicks: The Musical” may be the Venn-diagram overlap between viewers who think the envelope for raunchy language in R-rated comedies doesn’t get pushed nearly hard enough and people who saw “Les Miserables” on Broadway three times. In other words, the warning not for every taste has never applied more. But the movie musical will hit an especially sweet spot for folks who want filth and subversion with their show tunes, and who like to hear the classic tropes of musical theater being embraced even as they’re being thoroughly upended.
The weekend box office indicates that “Dicks” is quickly finding that audience, with Variety’s report saying the outrageous film “was a bright spot at the specialty box office, generating one of the best limited openings of the year.” (The A24 pic generated a very solid $220,867 from just seven screens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in its opening frame, on its way to further expansion next weekend and a nationwide opening following on Oct. 20.) In the meantime, a full soundtrack album came out Friday, for anyone wanting a pre-filmgoing sample of musical numbers sung by cast members like Nathan Lane, Megan Mulally and Megan Thee Stallion. (The latter rapper may actually have one of the less profane songs in the score, though that’s all relative here.)
Besides assuming the lead roles, creators Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson co-wrote the dozen songs that fill the movie, along with longtime cohort Karl Saint Lucy and legendary producer Marius de Vries. The portray utterly non-identical identical twins who discover each other as dickish adults working for the same boss (Megan Thee Stallion), and decide to get their parents (Lane and Mulally) back together, under the watchful eye of God (Bowen Yang), in a sort of nearly NC-17 “Parent Trap” update.
Variety Zoomed with Jackson and Sharp — whose rapid-fire, real-life patter makes them especially suited to write Broadway “patter songs” — to talk about the music of “Dicks.”
The score feels like a classic Broadway score, in a way, that if you wipe off all the lyrics and just handed over that music to someone to write a completely sincere set of lyrics and make it the feel-good hit of the year, they could do it.
Joshua Sharp: We obviously are people who love musicals, and so are Karl and Marius, so it comes from that. But I also think it’s a funnier joke that way. Because you’re doing all this crazy stuff, you have to ground it in real songs. A lot of comedy songwriting doesn’t care as much about the songwriting. We were talking to a comedian friend recently who’s done a lot of that, and he was like, “The best note I can give you is that, for a comedy musical, you had incredible scansion.” [Editor’s note, for non-afcionados: The Oxford definition of scansion is “the action of scanning a line of verse to determine its rhythm.”] A lot of people don’t give a shit about that, because as long as it’s got a joke, who cares? So it was very fun to work with people who really wanted it to be a great musical.
There’s some obvious references for us — “Urinetown” and “Little Shop” and “Book of Mormon” and “South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut.” Then Marius has such an even more expansive knowledge of all the stuff he’s worked on, and Larry, the director, was coming in with a lot of these grand old MGM musicals in mind. So I think a lot of us were coming in with very legitimate musical references that we were trying to embody and honor rather than being like, “Ah, let’s sell it out and make a comedy song.”
Did any of the cast members balk at singing any of the more outrageous lyrics? In the bloopers section at the end, Nathan Lane is lamenting what his career has come to, doing this, although we imagine he was kidding. Nathan Lane is probably not the most prudish actor in the world.
Aaron Jackson: I would just say more in the development process, we were dealing with many, many rounds of notes. People are like, “Well, surely not this!” And we’re like, “No, it is this.” That was more where people would balk at a lyric. But Nathan and Megan and Megan Thee Stallion and Bowen and us, we were all pretty down to clown.
Sharp: It is harder sometimes when you have lyrics on a page than when the song becomes real, because it’s so much easier to tear apart these crazy lyrics when you’re reading them. And then when you hear it in context, you’re like, oh my God, you can get away with this crazy joke because of everything else that’s going on. So that was what was great about having some some existing songs [from when an early version was performed on stage]. It was very proof-of-concept [to assure people that] even the new ones you’re reading as lyrics on a page are gonna be fleshed out and have music that serves it…
I mean, “Book of Mormon” is still running. People are talking about this thing being offensive, and they forget: “Book of Mormon” for 15 years has been saying on stage eight times a week, “F— you God in the ass, mouth, and c—.” It doesn’t get much more offensive than that. You know, we are on the backs of other giants.
With Megan Thee Stallion, it must have been very difficult to talk her into swearing in a song, right?
Sharp: Well, we’re very proud… Ffirst of all, when we wrote these lyrics for Megan to do it, we rapped it into a phone for her manager to listen to before she listened to it. We were like, definitely, she’ll change a bunch — but she really just did the lyrics, which was incredible to us. And then she came in the first day and was like, “You know, people say I’m dirty, but y’all are dirty.” And we were like, OK. Respect, Megan. Thank you.
