Moving so deftly between kidding and serious that it’s hard to keep up, Craig Wedren, the composer behind Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, delivers his musical jokes with a straight face.
The episodic Netflix prequel, like the original 2001 cult-classic film, takes every summer camp movie trope you’ve ever seen and blasts them into far weirder territory. Wedren’s original music is both the jet fuel and the anchor. We’re in a teen romance in the early '80s, so the music has to fit — but we’re simultaneously in a world where one of the characters is a talking can of mixed vegetables.
Wedren, former frontman of the D.C. post-hardcore band Shudder to Think, created a soundtrack that's convincing enough to make listeners wonder if they're authentic vintage rarities rather than originals created specifically for the show. The songs aren’t just parodies, but often loving homages to their early-'80s inspirations, Wedren says. Others are what he describes as “top-shelf, high-end stupidity.”
Between visits to the dentist to repair a tooth extraction gone awry, he’s preparing to bring that smart stupidity to Festival Supreme for the first-ever live stage production of the Music of Wet Hot American Summer, complete with stars from the show and movie, his band, Pink Ape, and choreographed dance numbers. Appearing at the Tenacious-D-curated music fest with Wedren will be Wet Hot creator David Wain and cast members Michael Showalter (perennial nice guy Coop), Ken Marino (horny virgin Victor), Marguerite Moreau (popular girl Katie) Joe Lo Truglio (nerdy sidekick Neil) and John Early (dancing queen Logan), along with “a ton of other guests.”
Set in 1981, when the decade's music was still luxuriating in a prolonged '70s hangover, First Day of Camp's all-original soundtrack pinpoints the moments of eclectic influence, straddling decades and genres. Wedren calls the era's music his “native tongue.”
“The thing most fun about working on Wet Hot is it’s entirely in our DNA,” he says, recalling his own experience as a kid in Jewish summer camp with Wain, his longtime friend. Often his projects scoring movies and TV shows require some study, like if he’s asked to approximate the sound of a Brahms concerto or a Taylor Swift ditty. But with Wet Hot, he says the process was virtually unconscious, because the mixtapes Wedren and his friends shared in the early '80s, and the songs they were singing at the weekly Shabbat sing-along — from Blondie, Devo, ELO, James Taylor, Black Sabbath, Carole King, Pat Benatar — eventually became “the Legos that form the foundation of our whole silly brand.”
Wedren’s plan for the Festival Supreme live show will delight Wet Hot devotees with a “greatest hits” set including “Higher and Higher,” “Heart Attack Love,” “I Am A Wolf, You Are The Moon,” and a medley of numbers from the series’ improbable musical, Electro-City. That’s what he knows so far; like the process of making the show, Wedren said the plan is to be half deliberate and mapped out, and half free-for-all.
The not-altogether hilarious “I Am A Wolf, You Are The Moon” is an example of Wedren’s preferred working style, to create a song that entirely stands on its own, yet leaves the audience wondering, “Is this serious, or is this a joke?”
“What we needed for that scene was something entirely heartfelt. Andy (Paul Rudd) is playing the song on the guitar, all of the counselors are playing and singing together. The scene plays absurd, but the song needed to root it in real emotion and nostalgia and timelessness. It needed to be just something the audience would believe all of these characters knew by heart.”
Though “I Am A Wolf” was intended to be a song “that would tug at the heartstrings and the nostalgia strings,” Wedren admits that all of the songs from the over-the-top Electro-City are pure parody.
“Electro-City needed to be Xanadu meets Starlight Express. Those are ostensibly serious musicals, but they’re just ridiculous. That was really our touchstone,” he said.
Wedren firmly grasps the humor inherent in taking oneself too seriously. “’Ride Like The Wind’ by Christopher Cross, ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ by Survivor — those are truly wonderful, utterly ridiculous songs.”
So sweet, heartfelt songs like “I Am A Wolf, You Are The Moon,” Wedren plans to play straight, and goofball songs like “Death Can’t Stop Your Dreams,” he plans to play straight too. “You have to play songs like ‘Retro Metro' or ‘Death Row Boogie’ very seriously,” he said. “And the overall effect, I think, will be preposterous.”
Correction: A previous version of this article neglected to mention that Michael Showalter would be appearing with the other cast members at Festival Supreme.