The Riverdale Composer on Mixing Melodrama with Archie’s Innocent Past
Riverdale of the classic Archie comics was a quaint and wholesome every town with a spotless reputation. In print for more than 75 years, a recent shakeup led Archie Comics CCO, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, to create Riverdale. The edgy soap opera saga finally acknowledged that so many rivalries couldn’t remain peaceful and there had to be a dark underbelly in the town. Criminal empires, student-teacher relationships, and murder mysteries plague Riverdale with the heart of the original Archie characters intact. Twisting so much dysfunction into the lives of the innocent characters is only possible thanks to the musical narration written by composer Sherri Chung alongside co-composer Blake Neely. Although the themes have been completely modernized, Archie properties thrive on nostalgia created by the long history of the comics.
“We had a lot of conversations with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa,” Chung recalled. “One of the things that he had said was, when people watch the show, we don’t want them to know what time period they are in. Obviously, the characters have cellphones and they have laptops. But you have a 50s diner, you’ve got 70s muscle cars, and the girls are wearing fashion that’s harkening to the 60s. We don’t want to go 90s, we don’t want totally 80s, we don’t want to go completely modern. We let the songs do the modern comment.”
From the mid to late 20th century, the American teenager had a unique identity from older generations. Diner meetups, drive-ins and rebellion mark different decades, but all three can appear in a single Riverdale episode. Archie and the gang are modern teens lost in time pulling the highlights of high school life from various decades. The key to remaining timeless comes from Chung’s creativity to identify what is truly needed in a scene.
“We’ll definitely play some throwback sounds, which was really fun,” Chung explained. “It’s often very musical, but there’s also scary like Psycho. All these classic horror films are in there and that was definitely a sound that we wanted to make sure that we interacted with as well. The music doesn’t need to drive the drama. It just needs be there and create this sonic bed for these characters to develop in and the stories to unfold in.”
Not only does Riverdale span decades, but it also crisscrosses genres. Drama, mystery, thriller, and romance can populate the space of a single episode. Chung avoids whiplash by establishing the tone and supporting the performances on screen.
“Creatively it’s really fun to have different types of music to compose to,” Chung said. “If you have Jughead and Betty and they’re having a tender moment, it’s fun to put the sweeter sounds on those scenes. Then you go to the Lodges and it’s like, ‘Ooh, what is Hiram up to? What is Hermione up to?’ I feel like the balance is a natural one because creatively it fits into the mind to change it up anyway and I think that keeps the music fresh and the ideas fresh as well, and much more effective.”
The coalescence of the innocent comic book days and the modern soap opera makeover is perhaps nowhere more starkly apparent than in Archie’s relationship with the Lodges. In print, Archie was Veronica Lodge’s bumbling but loveable hopeful suitor who irritated her wealthy entrepreneurial father. On Riverdale, Archie plays a much larger role in Hiram and Hermione Lodge’s life as their wealth is amassed through illicit means. The Lodges provide one of the richer storylines on the show and Chung takes advantage of all the script has to offer
“What I was doing with the Lodges, I wanted to create a tonal or textual, musical sound that really belonged to [Archie] and his journey with Hiram,” Chung said. “A lot of it is what’s happening on screen, but before you can get to that point you really do need to develop, ‘What is his journey going to sound like?’ And so what I was trying to do was take a little of the goodness and the innocence of Archie, but also take this sort of darker tone, this almost menacing undercurrent that I developed for Hiram and the Lodges, and try to combine those sounds.”
As the first two seasons unfolded, Chung became a fan along with the rest of the Riverdale audience. The drama with an absent Hiram, who eventually appears in season 2, became a standout. Insider knowledge was scant even though she worked on the show. Chung had to wait for post-production to see how the story played out.
“I love all the storylines, but one of my favorite to write for is the Lodges and how complex and complicated Hermione was before Hiram even came to town,” Chung recalled. “Musically, it’s fun to discover it as it comes along. It was also really fun to create that sound, once Hiram did appear in the second season, and we really didn’t know what he was up to. At first I kept it a little bit neutral but very curious. We know he was responsible for many nefarious acts, but for the most part, he seems to be trying to have more of a relationship with his daughter. So he seems like a really nice guy, a great dad, but it was fun to play with that, and just discover that with the audience in some ways.”
Obviously, Chung does get a jump on most Riverdale fans in many ways. For one, the scenes have no music until her work is complete.
“None of us as audience members ever really get the chance to watch something with absolutely no music in it, unless you’re on the post-production side of it,” Chung said. “Often times we get it with temporary music in there but we do shut it off. From a creative and even storytelling point of view as a composer, I’m trying to tell a story as well. I’m actually part of the writing team if you think about it.”
Watching a series without music can be dull and even confusing. Chung has to analyze the performances and begin to piece together the best place for musical cues to emphasize the action. Particularly with a melodrama, the scenes are not complete until the music has been added.
“I have to be honest with myself about where music should be really start,” Chung explained. “Is it that head turn, is it that moment where Archie realizes something or Hermione gives a smirk? When the music is not there, it makes a very real life moment, but television and movies are not necessarily about real life moments. They’re about a different world, a fantasy world in this case. Without the music, it definitely tastes differently. It is really interesting, what music can add, I think it is up for the audience to decide, ultimately. When you don’t have the music there, it’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but it can expose things about the storytelling that weren’t meant to be that way or that work really well once the music is added. So it’s interesting.”
Featured Image: Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse, Camila Mendes and KJ Apa in Riverdale. Courtesy: The CW