What was it like rewriting or rewriting for Megan Thee Stallion? We know the song “Out Alpha the Alpha,” where she plays the boss of both your characters, was written with a whole different musical idea in mind, as a kind of cabaret song for a big kind of diva actress to come in and blow people away with. Whose idea was it to cast her, and how quickly was it rewritten to fit her?
Jackson: That part always had a very small shoot schedule, so it was like, we’re going to go for a big star in this role. We wrote a placeholder song, that cabaret song you’ve heard about, knowing that we would tailor it to whoever we got. But then (producer Peter) Chernin and A24 were asking us, “Go pop star. Even though we know they’re gonna say no, who would you think?” We were batting around some names, and I think maybe Larry stumbled upon the idea of Megan Thee Stallion. Josh and I are huge fans of hers and we were like, “Oh my God, absolutely, she’d be incredible and definitely brings the energy that you want for that part.” And then, I mean, the writing of that song could truly have its own documentary. It was very like a think tank that was high stakes, but still really fun and exciting.
Sharp: For weeks, even though she said yes, we were like, is she actually gonna do this? And then it finally hit that point where it’s like, “She needs the track on Friday so she can learn it.” And it was like, oh fuck, we’ve finally gotta finally do this! We’ve got to rewrite this in her voice.
It feels to us a little bit like “Time Warp” (from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”), where it’s like a charm song, and almost like an intermission song. You see where Bowen (Yang) goes, “That was fun. Now back to the story.” It’s sort of its own isolated thing that I think fits with the DNA, but it’s just sort of this fun, happy midpoint.
Jackson: It’s “Time Warp,” it’s “Beauty School Dropout” in “Grease” — these fun songs that are like, you don’t need this, but the musical is better with it in it. Actually, this song still is integral to the plot — like, we do get fired in the middle of it — so it does move the story forward, but it’s more of a fun palate cleanser.
Sharp: Letting Megan cut up is really what it was for us. She really did fit in with the DNA of the whole thing and was very down to clown, came in and was like, “I’ll do whatever you want.” Of course, she’s doing Megan Thee Stallion in it, but was very on board to do what this crazy movie was asking of her and not just have it fully get pulled into her camp entirely. She was really wildly collaborative and funny, so I think it still works in the piece even though it’s totally a Megan Thee Stallion showcase.
In terms of awards emphasis songs, so much attention is going to be paid to the Megan the Stallion song, but there are so many great songs in the movie. Do you have to pick just one for Oscar consideration? How do you narrow it down, knowing that there’s tough competition this year?
Jackson: Luckily, that’s A24’s job and not ours, but yeah, I think the Megan song obviously will get a strong push. And we love the Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally duet, “Lonely.” And we like our duet, “No One Understands,” where we realize we’re twins. But we love all the songs, and there are a lot. They’re all our little babies.
Sharp: We’ve always felt like Megan (Thee Stallion)’s is obvious to push, but if you’re going to push something else, that “Lonely” ballad is such a well-written sort of heart piece in the middle of this zany movie. There are character jokes in it, obviously, but less so than other things. It’s actually these two characters telling you their feelings. We’ve had friends who say, “That ‘Lonely’ song made me cry a little,” and we’re like, that’s sort of also a joke, that in the middle of this movie, something got to you.
When you were doing this as a two-man stage show at UCB in the mid-‘90s, there were only six songs. You doubled that for the movie’s song score, and redid the existing six pretty extensively. Was that expansion daunting when the time came?
Jackson: There were clear moments that were obviously very ripe for expansion. For example, in the first song in the stage show, the twins met, fought, realized they were twins and got on the same page all in one song. So, we thought, very obviously, this will be split into different beats where we, the audience, will meet the twins; the twins will meet each other, and they’ll do an “anything you can do, I can do better” kind of moment; and then they’ll have a different song where they realize they’re twins. Then you expand the worlds and you have more characters, and those characters need songs. I don’t think we were too daunted by that aspect of it, but it was quite an undertaking.
Sharp: We were glad we came in with some songs in the bank that had worked on stage, although all of them got tweaked somehow, and some got fully dismantled. It was nice to come in with sketches, at least, of half the songs. And then the other part of just fleshing out the arrangements was mostly this incredible surprise to us. In post, I remember the days they would say like, “We’re recording the horns these days, if you want to log on and watch.” Aaron and I were always glued to our screens for those recording sessions. Because I do think a big part of the reason why the movie works is that a lot of these songs should not be as good as they are for how admittedly dumb and outrageous this movie is. Not only do I think the songwriting is great, but the arrangements are so big and beautiful and sweeping and fun, while also embracing the campy nature of the piece.
