The year is 1813. The setting? Regency London. A debutante, the eldest daughter in her family, arrives at a ball looking resplendent and looking for a suitor. To truly kick the soiree into high gear, a string quartet begins to play, beckoning all those eligible in the Queen's court to partner up and take to the dance floor. The tune? Why, Ariana Grande's "thank u, next," of course.
Such is the world of Bridgerton.
The sumptuous new Netflix series, created by Chris Van Dusen and executive produced by Shonda Rhimes, has taken viewers by storm since its release in late December. According to the streaming service, the show is projected to be watched by 63 million households within its first 28 days of release—each of them surely rapt with the romance, intrigue and, yes, the curiously familiar music.
But how did a series set in the early 1800s come to have such a modern sound, incorporating melodies made popular by Grande, Taylor Swift and more 21st century pop stars? And why?
To break down the show's sonic landscape, E! News spoke with music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas and composer Kris Bowers, both of who played a big part in bringing Van Dusen's auditory vision to life.
As Patsavas, who's been responsible for the killer soundtracks over the years on shows like The O.C., Gossip Girl and Shondaland flagship Grey's Anatomy, told E! News, the search for Bridgerton's signature sound was a priority from the jump. "I remember meeting with Chris very early in the process, right when Bridgerton was picked up and there were some first drafts of scripts that were developed," she explained. "And, of course, that was without any footage being shot yet. So when you're discussing music, it's sort of part of what a creator thinks about in their palate: costumes, set design, the editorial style. And so he definitely was interested in 'interesting classical,' 'modern classical'—and what that meant. Covers, original pieces. It was something that he thought about very early on. My job was to go out on the search. It was really interesting to do that. To see not only original instrumentals, but also what existed as far as orchestral covers out there on the planet."
And while the show ultimately incorporated pre-existing covers of Grande's hit, Swift's "Wildest Dreams," Maroon 5's "Girl Like You," Shawn Mendes' "In My Blood" and Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy" throughout the eight-episode first season, nearly all of them recorded by the Vitamin String Quartet, Patsavas said that her search began with no concrete list of titles in mind.
"As a supervisor, I always like to start with casting a really wide net," she said. "So I started with reaching out to mangers, to publishing companies and, of course, well-known groups that do orchestral covers like the Vitamin String Quartet and really looking at all the things that were out there. We sent in many—I call them compilations—but playlists of existing covers and that really got fine-tuned over time that it made the most sense with the storytelling. We did not start with a specific track and work back. We sort of looked at everything and then during the production, and then in the post-production process, really got to try different things."
And that meant creating a soundtrack that included the buzzy covers, yes, but also licensed traditional classical pieces and modern instrumentals, as well. Case in point? The use of Sufjan Stevens' "Love Yourself (Short Reprise)," originally released in 2019 in celebration of Pride Month, during Daphne's (Phoebe Dynevor) wedding to Simon (Regé-Jean Page) in episode five.
"The covers were certainly a concept and definitely something Chris was focused on, but it was never a decision not to use something that might've been a pre-existing instrumental," Patsavas said. "In addition, at the beginning of the process to looking at orchestral covers that were out there, we just looked at modern instrumentals. So the Sufjan was something that Chris loved for the scene and we felt great about asking for permission to use."
Of course, a TV show cannot be scored by pre-existing songs alone. Not only would that be remarkably expensive, it would be rather prohibitive as well. That's where Bowers came in. As the show's composer, he created Bridgerton's entire orchestral score while also tackling a cover as well, adapting the rework of U.K. singer Celeste's "Strange" heard when Daphne and Simon have sex for the first time.
As Patsavas gushed, "That was something super special because it can be specifically and painstakingly tailored to exactly fit the scene. And I know that Kris Bowers, Chris Van Dusen, Shonda and [fellow EP] Betsy [Beers] were able to make that really fit beautifully because it was brand new."
For Bowers, who has written scores for Mrs. America, Dear White People and When They See Us, adapting "Strange" came down to relying on an old friend. "It's really all about the performance," he said. "So for me, I'm transcribing the melody, which is a pretty easy process with my jazz background—and that's a big way of learning music for me was by ear so learning how to write out the melody for the song is not difficult—but the performance of it and having it feel as emotional or as impactful as the amazing vocal performance in the original is all down to the cellist and this is this woman named Hillary Smith who I actually went to high school with and now we've been working together, which is really, really cool. We went to this art high school here in L.A. and now she's, like, one of the top cellists in L.A. and I'm really fortunate to be able to work with her. Her performance, to me, is what gives that arrangement life."
For the rest of his score, which Bowers said was something akin to "writing music for, like, a whole movie on a weekly or bi-weekly basis," he was able to lean on what Patsavas was sharing in those compilations of hers to inform his own work. That is, after he unlocked the central theme for Daphne and Simon.
"Before I wrote that piece, I started taking a stab at some of the score and with that ['modern classical'] intention and making it really modern in mind," he explained. "I tried a couple of different things. I tried making all the instruments sound like they've been sampled and writing music that sounded much more like it was like a pop or abstract essentially, and that really didn't work. And then [I tried] going super traditional and that really didn't feel right as well. And Chris sent me a couple of piano pieces by Ravel, and those pieces really helped not only inform the theme for Simon and Daphne, but also the overall sound for the show. I think that this kind of really romantic feeling and there's a fresh and modern aspect of that era of classical music that I think really fits well juxtaposed with what we're seeing on screen."
He continued, "And then I also think that Alex's usage of the Vitamin String Quartet. They are so iconic for doing these modern pop arrangements that are still musically intense or musically like high art for lack of a better term...Once Alex picked some of those pieces by them, that was a really great reference for me to go to, not only for the score but even for the arrangements that I did where, kind of looking at how they interpret taking a drum part and putting it on the cello or how they how they look at taking background vocal parts and putting that in the second violin and the viola. Different things like that, I think, were really key for me in figuring out how to take the elements of modern music and make it feel contextual within the classical world."
And he did it all in the midst of a pandemic with his musicians recording in isolation. "I think that was a challenge but the only reason why it kind of came out as great as it did is because the musicians just put so much time and effort into making their parts sound as beautiful as possible," Bowers said.
Bowers spoke about the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Bridgerton's sound with delight, admitting it left him feeling incredible. "This is one of the first projects I've been able to create very strong themes for characters and for ideas," he added. "I feel like a lot of time, we want score to be as incidental music or as in the background as possible. And I think this show, Chris really gave me the space to really go for it musically. There's so many huge sweeping melodies and all this kind of stuff, and it was so much fun to write. Having people respond this way is just a really special feeling just because I feel like there's so much emotion that goes into the creation of it that it's nice when that amount of emotion going into it is received by the level of reaction."
Patsavas is equally pleased, in part, because of what an impact it may have on the show's audience moving forward. "The classical interpretation always felt so right, and obviously an unusual choice, that so many younger fans are probably digging into classical because it's such an emotional, beautiful part of what's out there," she said. "So I'm pretty thrilled."
And that's something we think even Lady Whistledown would have a hard time arguing with.
Bridgerton is available to stream on Netflix.