Since you mentioned “Little Shop of Horrors,” I was racking my brain trying to figure out what Megan Mullaly’s singing voice in this reminded me of. Finally I figured it out: it sounds a little bit like Ellen Greene’s lisp in “Little Shop,” albeit an elderly version of that.
Sharp: It is. Yes, there’s a lot of “Little Shop” in this, I’ve realized, more than I even knew, now that I see it. Because one, the story is sort of compact in the way that “Little Shop” is, while also blowing the elements out. But it is sort of a tidy little small world. And then also just that style of songwriting we love so much, Ashman and Menken.
Jackson: And with Megan and Ellen… The choice Ellen Greene made as Audrey is now so canon and so obvious, but that is such a bizarre, strong choice. And I think the same is true of Mullaly. It’s such a bizarre, specific, strong choice that I think people will be like, “Well, of course this is how you would do that.” But it’s very ballsy. And, yeah, I think that is a great comp, Ellen Greene.
You two of course co-wrote the first set of songs with Karl for the stage. How did Marius de Vries come to be involved?
Sharp: Marius was actually one of the first people to come on the project many years ago when it was first at Fox. He read the script and loved it and went out to coffee with us in 2016 at Blue Bottle in Silver Lake. We loved his work in film, but also, we’re big Bjork and Rufus Wainwright fans and loved a lot of the albums he produced. So we were gagged to have Marius interested in the project. We were getting along for 45 minutes, and then Marius went, in a very British manner, “I’m so sorry. This is a fabulous meeting. I have to get up and go to the bathroom. I believe I have to puke.” We were all like, it’s such a beautiful sign for this project that you had to get up and vomit 45 minutes in.
But then he was very much like, “Wherever this lands, I want to work on it.” And I think there’s a lot of that in this, where Aaron and I are upstarts and got to work with Larry Charles, who’s such a comedy legend. And then Karl, who wrote these songs with us in the basement of a grocery store a decade ago, got to work with Marius de Vries. There’s a lot of young, fresh talent collaborating with incredibly experienced people in ways that were very fun.
The final song, “All Love Is Love,” is a corker, because it comes so close to being an anthem you’d feel good singing along with. Even with a lot of satirical musicals, it feels like they are bringing it back to some sincere, heartfelt moment at the end. And it feels like that’s what is happening here, but nope. You throw in lines about incest and bestiality falling under the “all love is love” banner, too, and it’s clear, you are giving no quarter in the satire, even there.
Jackson: No, no. It’s like this whole movie is “The Parent Trap,” but with the wrong people. It’s not cute little girls, it’s grown men. And their parents aren’t fabulous fashion designers; they’re these eccentric, weird freaks that should not be together. So it was like, these characters should all learn the moral — but the moral is wrong. It has the family-friendly moral button at the end of it, and then it’s like, “But this is incorrect and they did it in the wrong way.” That was very important to us, so it doesn’t just get wrapped up and be sweet. It’s like, they’re wrong! They didn’t learn the lesson correctly.
Sharp: And because that song really feels like a church song and an uplifting song, it sells that joke even harder, because you’re plopped in one of those (token) moments of a movie, but you can sort of subvert it left, right, and center because you’re playing in that framework.
You didn’t chicken out at the end.
Sharp: Larry Charles was very big, not just at the end but at many points in the movie, when things were discussed and it was like, “Is this too far?” He always said, “This is a movie that needs to never hold back or doubt itself. The audience will know the moment that we held back, even if they aren’t aware that something was cut. It needs to just go there at all times, even if it goes too far, because if it doubts itself once, the thing falls in on itself.” So that was always in the DNA: You should swing for the fences every chance you get.
Given the positive immediate reception for “Dicks” among lovers of musicals — the ones who have a high tolerance level for certain things, at least — are more movie musicals in your future?
Jackson: We would absolutely love to write another musical, and maybe many more, but the next project that we are writing is not a musical. They are so, so fun, but they require such a lot of time.
Sharp: It’s no surprise this thing took so long to get made, because musicals take a lot to incubate and road-test. I think life is long and we will again, but there’s other things we’ll probably do in the short term. But also, if someone wants to give us enough money to write something, we’d be hard-pressed to say no.
For a separate interview with the music co-writers and producers, read “Behind the ‘Demented’ but Straight-Faced Songs and Score of ‘Dicks: The Musical’ With Marius de Vries and Karl Saint Lucy.”